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Critically Engaging in Discourses on Quality Improvement: Political and Pedagogical Futures in Early Childhood Education

by Lacey Peters, Stephanie Reinke & Daniel J. Castner - June 27, 2017

This commentary reflects on a dialogue among members of the Critical Perspectives on Early Childhood Special Interest Group (AERA). It examines the influence of quality improvement in early childhood as it relates to the impact of globalizing and neoliberal forces driving education reform.

It has been argued that quality, both in theory and practice, is part of a regime of truth or discourse surrounding early childhood education and care (Moss, 2005). Quality is a growing phenomenon that has sparked great interest due to its increasing influence on informing legislation and public policy. More and more, quality is governing our practices in the early childhood education field. Additionally, the notion of quality is a culprit in initiating and perpetuating neoliberal practices that serve to oppress and marginalize certain human beings. This increase in the reliance on quality as an indicator of human success in life marks a trend that is deeply enmeshed in the United States, but with a global reach. By being a part of a regime of truth, alternative ways of thinking and understanding the world are excluded. When discussing quality in the field, dialogue is often limited to concepts surrounding its operationalization, measurability, and insurability.


Since 1998 individual states have developed quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) designed to rate the adherence of early childhood education programs to quality standards. QRIS are operationalized through quality standards, financial incentives, consumer education, quality assurance and monitoring, and support for programs and practitioners. As of fall 2016, 39 states had adopted at least one quality rating system (QRIS National Learning Network, n.d.). There has been much growth in the creation of QRIS since 2011 due to the federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant program that included QRIS participation. While these systems have served to promote high quality programs and professionalism among educators, the ways they limit diverse understandings are problematic.


QRIS state reports and their corresponding websites portray quality in early childhood education and care (ECEC) as a definable, measurable, and desirable concept. Quality has been constructed based upon western ideologies of children and families embedded in developmental psychology, the idea of progress, and the tactics of regulation or surveillance as means of ensuring conformity. This conception of quality is in alignment with national systems of accreditation and the dominant knowledge that is currently reflected through child experts like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The conceptualization of quality as constructed through multiple QRIS systems has narrowed the possibilities for children, parents, teachers, and ECE programs. The definitely prescriptive way quality is defined or measured through QRIS has omitted diverse knowledges and perspectives. Eliminating the possibility of multiple knowledges is achieved through many avenues, including the requirement of approved-only curriculum in childcare centers. The goals of QRIS systems focus on school readiness, developmentally appropriate practice, and child-centered care. As a result, they limit how quality might be defined in ECEC. Another blatant omission in the current discourse surrounding quality is the perspective of those outside the expert or governmental realm including children, parents, teachers, and directors. Ironically, it is those who are silenced that bear the brunt of the regulations and ramifications of QRIS systems.


The most dominant tool for measuring quality and its associated indicators is the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-R), which assesses services for children ages two-and-a-half-years to five-years of age. This scale, alongside the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS-R), the Family Day Care Rating Scale (FDCRS), and the School-Age Care Environment Rating Scale (SACERS) were originally developed in the United States. They are presently being used worldwide as a definitive global measure of quality in the education and care of children. Currently, 48% of state QRIS utilize environment rating scales as a tool to observe program quality. A majority of the associated literature examines quality as a quantifiable construct that can be measured through the use of the ECERS-R (Cassidy, Hestenes, Hedge, Hestenes, & Mims, 2005; Hofer, 2010; Sakai, Whitebook, Wishard, & Howes, 2003; Warash, Ward, & Rotilie Warash, 2008). Utilizing a measurement tool that was originally developed in the United States as an indicator of global quality aids in the creation of worldwide hegemony. It also fosters the belief that there is a universal definition of what quality means and how it can be applied across cultures or contexts. There is some research that brings up the concern of how ECERS-R might or might not be culturally relevant (Lee & Walsh, 2005; Pan, Liu, & Lau, 2010; Pence, 2008; Riley, Roach, Adams, & Edie, 2005; Sheridan & Schuster, 2001). However, even the research that questions the cultural sensitivity of the ECERS does so in a way that acknowledges this concern, but still utilizes the tool as a definitive measure.



