Five Perspectives on Quality in Early Childhood Programs 
by Lilian G. Katz
Catalog #208; April 1993


The Top-down Perspective on Quality

The top-down perspective on quality typically takes into account such program features as:

  • ratio of adults to children;
  • qualifications and stability of the staff';
  • characteristics of adult-child relationships;
  • quality and quantity of equipment and materials;
  • quality and quantity of space per child;
  • aspects of staff working conditions;
  • health, hygiene, fire safety provisions, and so forth.

According to Fiene (1992), program features such as those listed above and those typically included in licensing guidelines are the basis for useful regulatory strategies for ensuring the quality of child care. These features are directly observable and constitute enforceable standards by which providers can "set the stage for desirable interaction . . . " (p. 2). They are also relatively easy to quantify and require relatively little inference on the part of the assessor.

A briefing paper titled Child Care: Quality Is the Issue, prepared by the Child Care Action Campaign and produced by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (Ehrlich, n.d.), acknowledges that there is no single definition of quality for the variety of types of child care settings in the United States. However, the briefing paper does list the following basic components of quality: the ratio of children to adults, the size of groups, the availability of staff training, and staff turnover rates (p. 4).

There is substantial evidence to suggest that the program and setting features fisted above and commonly included in top-down criteria of quality do indeed predict some effects of an early childhood program (Love, 1993; Beardsley, 1990; Harms and Clifford, 1980; Howes et al., 1991; Phillips, 1987).

The Bottom-Up Perspective on Quality

It seems reasonable to assume that the significant and lasting effects of a program depend primarily on how it is experienced from below. In other words, the actual or true predictor of a program's effects is the quality of life experienced by each participating child on a day-to-day basis.

Bottom-up Criteria. If the child's subjective experience of a program is the true determinant of its effects, meaningful assessment of program quality requires answers to the central question, What does it feel like to be a child in this environment? 1 This approach requires making inferences about how each child would, so to speak, answer questions like the following:

  • Do I usually feel welcome rather than captured?
  • Do I usually feel that I am someone who belongs rather than someone who is just part of the crowd?
  • Do I usually feel accepted, understood, and protected by the adults, rather than scolded or neglected by them?
  • Am I usually accepted by some of my peers rather than isolated or rejected by them?
  • Am I usually addressed seriously and respectfully, rather than as someone who is "precious" or "cute"?
  • Do I find most of the activities engaging, absorbing, and challenging, rather than just amusing, fun, entertaining, or exciting?
  • Do I find most of the experiences interesting, rather than frivolous or boring?
  • Do I find most of the activities meaningful, rather than mindless or trivial?
  • Do I find most of my experiences satisfying, rather than frustrating or confusing?
  • Am I usually glad to be here, rather than reluctant to come and eager to leave?

The criteria of quality implied in these questions are based on my interpretation of what is known about significant influences on children's long-term growth, development, and learning. Those responsible for programs might make their own list of questions, based on their own interpretations of appropriate experiences for young children.

It is generally agreed that, on most days, each child in an early childhood program should feel welcome, should feel that he or she belongs in the group, and should feel accepted, understood, and protected by those in charge. Questions concerning other aspects of the child's experiences are included to emphasize the importance of addressing young children's real need to feel intellectually engaged and respected, and to encourage all the adults responsible for young children to do more than just keep them busy and happy or even excited (Katz, in press).

The last question reflects the assumption that when the intellectual vitality of a program is strong, most children, on most days, will be eager to participate and reluctant to leave the program. Their eagerness will be based on more than just the "fun" aspects of their participation. Of course, there are many factors that influence children's eagerness to participate in a program. Any program and any child can have an "off" day or two.

Experience Sampling. The older the children served by a program, the longer the time period required for a reliable bottom-up assessment. Three to four weeks of assessment for preschoolers, and slightly longer periods of assessment for older children, may provide sufficient sampling to make reliable predictions of significant developmental outcomes. Occasional exciting events in early childhood programs are unlikely to affect long-term development.

I propose that the quality of a program is good if it is experienced from the bottom-up perspective as intellectually and socially engaging and satisfying on most days, and is not dependent on occasional exciting special events.

