Early Childhood Education

Accreditation of Early Childhood Programs

 

Accreditation systems provide an organized process for self-study and improvement, and for program recognition. Accreditation systems exist for a wide range of professional activity, including health care services, museums, adventure clubs, colleges and universities, public school systems, and many other kinds of programs and services. Program accreditation became a visible resource to the early childhood field when the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) launched its center-based early childhood program accreditation system in 1985.

Within the United States, participation in early childhood program accreditation systems is voluntary. Early childhood program accreditation systems are different from regulatory systems such as state licensing standards for child care. States establish regulatory systems to monitor the minimum health and safety of early childhood programs. These public governmental regulations establish the requirements by which early childhood programs may operate in a particular state and are monitored by government officials for on-going compliance. In contrast, early childhood program accreditation systems in the United States provide a voluntary mechanism by which a profession sets and monitors the standards for its own professional practice.

Limited research exists on the impact of early childhood program accreditation systems on program quality. As the most mature of the early childhood field’s early childhood program accreditation systems, NAEYC’s accreditation system has been the focus of most of the research. Often, research on accreditation’s impact is embedded within larger studies. Because the criteria presently associated with NAEYC’s early childhood program accreditation system are also tied to research, it is assumed that participation in NAEYC’s early childhood program accreditation system will be beneficial. This confidence appears to be warranted; available evidence suggests that NAEYC-accredited programs provide higher levels of program quality than nonaccredited programs.

 

Structure and Intent of Early Childhood Program Accreditation Systems

NAEYC accreditation is the field’s largest early childhood program accreditation system. An inclusive program accreditation system, NAEYC’s accreditation system serves the full array of center- and school-based early childhood programs: not-for-profit; for-profit; faith-based; public, and private. In 2005, over 10,000 US center-based programs had been accredited. Even so, fewer than 10 percent of center-based early childhood programs are NAEYC-accredited. Considerable opportunity exists, therefore, for increasing the number of early childhood programs engaged in a systematic and comprehensive process of self-examination and quality improvement.

After fifteen very successful years of operation, dramatic growth in demand for its accreditation services led NAEYC to launch the Project to Reinvent NAEYC Accreditation in late 1999. This five-year project has resulted in a reinvented accreditation system with a new mission and design, new performance expectations, and newly developed accreditation assessment instruments; the new accreditation system is scheduled to be fully operational in 2006.

NAEYC’s center- and school-based early childhood program accreditation system is not the only one available for early childhood programs. The early childhood field also has specialized early childhood program accreditation systems for family child care, school age care, Montessori programs, and for faith-based and for-profit programs, many of which offer Web sites with helpful information. While varying in their sponsorship, cost, focus, performance expectations, and the age range encompassed by the programs being accredited, these accreditation systems share in common their desire to help early childhood programs improve the quality of programs so young children will have better early learning and development experiences. They also share in common a system design that (1) engages programs in a process of self-study against a set of professional standards; (2) provides review by an externally assigned group of individuals; (3) includes a process for deciding whether a program has achieved accreditation; and (4) provides a process for programs to maintain and renew their accreditation status. Early childhood accreditation systems vary considerably, however, in their program standards and in how they make these four common structural elements operational. They also vary in their emphasis on continuous program improvement versus a set level of program quality as the desired outcome for the accreditation process. Each early childhood program accreditation system includes unique features, processes, and terminology.

By definition, early childhood program accreditation systems are designed to support program improvement and almost all accreditation systems seek to make the process of program improvement an on-going characteristic of the programs they accredit. This desired result is usually achieved through three features of accreditation systems:

(1) A set of consensually derived professional standards that programs use to examine and assess their program’s performance; these program standards usually address, but are not limited to, expectations regarding the relationship between children and teaching staff; the management of the program; facilities; curriculum and teaching; health performance expectations, and relationships with families,

(2) A process by which programs systematically engage in assessing their performance against the system’s program standards, and

(3) An external review process that provides programs with feedback about the extent to which their self-assessment coincides with what a neutral reviewer would say about the program’s performance. Usually this occurs via a site visit, but accreditation systems vary in how they review a program’s self-study of its performance against the system’s program standards.

Despite these similarities, accreditation systems can vary in their purpose. While all accreditation systems invoke a process of self-study and quality improvement, continuous improvement is the only possible intent of an accreditation process. Three possible functions of program accreditation systems are of particular relevance to early childhood program accreditation: (1) Granting a seal of approval; (2) Providing a report to users; and (3) Conferring assurance. Clarity regarding the purpose of an early childhood program accreditation system is important because it shapes the way in which the accreditation system is designed and managed.