Measures to determine a teacher’s effectiveness have proliferated across teacher education programs. They are also in alignment with quality rating and improvement systems in response to policies such as Race to the Top. The instrument known as the teacher performance assessment (edTPA) is widely used and is heralded as a tool made by the profession, for the profession. Numerous critics voice concerns about edTPA as emblematic of corporate based reform and question the trustworthiness of its evaluation procedures (e.g., Chiu, 2014; Greenblatt & O’Hara, 2015). Scoring the edTPA portfolio is commonly outsourced to Pearson Education and external reviewers make determinations about an individual’s ability to demonstrate good teaching. The aim of this assessment is to help teachers closely examine their teaching and interactions with children at a micro level. However, in a broader and riskier sense, this tool can be seen as a mechanism for standardization. This begs the following question: how does edTPA inhibit or support notions of promising or appropriate practices as context specific or locally defined constructs in all early childhood settings? Furthermore, in early versions of the edTPA handbook, it was recommended that the edTPA be carried out with children three-years of age or older. This disregards the important contributions of educarers who work with infants and toddlers on a daily basis. This might also suggest that these individuals are lesser professionals than their peers who work with older children. Thus, a possible consequence of the edTPA is that teacher candidates lose their more authentic selves or professional identities. Instead, they opt to perform what they perceive to be a right way of teaching and working with young children.




The framing of this commentary comes from our engagement in teacher education programs in the United States. We realize that what we discuss here may not reflect what is happening across different contexts. However, we argue that our international colleagues may be impacted in a similar way by these globalizing and neoliberal forces that are driving educational reform. We also recognize the power of traveling discourses. As such, we deem it necessary to engage in critical and reciprocal dialogue(s) with people in the field at various levels. This includes scholars, researchers, practitioners, family members, and children to help us learn from and with one another, and to promote activist scholarship and critical pedagogies. In effect, we aspire to find solidarity as an emerging, powerful, and ethical community of early childhood practitioners and scholars who thrive without consensus.


We perceive inquiries into how quality measures influence pedagogical practice as being inseparable from considerations of what type of knowledge is valued and taught in early childhood settings. At the heart of our concern is that the appraisal of quality in early childhood education is not only heavy handed, but also falsely represented as ethically and politically neutral (MacNaughton, 2005). In the most general terms, this alleged value neutrality separates technical pedagogical decisions from value judgments. This alleged neutrality takes the implicit values of a dominant discourse for granted instead of carefully considering the complex moral dimensions of teaching that always underlie the practice (Buzzelli & Johnston, 2002).


How do we approach decolonizing teacher education or reconceptualizing teaching and learning as people enter into the field? One way to combat the narrowing of curriculum is to revisit the shared understandings that comprise what it means to construct (and ideally co-construct with children) inclusive classroom settings. Early childhood teacher educators have long been challenging dominant discourses circulating around children and childhood (Bloch, Swadener, & Cannella, 2014; Canella, 1997, Diaz Soto, 2000; Lubeck, 1998; Swadener & Kessler, 1991). Reconceptualizing early childhood education (RECE) scholars who are concerned with the intrusion of Eurocentric, middle class views on children, and schooling have advocated for culturally responsive schooling or educational practices that privilege the range of diversities that present themselves in everyday life and across sociocultural contexts.

Furthermore, multicultural and anti-bias education is gaining prominence in various early childhood organizations including the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edward’s seminal book on anti-bias education (ABE) (2010) is a practical guide for teachers and other professionals in the field. Likewise, publications like Rethinking Early Childhood Education (Pelo, 2008) foreground teachers’ perspectives on addressing social justice issues in classrooms. The inclusion of ABE in the dominant discourse of early childhood teacher education is promising. However, anti-bias work is too often displaced in coursework because of expectations to align teaching and learning with methods classes. There is also additional pressure from the heightened focus on edTPA preparation. Therefore, like Lenz Taguchi (2006), we encourage an ethic of resistance for pre-service or in-service teachers. This would allow them to deconstruct these regimes of truth surrounding quality rating improvement and standardization systems and reconstruct their own practices in meaningful and respectful ways.