Cumulative Effects. Assessment of the quality of experience over appropriate time periods helps address the potential cumulative effects of experience. My assumption here is that some childhood experiences may be benign or inconsequential if they are rare, but may be either harmful or beneficial if they are experienced frequently (Katz, 1991). For example, being rebuffed by peers once in a while should not be a debilitating experience for a preschooler; but the cumulative effects of frequent rebuffs may undermine long-term social development significantly. Similarly, block play, project work, and other developmentally appropriate activities may not support long-term development if they are rare or occasional, but can do so if they are frequent.

When most of the answers to the questions posed are at the positive end of the continua implied in them, we can assume that the quality of the program is worthy of the children. However, the question of how positive a response should be to meet a standard of good quality remains to be determined.

Needless to say, there are many possible explanations for any of the answers children might give (if they could) to the questions listed above. A program should not automatically be faulted for every negative response. In other words, the causes of children's negative subjective experiences cannot always or solely be attributed to the staff. For what, then, can the staff appropriately be held accountable? I suggest that staff are accountable for applying all practices acknowledged and accepted by the profession to be relevant and appropriate to the situation at hand.

The Outside-Inside Perspective on Quality

Ideally, assessment of the quality of a program should include an assessment of the quality of the characteristics of parent-teacher relationships (NAEYC, 1991a, pp. 101-110). Such assessments depend on how each parent would answer such questions as, In my relationships with staff, are the staff:

  • primarily respectful, rather than patronizing or controlling?
  • accepting, open, inclusive, and tolerant, rather than rejecting, blaming, or prejudiced?
  • respectful of my goals and values for my child 2?
  • welcoming contacts that are ongoing and frequent rather than rare and distant?

The positive attributes of parent-teacher relationships suggested above are relatively easy to develop when teachers and parents have the same backgrounds, speak the same languages, share values and goals for children, and, in general, like each other. Parents are also more likely to relate to their children's caregivers and teachers in positive ways when they understand the complex nature of their jobs, appreciate what teachers are striving to accomplish, and are aware of the conditions under which the staff is working.

Of course, it is possible that negative responses of some parents to some of the questions listed above cannot be attributed directly to the program and the staff, but have causes that staff may or may not be aware of or able to determine.

The Inside Perspective on Quality

The quality of an early childhood program as perceived from the inside, that is, by the staff, includes three dimensions: (1) colleague relationships, (2) staff-parent relationships, and (3) relationships with the sponsoring agency.

Colleague relationships. It is highly unlikely that an early childhood program can be of high quality on the criteria thus far suggested unless the staff relationships within the program are also of good quality. An assessment of this aspect of quality would be based on how each member of the staff might answer such questions as, On the whole, are relationships with my colleagues:

  • supportive rather than contentious?
  • cooperative rather than competitive?
  • accepting rather than adversarial?
  • trusting rather than suspicious?
  • respectful rather than controlling?

In principle, good quality environments are created for children (in bottom-up sense) when the environments are also good for the adults who work in them. Of course, there may be some days when the experiences provided have been good for the children at the expense of the staff (for example, Halloween parties), and some days when the reverse is the case. But on the average, a good quality program is one in which both children and the adults responsible for them find the quality of their lives together satisfying and interesting.

Staff-parent relationships. It seems reasonable to assume that the relationships between the staff and the parents of the children they serve can have a substantial effect on many of the criteria of quality already proposed. In addition, I suggest that the same set of criteria implied by the questions listed for the outside-inside perspective apply equally to the experience of staff members. Thus, assessment of quality from the staff perspective would require each staff member's answers to the question, Are my relationships with parents primarily respectful rather than patronizing or controlling? etc., as listed above.

Certainly parents are more likely to approach teachers positively when teachers themselves initiate respectful and accepting relationships. However, in a country like the United States, with its highly mobile and diverse population, it is unlikely that all the families served by a single program or an individual teacher are in complete agreement on program goals and methods. This lack of total agreement inevitably leads to some parental dissatisfaction and parent-staff friction.

The development of positive, respectful, and supportive relations between staff and parents of diverse backgrounds usually requires staff professionalism based on a combination of experience, training, education, and personal values.

