External Standards Take On a Life of Their Own

I took an action last evening that I never expected I would ever take. As the voice of the early childhood profession on a not-for-profit child care and development center board, I recommended to my fellow board members that we do not seek renewal of accreditation. I thank my peers that they spared me the trauma of putting forth the actual motion but I know, the director knows, the other board members, and God knows that it was my words that influenced this center to “let go” of voluntary accreditation.

In my nearly thirty-years working in the early childhood profession, in roles ranging from aide to teacher to home visitor to director to professor to traveling consultant and trainer, I have been a passionate supporter of standards and practices that improve the lives of young children. I was involved as an team member and leader of accreditation review teams in the Missouri Voluntary Accreditation System, which predates the national accreditation, and I enticed, pushed, and prodded the staff of my center and saw the amazing transformation that is possible when the not-for-profit center I directed moved through the process and became accredited.

Many days I feel like a dinosaur. At times I feel like our profession has lost its soul and its joy as we have pursued external standards to judge the worthiness of programs. Philosophically, as a profession we challenge children to learn self-control, to be self-learners, and to internalize behaviors that assist them in cognitive as well as social-emotional discovery. We have believed in mentoring and supporting young children within the context in which they live and learn.

But we do not seem to have the same philosophy when it comes to adults.

In recent years as I have provided workshops in at least half a dozen states, I have heard more and more voices of frustration with external standards, from accreditation to Quality Rating Systems. As I teach early childhood practices that focus on process, on individual children, and that require creativity, self-awareness, and self-confidence on the part of teachers, I struggle to keep the adult-learners’ attention on their children rather than on the standards.

No doubt that some of the focus on the standards versus the children is based on the adults’ misunderstanding of the standards themselves but I am coming to the conclusion that the existence, not the content, of the standards themselves are having a serious side-effect on our profession.

I fear that the standards, the regulations, and all of the documentation that goes along with them are part of the problem. Standards that do not take into account cultural and economic context, standards that are lengthy, many in number, and that focus on minutiae, such as the wiping of the gums of an infant after feeding, sabotage our purpose: loving, caring relationships between adults and children.

And, yet, none of these concerns are the reason that I recommended to the board that we allow accreditation to lapse. I made my recommendation because external standards, in the form of NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) accreditation, do not practice the fundamental value of early childhood practice, that of being developmentally appropriate, individually appropriate, and culturally appropriate. As a small, not-for-profit program, in an economically-challenged Appalachian town, our context makes it nearly impossible to meet the educational degree requirements for teachers. When our accreditation lapses sometime next year, there will no longer be any accredited programs in our community.

I am saddened today because this direct result of rising external standards without regard to local economics and culture, not only threatens the credibility of NAEYC but eliminates a tool that could have helped us to improve the lives of young children and families.

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