Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

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:

“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:

“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.”