When the accreditation system grants a seal of approval, it validates the claims made by an early childhood program. Programs assess their own performance relative to the profession’s performance standards, and outside reviewers confirm the validity of the program’s self-assessment. The accreditation system testifies through its validation and accreditation decision-making processes that the program is delivering what it promises. If a program achieves accreditation from a system with this intent, the program is deemed to be doing what it says it does.

When the accreditation system focuses on the users of early childhood programs by providing them with an assessment of a program’s performance, it is recognizing families and other purchasers of early childhood programs as consumers—and as the primary customer of accreditation results. Consumers, in this instance, refer to those individuals who choose and/or pay for an accredited program on behalf of an individual child or children. When the intent of the accreditation system is to provide assessment results to users of early childhood programs (in contrast to the providers of the program), the focus is on evaluating the extent to which an early childhood program’s practices coincide with established standards, recognizing their success in conforming to the program standards, and making the program’s accreditation status known to families and others so they will use this information in selecting an early childhood program for children. While the stakes of user-focused program assessment are higher for early childhood programs, so are the potential benefits, since achieving accreditation status under these circumstances differentiates high-performing programs from others and elevates their visibility with critical stakeholders, including families.

These two functions might sound similar, but they are conceptually and practically different. When an accreditation process focuses on recognizing programs that comply with its professional program standards, the early childhood program is being evaluated, not just validated, against a set of criteria. The focus is on the program’s level of performance. The process of continuous improvement, therefore, is the means to a higher level of performance; it is not, however, the source of accreditation status.

The third function of accreditation is “conferring assurance.” The concept is borrowed from industry. Accreditation systems that emphasize this function evaluate programs in terms of their potential to cause damage or harm. Accreditation status provides assurance that the program is safe to use. Achievement of accreditation in this instance affirms that the basic health and safety of children in the program will be protected. In the absence in the United States of consistent public and private regulations that ensure that children are in healthy and safe early childhood programs, this can be an important function for an accreditation system to perform.

No one of these functions is necessarily more important than another. Most early childhood program accreditation systems perform some measure of each function. But the leaders of strong accreditation systems prioritize their functions. They know very clearly what they want their accreditation systems to achieve and organize their work in ways that correspond to their priorities.

 

Changing Demand for Early Childhood Program Accreditation

With the success of advocacy efforts to increase public and private support for high-quality early childhood programs and the movement for increased accountability, increased demand exists for program accreditation. State legislatures, national organizations such as United Way and Easter Seals, and philanthropic groups have begun to look to early childhood program accreditation as a means for improving program quality, for attaching higher levels of program quality with public and private financial support, and for providing an accountability measure for their investment. More than 30 states now have tiered reimbursement systems or quality rating systems that link public funding with levels of program quality, including achievement of program accreditation. In addition, numerous organizations that fund early childhood programs serving low-income children have linked their financial support with a program’s achievement and maintenance of accreditation status.

These public and private policies are helping drive demand for early childhood program accreditation, making achievement of accreditation status more high-stakes for early childhood programs, and placing more pressures on early childhood program accreditation systems to function efficiently, effectively, and reliably.

The increased visibility of early childhood program accreditation also offers new opportunities for the early childhood field. It offers early childhood program accreditation systems and their sponsors the opportunity to make the program standards for high-quality early childhood programs more visible to those who can help make quality programs more available to young children, families, and communities. Ultimately, children most benefit from being in caring and engaging early learning environments. Early childhood program accreditation, especially in conjunction with the support services increasingly available to programs seeking accreditation, offers an effective strategy for increasing the daily quality of children’s out-of-home early learning experiences and for improving the impact of these experiences on their learning and development.

Information on NAEYC’s accreditation reinvention project can be found in NAEYC’s journal, Young Children, in articles published bimonthly between July 2000 and September 2004. Information is also available on NAEYC’s Web site www.naeyc.org. See also Teacher Certification/Licensure.

Further Readings: Bredekamp, S. (1999). When new solutions create new problems: Lessons learned from NAEYC Accreditation. Young Children 54(1), 58-63; Bredekamp, S., and Barbara A. Willer, eds. (1996). NAEYC Accreditation: A decade of learning and the years ahead. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Stacie G. Goffin