Over the past several years, a growing number of states – including Massachusetts – have launched Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) that define levels of quality for early education programs, offer pathways for improvement and provide valuable information for families. QRIS was a key component of the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge.
The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) recently issued a report – “A Count for Quality” – that examines the opportunities and challenges states face as they implement QRIS. The study is based on interviews with the directors of 48 early education and care centers in nine states.
“Overall, the child care center directors thought that QRIS offered a roadmap for strengthening the quality of care and an opportunity for lifting up the child care profession and child care system,” the report finds. “Even though the directors were aware of the challenges and shortcomings of their states’ QRIS in practice, they saw the promise offered by QRIS and were hopeful about their potential for having a positive impact over time on the quality of children’s early learning experiences.”
Researchers interviewed directors in eight states — Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee – with statewide QRIS. They also talked with directors in Palm Beach County, Florida, which has a county-wide QRIS. Their findings provide guidance for Massachusetts, a relatively new entrant in the QRIS field. The commonwealth, which is one of nine states to win an Early Learning Challenge grant, launched QRIS in January 2011 and will use part of its $50 million federal award to validate and expand its QRIS.
The report identifies several components of an effective QRIS:
- Strong quality rating standards
- Effective quality measuring, monitoring and assessment
- Incentives and support for improving quality ratings
- Efforts to make QRIS responsive to the needs of all children
- Parent education and involvement
- Aligning standards across early care and education settings
“Successful implementation of these components requires sufficient funding and other resources for QRIS as well as the early care and education system as a whole,” the report states. “Many of the changes and improvements required for an effective QRIS depend not only on the QRIS itself but on components and systems outside the QRIS, such as higher education institutions that educate child care providers, child care assistance policies that determine low-income families’ access to help paying for higher-quality care, and Head Start and state prekindergarten programs that provide additional early learning resources. QRIS do not operate in a vacuum—they are affected by and can affect systems around them. In some cases, QRIS may be hampered by the barriers resulting from those outside systems, and in other cases, QRIS may encourage positive change in those outside systems.”
The report makes several recommendations:
- Set quality rating standards that appropriately reflect elements essential to the quality of care: Among other things, the report notes that “standards that ensure highly qualified, well-compensated early childhood teachers are particularly important—yet must be paired with opportunities and supports for teachers to attain the higher credentials necessary to meet the standards.”
- Establish a quality assessment process that is reliable and responsive: The report calls for well-trained assessors, multiple observations, an appeals process, feedback on the score and a pathway for improvement.
- Provide sufficient, sustained incentives and support for improving quality: The report notes that “funding is particularly important in enabling providers to offer the higher compensation needed to attract and retain qualified staff.” It also recommends tiered reimbursement rates, technical assistance and coaching.
- Design QRIS to meet the needs of all children.
- Educate parents about QRIS and high-quality care: The report recommends strategies that are “sustained and provided through multiple channels.”
- Align QRIS with other high-quality programs and components within the early childhood system: “QRIS work best when they function in coordination with other pieces of the early childhood system,” the report notes. “QRIS can be built on top of solid core licensing standards that ensure children’s basic health and safety. QRIS standards can be matched with standards for accreditation, state prekindergarten, Head Start, and Early Head Start so there is a common, consistent set of high-quality benchmarks early care and education providers strive to meet.”
“QRIS work best,” the report notes, “when they help child care providers improve quality on an ongoing basis by providing financial, mentoring, and other support and when they effectively align with other high-quality early childhood and after-school systems.”