More and more, education research says for students to succeed, they need a good foundation in their earliest years. But when kids are two, three, four years old, they’re not at school - they’re usually at home or in private daycare. That makes it more complicated to ensure kids are learning.
Nearly every state in the country — including Oregon — is looking to improve daycare quality through new rating systems. Oregon’s new voluntary system has drawn interest from hundreds of daycare providers.
Shannon Aden has run Shannon’s Child Care and Preschool for nearly three decades, out of her house on Powell Boulevard in Southeast Portland. On this drizzly morning, there are eight kids. One is sitting at a table, making a collage. Others are playing with blocks. Aden says they’re all learning.
“You think about a pen and a paper, and a table and a chair. It’s not how children learn. They learn in a block corner, building animals, and while you’re there, you’re talking about how long the blocks are and how many animals you can put in there. They’re math skills,” Aden says.
Aden says even with her experience and training, she struggles to showcase her program as a learning environment. She has a license, but that just means her facility meets child safety and health rules.
“So, there’s never really a key component that says ‘This is what quality looks like, and this is what education in childcare looks like.’ That’s important to me. I’ve always believed that there needs to be the early education piece - but what does it look like?”
The federal government awarded Oregon more than $30 million, partly to answer questions like that. About half the money is helping create a “Quality Rating and Improvement System” for day cares, under Oregon early learning director, Jada Rupley.
“It is to communicate and work on the quality of childcare and early learning programs, throughout the state,” Rupley says.
It’s voluntary. State leaders, like Rupley, want as many of Oregon’s 9,000 daycare providers as possible to go through the rating process. About half of those providers are licensed with the state.
“The first tier of the system is licensing. So that gets you in and allows you to participate,” according to Robyn Lopez Melton with Western Oregon University’s Teaching Research Institute. The institute is running the rating system.
Melton says licensed daycares can apply, which tells the state: “I’m interested, I want to participate, I am willing to improve my quality, use the tools, and get the support offered, and eventually end up with a three, four, or five-star rating.”
As the name suggests, the new system is meant to both rate and improve daycare centers. Tom Udell directs the new rating system at Western Oregon.
“There was this commitment that we wouldn’t spend more money in Oregon rating programs than we did creating improvement in programs. So we were looking for a cost-effective way.”
This cost-effective approach relies on “portfolios” submitted by the daycare center owners, like Shannon Aden.
“I was very intimidated. When I opened that portfolio, I was like ‘ohhh’. OK, I closed it and I walked away, and started laughing. I was thinking, there’s no way.” Aden said.
Here’s what she found intimidating: the rating system binder has five sections: learning, safety, personnel, family partnerships, and business practices. The learning section alone covers 12 standards. One standard dealing with the classroom learning environment has six sub-requirements, and calls for photographic and written support. And that’s just to be a three-star program.
One thousand daycare programs have attended information meetings, but only 374 have submitted portfolios so far.
Shannon Aden says the promise of outside validation and advice helped her follow through. But the state pays daycare centers to participate, too, starting with $ 1,000 when they hand in the portfolio.
“A three-star was $500, and then if you made the early bird bonus, I think it was an additional $450. And then your four-star was $500, and your five-star was $500,” she explained.
That’s almost $3,000 in bonus money. Aden shared some of it with her staff. Daycare workers don’t tend to earn a lot.
In spite of the incentives, Shannon Aden says the rating system bumped up what she charges parents by $15 a month.
A national report, last year, found Oregon had the least affordable childcare in the country, based on program costs and average income.
Tom Udell at Western Oregon is sensitive to the cost issue. He says certain criteria were not included - to keep the costs down. For instance, the rating system doesn’t mandate student-teacher ratios.
“There was a thought that a higher quality childcare would have higher ratios of adults and smaller group sizes, we did not include that in one of our standards, because we did a full analysis of the cost that that would make a program incur, and we decided it was too high cost for the benefit they would get out of the higher ratio,” he said.
Udell’s colleagues at Western Oregon say there’s been a flood of interest in the rating system recently. Western received about 190 portfolios submitted in the first year, as it rolled out. In June alone, submissions doubled to about 400, and they’re struggling to get through them.
The last step in the rating process, as providers try for their fifth star, includes an in-person observation.
Shannon Aden’s observation was done by Gary Glasenap from Western Oregon University. The visits help validate earlier information, but Glasenap says the main purpose is to observe how kids and adults interact.
“Really focusing a lot on language development, because we know the kids - they learn language by hearing language. So, the more language they hear, the more language they’re exposed to, the more likely they are to learn.”
On this day, kids are inside, cutting paper, putting dolls to bed, and building with blocks. But to educators, they’re practicing their motor skills, developing language, and learning math.
The hope among the daycare providers and state officials is that the new rating system will help translate for parents the connection between play and learning.