Are American Parents Forced to Accept Low-Quality Child Care?

Are American Parents Forced to Accept Low-Quality Child Care?

A recent poll for NPR found that the majority of parents may overrate the quality of their child care. These findings contrast with a government survey that says parents think the quality of child care is fair.

Having had a variety of child care situations for my children through the years I can say with certainty that, even with the best of providers, I could rate none of them as higher than “average.”

Granted, I am comparing any child care provider to myself as a parent and I know that research shows that even the very best non-parental child care providers cannot compensate for time spent in homes with high-quality parenting.

Also granted, I have never had my children in full-time daycare. I work primarily from home except for a clinic one day a week and a smattering of meetings or conferences throughout the year that require that I do not have my children in tow. If I had a career that required full-time daycare, I might change my tune — or have a different rating for where my children were spending the majority of their day.

NPR suspects that the majority of parents may overrate the quality of their child care. In a recent poll, NPR found that 88% of parents rated their child care as “very good” or “excellent” — representing a suspicious discrepancy from the most recent child care study that rated the quality of most child care as just “fair.” In fact, the study found that fewer than 10% of child care arrangements in the U.S. could be rated as “very high.”

The study’s ratings were based off of not only whether child care settings went beyond the minimum federal standards to seek out quality staff educated (in child development or early childhood education and to gain accreditation by certifying agencies) but also whether child care providers were striving toward low adult-to-child ratios and classroom sizes.

In fact, the highest proportion of daycare centers in the study that ever achieved a quality adult-to-child ratio was just 56%, and that was looking at their 3-year-old class. Overall, infant and toddler groups were much lower in terms of good ratings for adult-to-child ratios. The same held true for classroom size – the majority of child care providers aren’t achieving the low adult-to-child ratios and small classroom sizes that are scientifically backed by good child behavior outcomes.

So why the difference between this study’s findings on child care quality and NPR’s poll? Harvard researchers working in partnership with NPR speculate that while parents do value and seek out high-quality child care, they also face significant challenges in limited options for such high-quality child care. This distorts their perception of reality. Parents adjust their expectations so the available child care options don’t seem so bad.

Case in point, 1 in 5 parents in the NPR poll shared that they really only had one “realistic” child care option for their child.

Depending on the geographic area, urban or rural, there may be many child care arrangements to choose from or a few, but what is realistic goes way beyond the variety of options. The NPR poll found that affordability sat very high among parents’ factors in decision making. If they found their favored child care arrangements were cost-prohibitive, then they were more likely to adjust their expectations of the remaining lower-cost providers.

The cost of child care is a significant problem for middle and lower-income families, and does dictate what daycare choices they make. But the truth is that there is little incentive for lower-quality child care providers to do the extra work to rise to the level of high-quality one. Why put in the extra money to work toward accreditation, hire more staff, and seek out educated staff if your daycare center can’t attract the customer base to support that?

What do you think?

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