Turning to Yelp for child care help

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Many people use Yelp to find a good place to eat or a trusted mechanic, but in a new study researchers delved deep into the popular online review site to better understand American child care from those who know best: parents.

In the study “What Do Parents Value in a Child Care Provider? Evidence from Yelp Consumer Reviews,” Arizona State University Associate Professor Chris Herbst and others analyzed 48,675 unique reviews of 9,761 child care businesses in 40 U.S. cities to gauge parental satisfaction and capture new insight. 

One key aspect of the project focused on assessing how reviews varied between parents in wealthier and poorer regions. Differences did emerge. Consumers in wealthier markets were more likely to comment on a child’s learning environment, whereas those in lower-income areas were more concerned about “practical features,” such as pricing and accessibility.

Policy implications can derive from these type of studies. Here, Herbst — who teaches in the School of Public Affairs and is a faculty associate in the School of Social Work within the College of Public Service and Community Solutions — answers study-related questions and provides other important takeaways for parents and policymakers.    

man teaching in classroom
Chris Herbst

Question: Why is the topic of child care in the U.S. an important one?

Answer:  Child care is an important public-policy issue because so many parents rely on it as a work support. Currently 13 million preschoolers — or 60 percent of children ages zero to 5 — regularly attend some form of child care. In addition, the average child spends 32 hours per week in these settings. With so many children enrolled in child care programs, questions around cost and quality necessarily become important, particularly for low-income families and children.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that child care costs consume up to 30 percent of poor families' monthly income. Furthermore, many disadvantaged children attend child care programs that are low-quality at best, and outright dangerous in some cases. These cost and quality challenges translate directly into fewer parents being employed and fewer children entering the K-12 education system ready to learn.     

Q: From your perspective, what was the most surprising or unexpected finding of this research?

A: What struck me is just how differently low- and high-income families experience various aspects of child care. These differences extend beyond things like access, affordability and quality, which have been documented by other researchers. What we find is more nuanced, but equally important we argue, and only comes to light because of the extremely rich nature of the information in Yelp's consumer reviews.

For example, we show that when low-income families are searching for child care, they are less likely to have their phone calls returned by program directors, and they report worse experiences during visits to child care centers. In addition, low-income families are more critical of the "customer service" aspects of the child care experience. That is, it is common for these parents to feel disrespected when communicating with program staff, and to have less constructive interactions with teachers about the well-being of their children. On top of all this, many low-income parents describe their child care provider as being chaotic environments in which children hurt one another, teachers fail to bring order to the classroom — and were sometimes rough with children — and children are not provided with enriching activities.

Q: Comments posted on sites like Yelp or social media platforms often represent the most polarized opinions on a topic — by either the biggest fans or harshest critics. How was this addressed in the research to ensure the data gathered from the comments is useful?  

A: Before we started this project, I was worried that most Yelp reviews of child care programs were going to be negative diatribes about how expensive child care is, and so forth. But in reality, parents are quite balanced and measured in their reviews and, if anything, they provide a more optimistic view of their provider than I expected. For example, 76 percent of the consumer reviews contained a five-star rating of the child care program.

But what's striking is how variable the ratings are across the 40 cities we studied. About 80 percent of the reviews in Los Angeles contain five-star ratings, while only 44 percent of those in Oklahoma City are five-star ratings. Clearly, geography, demographics and economics play major roles in how parents think about and respond to child care.      

Q: How can we use the findings of this research to help people?

A: Selecting a child care provider is a difficult task for parents, primarily because child care is what's called an "experience good" — or one whose key quality features are not easily observed by consumers prior to purchasing it. Yelp has the potential to be an important source of information about child care. Indeed, by offering a peer-to-peer, crowdsource-generated “database” of reviews, Yelp can significantly reduce the costs — time and monetary — of searching for an appropriate child care provider.

However, Yelp will be useful to parents only insofar as there is high-quality, accurate information contained in the reviews. As I mentioned above, I was initially concerned that parents were going to use Yelp to vent about their child care provider. Instead, what our research shows is that parents are quite savvy evaluators of many dimensions of child care quality, including the way in which teachers interact with their child, the educational activities undertaken throughout the day, the kind of curriculum adopted by the provider, and the type and quality of food served. In the absence of Yelp, obtaining this information would be costly at best, but with Yelp available parents can be much better-informed consumers.            

Q: Based on this research, is there any advice you would give parents regarding child care?

A: It is not an exaggeration to say that decisions around child care will be among the most consequential that a parent will ever make on behalf of their child. Children develop rapidly, both cognitively and emotionally, during the preschool-age years, and there is solid evidence to suggest that children who attend high-quality child care fare better in school, have better health and even have better labor-market outcomes throughout adulthood. Therefore, parents should strive to select a child care program that is warm and emotionally supportive, that provides cognitive stimulation and educational activities, and that feeds children nutritious meals.

Most states now maintain something called a Quality Rating and Improvement System that evaluates and rates child care program quality and relays this information to the public. Parents can easily find this information online by searching for their state QRIS. In addition, at a minimum, parents should visit several child care providers — and ask a lot of questions during the visit. Inquire about the education requirements of the program staff, what the program's QRIS rating is and whether it is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.