Recent studies have shown that by the age of three, much of a toddler's brain that provides the foundation for math and logic are set. In order to stay on track for the challenges of grade school, young children need to be engaged in a constant process of learning and exploration. This challenging goal is made even harder by the fact that child care outside the home is an economic necessity now; in the U.S., 62% of mothers with children under the age of six are currently active in the workforce. Unfortunately, not all child care programs make the grade when it comes to education.
A statewide scrutiny of North Carolina's childcare system in 1993 found that only 10% of programs had developmentally appropriate care, one of the lowest percentages in the nation. Over the next few years, state politicians and child care experts worked on ways to improve the system, starting with the state's pioneering Smart Start program, and culminating in the adoption of five-star rated licenses for the state's child care providers.
In doing so, the state has moved from a scheme of "do no harm" minimum standards of safety and health to a multi-tiered appraisal of child care programs. Before the five-star program began, North Carolina offered only two ratings for child care programs: "A" (meets minimum standards) and "AA" (slightly higher standards for staff-to-child ratio and programming). Replacing the "A" level, the one-star rating is now the minimum requirement; to earn higher star ratings, a child care provider can voluntarily submit to inspection of a number of factors, on what the program's founders call a "ladder of increasing quality."
There are three components to the overall star rating: "Program Standards" points are awarded for meeting the previous "AA" standards, and scoring highly on environment rating scale assessments (composed of observation, interviews, and a written report). "Staff Education" is based on the levels of experience and education of the facility's staff. Finally, "Compliance History" is a minimum cutoff of a 75% score calculated on the number and type of violations of state child care regulations in the past three years.
The five-star rated licenses provide a common measure of child care quality across the state, with meaningful gradations of improvement. This scale of progress provides a strong incentive for care providers to not only achieve, but excel. Parents visiting child care centers can now see a detailed chart explaining each rating, broken down by the three assessed categories, (printed in Spanish and English) to help them make the best choices for their children.
The results have been prodigious. After the adoption of this rating scheme, North Carolina has gone from one of the nation's worst performers in child care to one of the best. The percentage of children in regulated care in the state who attend child care homes with ratings of 3-5 stars increased from 32% in 2000 to 69% in 2003, even as minimum standards have increased. More of the child care workforce have associate degrees, and turnover has decreased markedly.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the program's success is the interest it has sparked from other states. Lawmakers in Tennessee have consulted with the program's founders and started a similar licensing scheme in their state, and many other states have requested information about how five-star rated licenses can improve their own child care system.