Is Accreditation Meaningful in Early Childhood Programs?by Becton Loveless
If you’re a new parent or a parent-to-be, you want the best for your children. If you’re looking for an early childhood program for any portion of the years before kindergarten, you want to make the right choice. As you look into various programs, you’re likely to see some (but not all) touting accreditation.
Many people, upon first learning of it, are surprised to hear that early childhood program accreditation is a thing. Is this really the same kind of accreditation that private schools, colleges, and universities achieve? And is it really meaningful?
The short answers: yes, it’s quite similar; and yes, it’s quite meaningful (but with a few important caveats). But before we jump to its value, let’s learn a bit more about early childhood program accreditation.
What Is Early Childhood Program Accreditation?
Early childhood accrediting organizations function in the same way that other educational accrediting bodies (whether K-12 or collegiate) do. The accrediting organizations conduct a thorough evaluation of an applicant school’s entire operation. The areas evaluated and the expected standards vary, but the evaluation will generally include facilities, curriculum, and faculty credentials. At the early childhood level, accreditation standards may also include areas such as relationships, assessment of developmental progress, and health. If the school (or in this case, early childhood program) meets the accrediting body’s predetermined standards, accreditation is granted.
At all levels the application process is quite rigorous, and nearly any institution applying for accreditation for the first time will discover standards that aren’t being met. For this reason, the standard application process takes 2 or more years and often involves a provisional or candidacy year. If an institution or program is pretty well on the right track toward accreditation, the accrediting body will often offer guidance or recommendation about areas to improve during the candidacy year. If the institution makes the needed improvements during that year, they are granted member or accredited status. Of course, this process varies slightly from program to program.
Who Offers Early Childhood Program Accreditation?
There are quite a few organizations offering early childhood program accreditation. Many of these have much in common, but each has its own feel or flavor. We’ll discuss 5 of the most significant programs.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was one of the first to offer early learning program accreditation. It’s been offering accreditation services for over 30 years. NAEYC is the biggest player among accrediting organization for early childhood programs. Many parents consider NAEYC accreditation prestigious: the organization states that a little over 7,000 programs—less than 10 percent of all facilities—have achieved NAEYC accreditation.
Other general accrediting agencies include Accredited Professional Preschool Learning Environment (APPLE), which boasts over 1000 member schools, and National Early Childhood Program Accreditation (NECPA), which has been operating since 1991. Both of these programs emphasize their flexibility. Their accreditation is flexible enough to be granted in a wide range of early childhood settings, including “small centers, privately owned, faith-based, or corporate programs” (APPLE) and “center-based, family home, ministry or faith based, and university centers, among others” (NECPA).
There are also specialized accrediting agencies, such as the American Montessori Society (AMS) (which accredits only Montessori-method programs) and the Association of Christian Schools International (which offers early childhood and K-12 accreditation to Christian schools). Accreditation is valuable for many parents seeking these forms of education for their children. Some of the standards will be different due to the differences in philosophy and approach. But like the others, these accrediting bodies ensure member institutions maintain rigorous standards.
What Standards Do Early Childhood Accrediting Agencies Uphold?
Standards vary among accrediting agencies. While many standards will be similar, each accrediting organization has a slightly different focus or emphasis. The APPLE standards are divided into 8 categories: center operations, classroom management and environment, curriculum and child development, the playground, health and safety, parent/family involvement, community engagement, and after-school care programs. The NECPA standards follow similar categories. Lengthy PDFs spelling out all the specific standards are available for both APPLE and NECPA.
The NAEYC’s more general standards are much easier to digest. The NAEYC is also the largest and most mature organization, so let’s look deeper at their standards. The NAEYC has 10 standards, and according to their website, schools must meet all 10 to earn accreditation. Here are the NAEYC's 10 standards, with brief summaries and examples.
- Standard 1: Relationships – “Warm, sensitive, and responsive relationships” are cultivated among children and adults. Visitors feel welcome. Staff are warm toward children; children are encouraged to play together.
- Standard 2: Curriculum – The curriculum should promote holistic development: “social, emotional, physical, language, and cognitive” learning and development.
- Standard 3: Teaching – Teachers recognize differences in children and use appropriate instructional approaches for each. Children are carefully supervised and given daily time for both indoor and outdoor activities, alone and with others.
- Standard 4: Assessment of Child Progress – Progress is measured using “Ongoing systematic, formal, and informal assessment approaches” coupled with communication with parents and sensitivity to cultural differences. Assessments change with age and cover all developmental areas.
- Standard 5: Health – The program provides a physically safe space, promotes nutrition and health, and maintains clean, sanitary facilities. Teachers should be trained in pediatric first aid.
- Standard 6: Staff Competencies, Preparation, and Support – Staff have “the educational qualifications, knowledge, and professional commitment necessary to promote children’s learning and development and to support families’ diverse needs and interests.”
- Standard 7: Families – Staff collaborate with children’s families to develop trusting, respectful relationships. The program offers multiple methods for communicating with families.
- Standard 8: Community Relationships – The program builds relationships with organizations and institutions in the community, such as zoos, parks, museums, and libraries. Community artists and musicians are invited to share with children.