Bloch, M., Swadener, B. B., & Cannella, G. S. (2014). Reconceptualizing early childhood care and education: Critical questions, new imaginaries, and social activism: A reader. New York, NY: Peter Lang.


Buzzelli, C., & Johnston, B. (2002). The moral dimensions of teaching: Language, power, and culture in classroom interactions. New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.


Cannella, G. S. (1997). Deconstructing early childhood education: Social justice and revolution. Rethinking childhood, volume 2. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.


Cassidy, D. J., Hestenes, L. L., Hedge, A., Hestenes, S., & Mims, S. (2005). Measurement of quality in preschool childcare classrooms: An exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis of early childhood environment rating scale-revised. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 20(3), 345–360.


Chiu, S. (2014). edTPA: An assessment that reduces the quality of teacher education. Teachers College, Columbia University Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, 14(1), 28–30.


Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.


Diaz Soto, L. (2000). The politics of early childhood education (Vol. 134). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Greenblatt, D., & O'Hara, K. E. (2015). Buyer beware: Lessons learned from edTPA implementation in New York State. Teacher Education Quarterly, 42(2), 57–67.


Hofer, K. G. (2010). How measurement characteristics can affect ECERS-R scores and program funding. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 11(2), 175–191.


Lee, J., & Walsh, D. (2005). Quality in early childhood programs? Underlying values. Early Education & Development, 16(4), 449–468.

Lenz Taguchi, H. (2006). Reconceptualizing early childhood education: Challenging taken-for-granted ideas. In J. Einarsdottir & J. T. Wagner (Eds.), Nordic childhoods and early education, philosophy, research, policy and practice in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden (pp. 257–287). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing


Lubeck, S. (1998). Is developmentally appropriate practice for everyone? Childhood Education, 74(5), 283–292.


Moss, P. (2005). Theoretical examinations of quality: Making the narrative of quality stutter. Early Education and Development, 16(4), 405–420.


Pan, Y., Liu, Y., & Lau, E.Y.H. (2010). Evaluation of the kindergarten quality rating system in Beijing. Early Education & Development, 21(2), 186–204.

Pelo, A. (2008). Rethinking early childhood education. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.


Pence, A. (2008). Discourses on quality care: The investigating quality project and the Canadian experience. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 9(3), 241–255.

QRIS National Learning Network (n.d.). Retrieved from http://qrisnetwork.org/

Riley, M. A., Roach, M. A., Adams, D., & Edie, D. (2005). From research to policy: In search of an affordable statewide system for rating childcare quality. Early Education and Development, 16(4), 493–504.

Sakai, L. M., Whitebook, M., Wishard, A., & Howes, C. (2003). Evaluating the early childhood environment rating scale (ECERS): Assessing differences between the first and revised editions. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 18(4), 427–445.

Sheridan, S., & Schuster, K. (2001). Evaluation of pedagogical quality in early childhood education: A cross-national perspective. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 16(1), 109–124.

Swadener, B. B., & Kessler, S. A. (1991). Reconceptualizing early childhood education. Brandon, VT: Psychology Press.


Warash, B. G., Ward, C., & Rotilie, S. (2008). An exploratory study of the application of early childhood environment rating scale criteria. Education, 128(4), 645–648.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 27, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22063, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:28:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Lacey Peters
    Hunter College, CUNY
    E-mail Author
    LACEY PETERS, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Hunter College, CUNY. She is interested in promoting the voices and perspectives of members of the early childhood community that are often subverted or excluded from research and policy, particularly those of children, parents (or other family members), and early childhood professionals.
  • Stephanie Reinke
    University of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    STEPHANIE REINKE is a senior lecturer in Teacher Education and Administration at the University of North Texas. 
  • Daniel Castner
    Bellarmine University
    E-mail Author
    DANIEL J. CASTNER, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Education at Bellarmine University. Prior to beginning a career in higher education, he was a public school kindergarten teacher for 15 years in Ohio. Daniel earned his doctorate degree in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Early Childhood Education from Kent State University. His scholarly interests include teacher leadership, curriculum studies, early childhood education and qualitative inquiry.
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