As I think about the conversations I heard about early childhood in the past year, I find people are usually speaking the same language.  At conferences, in journals, and in legislative chambers, those of us who live within the early childhood realm generally agree that early childhood is a great public investment.  We also agree that, in general, attention and resources ought to be focused on children who are traditionally underserved.

Amidst all of this agreement, there remains an central unanswered question:  What is quality? This is a question that the field has not fully answered.  In part that’s because there is not one “right” answer to the question.  In many ways, the field is asking us to define our terms.  

The tension in the field revolves around two different (but overlapping) definitions of quality.

Child Care As A Poverty Intervention

One approach defines quality as a set of characteristics that produce future success for children.   For example, we know that higher-quality classroom environments and teacher-child interactions are associated with higher kindergarten readiness and future cognitive development.  We also have a sense of some of the inputs for this type of quality:  qualified teachers and lower staff-child ratios.

This conception is a policy-oriented one, and is typically associated with how we think about serving at-risk children.  It is the macro-level idea that as a society we ought to be helping children move to adulthood successfully.

Child Care As A Consumer Product

The other conception of quality reflects a view of child care as a product, consumed by parents.  In this conception, aspects of quality are those which are considered valuable to parents.  While these aspects overlap with the Policy Intervention version of quality, they may also differ.  For example, parents may factors such as proximity and price.  They may also place a high value on the community and social aspects of a child care; for example, whether other kids in the neighborhood go, and if they simply have a “warm and fuzzy” feeling about the caregiver or the center. They may value aspects that are not necessarily strongly related to quality, such as a newer facility or a professionally produced curriculum.

As a parent of two preschoolers as well as an early childhood researcher, I’m used to balancing both conceptions in my mind.  I advocate for investments in high-quality programs (as defined by researchers) because they are the most effective policy reduction interventions.  At the same time, we selected our daughters’ preschools for a combination of factors, including price, convenience, and the warm smile on the nice lady’s face when we dropped our kids off the first day.

QRIS systems seem to reflect some of this split.  I don’t think there is a “correct” answer, as both conceptions are important.  Child care is both a service provided to parents, as well as a social investment.  However, it is worth clearly communicating the extent to which QRIS systems reflect each investment.