Staff-sponsor relationships. One potential indirect influence on the quality of a program is the nature of the relationships of staff members with those to whom they are responsible. It seems reasonable to suggest that, in principle, teachers and caregivers treat children very much the way they themselves are treated by those to whom they report. To be sure, some caregivers and teachers rise above poor treatment, and some fall below good treatment. But one can assume that good environments for children are more likely to be created when the adults who staff them are treated appropriately on the criteria implied by the questions listed above. A recent study by Howes and Hamilton (1993) calls attention to the potentially serious effects of staff turnover on children's subjective experiences of the program. Thus the extent to which program sponsors provide contexts hospitable and supportive of staff should be give serious attention in assessing program quality. Assessment of quality in the terms of the inside perspective would be based on the staff's answers to the following questions:

  • Are working conditions adequate to encourage me to enhance my knowledge, skills, and career commitment?
  • Are the job description and career advancement plan appropriate?
  • Am I usually treated with respect and understanding?

Once again, not all negative responses are necessarily and directly attributable to the sponsors or administrators of a program, and the extent to which they are attributable would have to be determined as part of an assessment procedure.

The Outside Perspective

The community and the society-at-large that sponsor a program have a stake in its quality. There is a sense in which posterity itself eventually reaps the benefits to be derived from high quality early experience for its young children, and in which all of society suffers social and other costs when early childhood program quality is poor 3.

All early childhood programs, whether they are sponsored by private or public agencies, are influenced, intentionally or by default, by the variety of policies, laws, and regulations that govern them. Assessment of quality from the perspective of the larger society should be based on how citizens and those who make decisions on their behalf might be expected to answer the following questions:

  • Am I sure that community resources are appropriately allocated to the protection, care, and education of our children?
  • Am I confident that those who make decisions on our community's behalf adopt policies, laws, and regulations that enhance rather than jeopardize children's experiences in early childhood programs?
  • Am I confident that the resources available to early childhood programs in our community are sufficient to yield long-term and short-term benefits to children and their families?
  • Are high quality programs affordable to all families in our communities who need the service?
  • Are the working conditions (salary, benefits, insurance, and so forth) of the community's programs sufficiently good that the staff turnover rate remains low enough to permit the development of stable adult-child and parent-staff relationships, and to permit staff training to be cost-effective?
  • Are the staff members appropriately trained, qualified, and supervised for their responsibilities?

Since programs for young children are offered under a wide variety of auspices, each program can generate its own list of appropriate criteria for assessment from the outside perspective.

Implications of Multiple Perspectives on Quality

Four implications are suggested by this formulation of quality assessment for early childhood programs.

Discrepancies Between Perspectives. It is theoretically possible for a program for young children to meet satisfactory standards on the quality criteria from a top-down perspective, but fall below them on the bottom-up or the outside-inside criteria. For example, a program might meet high standards on the top-down criteria of space, equipment, or child/staff ratio, and yet fail to meet adequate standards for quality of life for some of the children according to the criteria listed for the bottom-up perspective.

The important aspect of experience is the meaning given to it by the one who undergoes it. In much the same way that the meaning of a particular word is a function of the sentence in which it appears and the paragraph in which it is embedded, humans tend to attribute and assign meanings to their experience in one situation based on their experiences in all other contexts. This being the case, the bottom-up perspective needs to take into account the likelihood that the stimulus potential of a preschool program for a particular child is a function of the stimulus level of the environment he or she experiences outside the program (Katz, 1989).

For example, a child whose home environment includes a wide variety of play materials, television and video equipment, computer games, outdoor play equipment, frequent trips to playgrounds, and so forth, may find a preschool program boring, while another child whose home environment lacks the same degree of variety may find the program engaging. Such individual differences in the experiences of children in early childhood programs, that is, the range of bottom-up perspectives, should be taken into account in the assessment of the quality of a program, and considered in weighing the importance of the top-down criteria.

In theory, a program could fall below acceptable standards on the top-down criteria (for example, insufficient space or poor equipment) and yet be experienced as satisfactory by most of the participating children. Since I am suggesting, however, that it is the view from the bottom-up that determines the ultimate impact of a program, some flexibility in applying the top-down criteria of quality might be appropriate.

It is also conceivable that the staff could have appropriate relationships with parents, but with few of the children. Or it could be that children are thriving, but parents do not feel respected or welcomed by the staff.

On the other hand, it could be that the bottom-up assessments are low, but that the program rates high in quality from an outside-inside parental perspective, or vice versa. For example, a staff may feel obliged to engage children in academic exercises in order to satisfy parental preferences even though the children might experience their lives as more satisfying if informal and more intellectually meaningful experiences were offered. In such instances, the bottom-up assessment of quality is less positive than the one from outside.