- Standard 9: Physical Environment – The facilities are well-maintained and safe, and they facilitate learning and development. Staff can supervise (see and hear) all children at all times.
- Standard 10: Leadership and Management – The program is applicably licensed and is led by a credentialed administrator. Policies and procedures are clear and are distributed. The facility adheres to appropriate staff to child ratios.
With NAEYC and others, the standards tend to focus on outcomes rather than actions. Two accredited organizations may find very different ways to show that they achieve an outcome, and that’s OK. The accrediting agency is concerned with whether an outcome is achieved, not how it’s achieved.
How Widespread Is Accreditation at This Level?
There are nearly 100,000 early childhood programs in the USA by some estimates. While nearly all are licensed, not all these programs are accredited. Comprehensive statistics on accreditation rates don’t exist as far as we can see, but with the largest program discussed below boasting 7,000 members and another claiming 1,000, a safe guess is that not more than 20%—that’s 1 in 5—of programs nationally are accredited.
Why Aren’t More Programs Accredited?
There are a few likely reasons, and the first is cost. Getting up to the required standard takes time, effort, and money. Much ink has been spilled on the high cost of childcare in the US, and some facilities are averse to pursuing something that could ultimately cause them to raise rates.
Second, it’s not a virtual requirement for the next step. Colleges and universities have little choice than to pursue regional accreditation, because many graduate schools, professions, and certifications require it. Most private precollege schools are accredited for the same reason: accreditation is a factor for students’ acceptance at top-tier universities. But there isn’t such a relationship between early childhood programs and elementary schools.
Second, it’s rigorous. Many programs, especially smaller ones, simply don’t have (or don’t think they have) the resources to pursue accreditation.
What Are the Advantages of Choosing an Accredited Program?
First and foremost, when you choose an accredited program, you get the assurance of quality. Are there quality programs out there that lack accreditation? We sure hope so! Recall that around 80% of programs lack accreditation, and surely many of them are good programs. But choosing an accredited program (if one is available in your area) means choosing one that is held to the highest standards of quality as determined by experts in the field of early childhood education. It takes serious, hard work to achieve accreditation status, and poor-quality programs aren’t going to make the cut.
Further, when you choose an accredited program you can know that it will remain up to date. Accreditation isn’t “one and done.” Once a program receives accreditation, it is regularly reviewed to ensure it is maintaining existing standards and keeping up with any new ones that have been added. If you choose a good-looking but unaccredited program, you have no such assurance.
Perhaps most importantly, when you choose an accredited early childhood center, you get peace of mind. Chances are you aren’t an expert in the field of early learning. You know a sketchy daycare when you see one, but how do you decide among the programs that appear to be high quality? You’re busy pursuing excellence in your own profession, so your ability to dive deep into early learning pedagogy is limited. When you choose an accredited early childhood program for your children, you get numerous experts giving their seal of approval that this program follows best practices.
Accreditation has real advantages, but here’s an important caveat: it isn’t a silver bullet. Accreditation doesn’t make a program perfect, or even necessarily the best in town. It simply verifies that the program meets a set of rigorous, well-constructed standards. And that external, independent verification is valuable.
Are There Any Drawbacks to Early Childhood Program Accreditation?
Make no mistake, accreditation is a good thing. It offers real value to parents, teachers, and children. But there are some situations where it may make sense to choose an unaccredited early learning program for your child. Here are a few potential drawbacks to accreditation.
Cost is a two-sided issue. First, pursuing accreditation can drive up costs for price-conscious early childhood programs. The process of gaining and maintaining accreditation is time-intensive, laborious, and often difficult. It creates overhead costs that will ultimately be passed on to parents. The added labor and cost is one reason some facilities choose not to pursue accreditation.
On the other side of this coin, accreditation at this level is a mark of prestige. The more prestigious the program, the more likely it is to hold accreditation. Some parents may be priced out of the market because of this two-sided problem: pursuing accreditation increases costs, and the already-more-expensive programs are the ones more likely to be accredited.
Some quality, high-level programs with credentialed staff will skip accreditation because it limits how they teach. That may sound arrogant at first, but it’s not. Consider how K-12 teachers berate “teaching to the test” and how one of the draws of private school is breaking free from the tyranny of state standards.
The same kind of tension exists here. Building or reshaping an early learning program to meet a rigorous set of standards is inherently limiting. There are only so many minutes in a day, and it takes many of those minutes to meet the standards. Some program administrators (especially those with creative or outside-the-box programs) believe their programs would suffer by doing so.
Availability can also be an issue. Most early learning programs aren’t accredited. You may live in an area with only 1 or 2 accredited centers, and they may be far away.
We’ve looked in great detail at accreditation in early childhood programs: what it is, who offers it, and what it means. We’ve also worked through what advantages early childhood accreditation offers: assurance of quality, guarantee of maintaining current standards and best practices, and peace of mind.
Now, it’s time for your homework. Investigate the early learning centers nearest your home and workplace. Find out which ones are accredited, and by whom. If you consider an unaccredited program, ask many questions. You can use the NAEYC standards above to guide your questioning. Look for a quality program that’s following most or all of them. This way, whether you choose accreditation or not, you can be confident that your children’s early education is robust and prepares them well for the rest of their lives.