The Complex and Dynamic Nature of Quality in Early Care and Educational Programs: A Case for Chaos

By Buell, Martha J.; Cassidy, Deborah J. | Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Spring-Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Complex and Dynamic Nature of Quality in Early Care and Educational Programs: A Case for Chaos


Buell, Martha J., Cassidy, Deborah J., Journal of Research in Childhood Education


Abstract. This article describes how complex dynamical systems theory (chaos theory) can be used to understand the nature of quality in early care and education settings. The authors review past research on quality and quality initiatives, suggesting that the complex dynamical nature of early care and educational settings present challenges to quality enhancement initiatives. An application of the tenets of chaos theory to early care and educational settings is provided. Recommendations for research and policy are included.

In response to concerns raised by researchers and the public, increased attention has been paid to improving the quality of early care and education. This attention is the result of research that finds an association between the quality of early care and educational experiences and long-term outcomes for children (Campbell & Ramey, 1995; Frede, 1995; Lally, Mangione, Honig, & Wittner, 1988; Ramey & Ramey, 1993; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1998), as well as the belief that child care is a social support service that families need in order to be economically viable in the new millennium (Gallagher & Rooney, 1999). The programs that have demonstrated long-term sustainable gains in child outcomes, however, are usually model demonstration projects in which attention has been given to a multitude of details (Devaney, Ellwood, & Love, 1997). Replication of these programs without the ancillary resources and supports provided by model demonstration projects yields equivocal results (Frede, 1995; Yoshikawa, 1995).

Nevertheless, there is a continued interest in attempting to identify those most salient variables that will result in clearly predictable improvements in quality, thereby resulting in clearly predictable child outcomes. This approach is very appealing to those policymakers who ask, "If I have one more dollar of public money to spend on improving quality for young children and their families, where should this next dollar go?" This is a very difficult question to answer, one without a universally correct response. Furthermore, our current approach to investigating the variables associated with quality in early care and educational settings fails to capture the complex process involved in creating quality programming. Our current practices take a reductionistic approach to determining variables related to quality. When the results of this research are translated into policy, the variables are further decontextualized, resulting in policies that have little chance of creating long-term gains in quality. In orde r to understand and thereby develop strategies to truly improve quality in early care and education, a more sophisticated and holistic approach to understanding quality must be employed.

Although there are numerous statistical techniques designed to address the complex nature of explaining and predicting the human condition, the social sciences, including the field of early care and education, continue to approach research with an assumption that variables will behave in a linear and predictable way. Furthermore, there is an implicit assumption that if we were to measure our independent and dependent variables with enough accuracy, we would be able to create formulas that would accurately predict outcomes. Recent advances in the study of complex dynamic systems, also known as the chaos theory, argue for a revision of our approach to understanding the manner in which complex human systems, a category that subsumes early care and educational programs, function.

This article attempts to demonstrate how chaos theory can be useful in understanding the factors that contribute to quality in early care and educational settings, and how the implications of chaos theory can be used as a guide in developing policy aimed at improving the quality of early care and education. In order to do this, the authors will first review past research on quality in early care and educational settings, examining the factors that have been used to develop policy aimed at improving quality.

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