Thus, theoretically, it is possible that from these multiple perspectives, levels of satisfaction on the criteria proposed could vary significantly. This raises the question, Should one perspective be given more weight than another in assessing the quality of a program? And, if so, Whose perspective has the first claim to determining program quality?

Issues of Accountability. As suggested above, program providers can hardly be held accountable for all negative responses on the criteria listed for each perspective. Some children come to a program with problems of long standing that originated outside of the program. Similarly, parents and staff may register low satisfaction on one or more of the criteria due to factors not attributable to the program itself. Some families may be struggling with the vicissitudes of their lives in ways that influence the family members' responses to the program but are not necessarily attributable to the program.

Problems of attributing the causes of clients' perspectives on a program raise the difficult question of establishing the limits to which the staff can be fairly held accountable. As suggested above, the staff of a program is not obliged to keep everyone happy as much as it is required to apply the professionally accepted procedures as appropriate for each case. This suggestion implies that the profession has adopted a set of criteria and standards of appropriate practice. The view of the limits of staff accountability being developed here implies that at least one essential condition for high quality programs is that all staff members are qualified and trained to employ the accepted practices, accumulated knowledge, and wisdom of the profession. To be able to respond professionally to each negative response from the bottom-up or outside-inside perspectives requires well-trained and qualified staff, and staff with ample professional experience. This last characteristic is particularly important in the case of the program director.

This view of the limits of staff accountability also emphasizes the urgency for the profession to continue the development of a clear consensus on professional standards of practice below which no practitioner can be allowed to fall.

The field of early childhood education has already taken important steps in the direction of establishing consensus on criteria and standards of practice through the professional associations' position papers on major issues. The most comprehensive document in this regard is the position paper of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) titled Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (Bredekamp, 1987). The accreditation procedures and standards of NAEYC's National Academy of Early Childhood Programs (NAEYC, 1991a) covers most of the standards implied by the criteria listed above. Position statements on curriculum content and assessment (NAEYC, 1991b; Bredekamp and Rosegrant, 1992) have also been issued by NAEYC. NAEYC's new National Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development is designed to address professional development, qualifications, and other issues directly and indirectly related to staff accountability for implementing professionally accepted practices.

In the case of child care programs in particular, the high rate of staff turnover, related largely to appallingly low compensation and poor working conditions in child care centers in the United States (Whitebook, Phillips, and Howes, 1993) and many other countries, exacerbates the problems of retaining staff with the qualifications and experience required for good quality programs.

Criteria and Standards. Any kind of assessment requires the selection of criteria and the adoption of standards at which the criteria must be met to satisfy judgments of good quality. As suggested above, each question in each of the lists above implies a criterion of quality. For the purposes of this discussion, a criterion is a dimension of experience thought to determine the quality of the experience. A standard is a particular level of quality on the criterion. Thus, for example, for the top-down criterion of ratio of adults to children, the standard of quality might be set at 1:5, 1:10, or 2:25, depending on the age of the children.

Similarly, for the first criterion listed for the bottom-up perspective--"Do I usually feel welcome rather than captured?"--a standard would have to be set as to how intense, constant, or enduring such feelings must be to meet a standard of acceptable quality. A four- or five-point scale on each criterion continuum is likely to be sufficient for most purposes. However, agreement concerning the point at which a standard of quality has been satisfied must be determined by the assessors. Furthermore, the issue of whether standards of quality would have to be met on all or most of the criteria suggested in the five perspectives would have to be dealt with by those undertaking the assessment.

High and Low Inference Variables. Assessments based on variables like the amount of space per child, qualifications of staff, observable characteristics of staff-child interaction, and other commonly used top-down indices of quality require relatively little or low inference on the part of the assessor. However, the multiple perspectives approach involves the use of high inference variables, namely, inferring the deep feelings of participants and staff, and the thoughts of citizens.

It would be neither ethical nor practical to interview children directly with the questions posed for the bottom-up perspective. It would be ethically unacceptable to put children in situations that might encourage them to criticize their caretakers and teachers. Furthermore, from a practical standpoint, young children's verbal descriptions of their experiences are unlikely to be reliable. Thus, assessing the quality of bottom-up experience requires making inferences about the subjective states of the children. Ideally, these inferences would be based on extensive contact and frequent observation and information-gathering by participants over extended periods of time. In addition, reliable unobtrusive indices of children's subjective experiences are required for the assessment of quality from the bottom-up (Goodwin and Goodwin, 1982).


