Not long ago, Torontonians were horrified to hear about the child-care centre in Markham where three young toddlers took a self-directed field trip to a nearby Shoppers Drug Mart. None of the adults who were supposedly looking after these children noticed they were missing. The media coverage that followed revealed that parents of the children attending this centre had no idea about the quality of care their children received. One of the parents was even a pediatrician.
This incident highlights what we now know from research: that despite their best intentions, parents cannot tell good quality care from bad.
In research conducted in Toronto and in Colorado, we have found that parents rate their child’s centre highly on just about any and all dimensions of quality. In one of our recent studies, we used standardized measures of quality to conduct extensive assessments in a variety of child-care centres. These evaluations were then compared with ratings by parents whose children attended those centres. The gap was enormous. We don’t know what parents were attending to but we do know that it had nothing to do with the real drivers of nonparental quality care.
Research on parental choice and knowledge regarding child care reveals that parents select a program for pragmatic reasons — location, scheduling to fit their circumstances, costs and availability of a scarce spot.
Basically, most parents take the first program they can find because of scarcity. Frequently they only visit that one program and sometimes they take the spot sight unseen! We have also found that parents spend very little time in their child’s program. In one study, we observed more than 1,000 children being dropped off in the morning in over 100 classrooms in Toronto. Adults spent an average of 62 seconds dropping their kids off.
This finding makes sense when you consider that these are parents who work (that’s why their kids are in a centre in the first place). Anyone who has been in that situation knows that parents rush to the centre and then rush off to work. While understandable, these findings suggest that parents have little opportunity to become knowledgeable about their child’s program.
Experts agree that the most important aspects of quality include things like the ways that staff interact with kids — the kind of language they use with kids, how they build on what kids already know, the kinds of activities they plan for kids that support social, emotional and cognitive development. Retention of highly qualified and effective early learning and care educators is key, so wages, benefits and investment in their ongoing professional development are central to the quality issue.
When we consider the multi-dimensional nature of program quality it seems less surprising that parents are generally not good at identifying it. So, even if parents spent more time in their child’s program, it is not clear they would be able to differentiate good programs from poor ones. At the heart of this challenge is that many parents simply want to believe it’s all okay. This is at least in part because Toronto has a serious shortage of child-care spaces — parents who are dissatisfied with their child’s program have very few options. Dealing with guilt when there’s little you can do about it is a lot to handle.
Rather than laying the blame on parents, I believe this highlights the important role for government and other agencies in helping to monitor quality and in providing parents with tools to make informed decisions for their children. Fulfilling this role will be an important step in helping ensure that children receive good quality care — the kind of care that we know supports their development.
Annual licensing visits of child-care programs provide a great opportunity to gather information that can be made available to the public. Unfortunately, licensing requirements currently provide a “floor,” or bare minimum for quality standards and thus do not help parents make informed decisions. The provincial government needs to take the lead. It can start by following the City of Toronto, which operates a system in which trained observers rate program quality.
Ratings are used to help centres improve. They are also posted on the city’s website so parents and others can use the ratings in making decisions. Relative to the cost of child care, the cost of such a quality improvement and assurance system is minute. We need to invest in such systems outside of Toronto — perhaps through the licensing process. We need to educate parents and the public at large about what to look for and about the availability of these tools. All this will be a big step forward in improving the quality of care we provide to our youngest citizens.
It’s important to note that the newly re-elected provincial government included in its platform an intention to “modernize child care.” My hope is that this will include new ways of funding, licensing and monitoring program quality. Once in place, this will increase the availability of high-quality child care. And in the mix, we need to raise the level of parental literacy regarding the child care they need, not just the child care they can get.