At preschool open houses, you may hear directors proudly state that their programs are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Dedicated to improving early childhood education, the association offers a voluntary accreditation process for high-quality programs. But not every preschool has the time or money to become accredited. To understand how hard it is to achieve this recognition, parents first need to learn about the NAEYC and the process of accreditation.

History of the NAEYC

In the 1920s, in response to the growth of nursery schools and concern for the quality of care, educators and researchers formed the National Association for Nursery Education. Membership increased dramatically in the ’50s, and the group reorganized as the NAEYC in 1964. By the early ’80s, it had begun a national voluntary accreditation system, which was revamped into a four-step process in 2006. Today there are approximately 8,000 early-childhood programs accredited by the NAEYC.

The 10 standards

Meeting the NAEYC program standards is the backbone for accreditation. These standards are based on the latest research in education, and there are hundreds of criteria essential for high-quality early-childhood education. However, schools aren’t expected to fulfill all criteria. Deputy Executive Director Barbara Willer, who overseas the accreditation process, explains, “Programs must meet 100% of required criteria and 80% of other criteria upon which they are assessed within each standard to achieve NAEYC accreditation.”

These standards are:

1. Promoting positive relationships between children and teachers.
2. Implementing a curriculum that supports learning.
3. Teaching that supports curriculum goals.
4. Establishing a system of assessment for children’s learning.
5. Promoting the health of children.
6. Employing teachers who have a professional commitment.
7. Maintaining relationships with families.
8. Identifying community resources to support goals.
9. Maintaining a safe physical environment.
10. Having program management follow policies to maintain high-quality experiences for children, families, and staff.

The four steps to accreditation

When a preschool decides to apply for accreditation, it begins a rigorous four-step process:

Step 1: Enrollment in a self-study of the essential criteria.

Step 2: Submission of an application with the understanding that the formal assessment must be completed within a year.

Step 3: Screening of submitted materials by the NAEYC Academy.

Step 4: Assessment by a trained NAEYC representative during a site visit, and after a period of review, informing the program of a decision: accredit, defer, or denied.

Time commitment and fees

Since the restructuring of the accreditation process in 2006, the time commitment has increased from three to five years. During this period, accredited programs must submit annual reports and may have unplanned visits by NAEYC assessors to ensure they are continuing to meet the standards.

This process is not without a cost. The fee depends on the size of the program and is paid as programs progress through each step. For some, this is a hurdle to accreditation. Dr. Sharon Carver, director of the NAEYC-accredited Children’s School at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says, “The financial cost of participating in the system—starting with the NAEYC fees, the cost of required consultants, the expense for improvements—is more than most small programs can afford.” During the term of accreditation, programs also pay an annual fee. Need-based scholarships are available.

Program evaluation

While moving through the four steps, programs can do self-assessments to recognize what is working and what needs to be improved. “The accreditation process is also meant to give programs a chance to look inward and evaluate themselves,” says Willer. “The self-study process, the first step in attaining accreditation, is about making the classroom or program an even better place for children’s development and learning. It’s the opportunity to acknowledge what the program is doing well and identify areas where your program could be even better.” Teachers and staff discuss ways to change environments, reexamine school philosophies and practices, and address professional and educational needs.

Challenging for smaller programs

Only 6% of early childhood programs in the United States are accredited. Willer explains, “In states in which the regulatory context [licensing] allows programs to operate at lesser levels of quality, it may be more challenging for programs to meet many of the criteria.”

Some schools find the process of accreditation so time-consuming it distracts them from their first priority—meeting the needs of the children in the program. Carver explains, “The time required for the detailed documentation of over 400 criteria, many of which need to be documented for every classroom, is unmanageable for most programs whose staff work part-time or have little planning time. Our school is blessed with lots of professional development time, but we spent literally an entire year’s worth on accreditation documentation. Few centers can afford such time. Moreover, many have decided that spending that time is detrimental [to children], so they are choosing not to pursue accreditation.”

Recognizing this challenge, the Carnegie Mellon Children’s School is working to support other programs across the country to streamline the NAEYC accreditation process. They facilitate seminars, host discussions, offer consultations, and have compiled resources on their Web site.

What parents can do to help

“Parents are our greatest advocates,” says Willer. “If parents understand the importance of NAEYC accreditation, they can make a strong case for why programs should invest in the process.”

To initiate the accreditation process at your school, follow these steps:
1. Ask the program’s director how to become involved or suggest becoming a parent representative.
2. Form a committee of parents to support the process.
3. Contact local businesses about sponsoring the cost of accreditation.
4. Write an article about NAEYC accreditation for the school’s newsletter to educate other families.
5. Understand your school’s philosophy and policies. Read and turn in all required paperwork, including the school evaluation. Carver says, “If parents answer ‘don’t know’ about a policy, it counts as a no, which is a strike against the program.”
6. Bring the resources available from the Carnegie Mellon Children’s School to the attention of the school director or teacher.