Answers to the questions proposed for each perspective can be used as a basis for decisions about the kinds of modifications to be made in the services offered to each child and to the whole group of children enrolled, and to all their families. When answers are used in this manner, each of the five perspectives outlined above contributes in a different way to an overall assessment of program quality as experienced by all who have a stake in high quality programs. But because all responses cannot be directly attributed to characteristics of a program, the early childhood profession must continue its efforts to develop, adopt, and apply an accepted set of professional standards of practice for which practitioners can fairly be held accountable. Any approach to the assessment of quality requires not only the development of a set of criteria to apply to each program, but also some consensus on the minimum standards that must be satisfied for acceptable quality on each criterion. A start has been made on the development of consensus about appropriate practices. Further discussion of these matters among practitioners, program sponsors, regulatory agencies and membership associations in the field is urgently needed.


Beardsley, L. Good Day Bad Day. The Child's Experience of Day Care. New York: Teachers College Press, 1990.

Bredekamp, S. (Ed.). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth, through Age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1987.

Bredekamp, S., and Rosegrant, T. Reaching Potentials. Appropriate Curriculum and Assessment for Young Children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1992.

Ehrlich, E. Child Care. Quality is the Issue. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, n.d.

Fiene, R. Measuring Child Care Quality. Atlanta, Georgia, 1992.

Goodwin, W. L., and Goodwin, L. D. "Measuring Young Children." In B. Spodek (Ed.), Handbook of Research in Early Childhood Education, 523-563. New York: The Free Press, 1982.

Harms, T., and Clifford, R. M. The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale. New York: Teachers College Press, 1980.

Howes, C., Hamilton, C. E. "The Changing Experience of Child Care: Changes in Teachers and in Teacher-Child Relationships and Children's Social Competence with Peers." Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 8 (1), 1993, 15-32.

Howes, C., Phillips, D.A., and Whitebook, M. "Thresholds of Quality: Implications for Social Development of Children in Center-based Child Care." Child Development 63 (1992): 449-460.

Katz, L.G. "Afterward." In P.O. Olmstead and D.P. Weikart (Eds.), How Nations Serve Young Children: Profiles of Child Care and Education in 14 Countries, 401-406. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Foundation, 1989.

Katz, L.G. "Pedagogical Issues in Early Childhood Education." In S.L. Kagan (Ed.), The Care and Education of America's Young Children: Obstacles and Opportunities. Ninetieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Part I, 50-68. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Katz, L.G. "Education or Excitement." In L.G. Katz, Talks with Early Childhood Educators. Collected Works. NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp, in press.

Love, J.M. Does Children's Behavior Reflect Day Care Classroom Quality? Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development, New Orleans, March 1993.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. Testing of Young Children: Concerns and Cautions. Washington, DC: Author, 1988.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. Accreditation Criteria and Procedures of the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Author, 1991a.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. Guidelines for Appropriate Curriculum Content and Assessment in Programs Serving Children Ages 3 through 8. Washington, DC: Author, 1991b.

Phillips, D. Quality in Child Care: What Does Research Tell Us? Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1987.

Spaggiari, S. The Community-Teacher Partnership in the Governance of the Schools. In Edwards, C., Gandini, L., Forman, G., Eds. The Hundred Languages of Children. The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education. 1993. Norwood, N. J.: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

United States Department of Human and Social Services. Federal Interagency Day Care Requirements. Washington, DC, 1980.

Whitebook, M., Phillips, D., and Howes, C. National Child Care Staffing Study Revisited: Four Years in the Life of Center-Based Child Care. Oakland, CA: Child Care Employee Project, 1993.


(1) The inferred answers to this question should reflect the nature of experience over a given period of time, depending upon the age of the child. Hence the term usually is repeated in most of the questions in the list. The phrasing of the question (e.g., Do I feel . . . ? Do I find..... ?) is deliberately intended to emphasize children's subjective experiences rather than observers' judgments.

(2) The concept of respect does not imply agreement or compliance with the wishes of the other.

(3) One aspect of the impressive preprimary schools of Reggio Emilia in Italy is the extensiveness and depth of the involvement of the whole community in all aspects of their functioning. For an interesting description of community partnerships and early childhood programming see Spaggiari (1993).

This publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. The opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education.