July 25, 2022
High-quality early care and education (ECE) programs can have a profound impact on children’s learning and development. But we know that there is great variation in program quality and that too many children are in settings that could better meet their needs. Researchers and policymakers have long been trying to determine the best ways to measure quality and improve programs.
Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) are currently our main tool for measuring program quality. The federal government has encouraged states to create and use these systems by tying them to federal funding. Their use expanded greatly under the Obama administration, as they were tied to competitive grants like Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge. They are intended to not only help policymakers measure quality, but also identify areas for and support program improvement, and be a tool for parents to make informed decisions about choosing an ECE program.
There are challenges to creating one tool to serve multiple purposes and audiences. QRIS aim to measure quality based on a common set of indicators established by the state, often including inputs like teacher-child ratios, curriculum, and assessment practices. Some states include measures of teacher-child interactions, which we know are the foundation of quality, but are difficult to measure.
Unfortunately, many recent validation studies have not found rating systems to accurately reflect meaningful differences in program quality, or that different levels of quality are associated with different child outcomes. Years into QRIS implementation, there is room for improvement and a lot to be learned from what states have tried thus far. With recent federal policy proposals continuing to incorporate QRIS, we should think critically about what states can do differently to ensure these systems actually lead to better ECE for more children. This includes reevaluating how the tools are designed and used, as well as how their results are communicated to parents.
Last month, the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University, Child Care Aware of America, and the Equity Research Action Coalition released a report, Equity is Quality, Quality is Equity: Operationalizing Equity in Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, calling on the field to “re-envision and expand the definition of quality to encompass high-quality experiences for all children, centering those who have historically been left out.” Altering QRIS so that quality is closely tied to equity would require significant changes to most existing systems. The definitions of quality established by QRIS often fail to capture how a program is serving children from historically marginalized groups, such as children of color, dual language learners, and children with disabilities.
The report suggests that any definition of quality include three essential elements of equity:
- Equitable accessibility
- Positive and fair experiences for all children, especially those from historically marginalized groups
- Working to identify and close disparities in child outcomes
The authors detail new potential equity indicators for states to consider. They are grouped by 11 priority areas, including equitable funding, integration, workforce equity, and more.
Funding for ECE programs is rarely equitable, and QRIS have worsened resource inequity in some ways. When systems provide financial incentives to programs that receive higher ratings, but fail to provide sufficient support for programs at the lower levels to ascend the ratings, it can further exacerbate inequitable distribution of resources. The way QRIS measure quality often gives preference to center-based providers over family child care (FCC) homes, and the process for participating in QRIS can be overly burdensome for FCC providers. The report recommends that states work to better accommodate the needs of FCC providers in QRIS and licensing requirements.
Quality definitions do not always reflect the priorities of different communities, with some advocates in California calling out QRIS as racist. The authors suggest that states act intentionally to enable all providers to access QRIS, including covering upfront costs for participation and examining if there are biases that would dissuade participation from BIPOC and immigrant provider communities or providers who serve children from BIPOC and immigrant communities.
For a host of reasons, ECE programs are too often segregated by race, family income level, and disability status. The authors suggest that QRIS include indicators that address segregation head on. This can include rewarding programs that do not segregate classrooms by funding stream, which often are tied to specific eligibility guidelines like family income or special education status. It can also include rewarding programs that have staff diversity reflective of the children being served, or that incorporate children’s languages and cultures into programming.
QRIS can also play an important role in improving workforce equity. Quality teachers are integral to children’s learning and development, and yet the ECE workforce continues to be grossly under-compensated for the important and challenging work they do. QRIS can include quality indicators around whether programs offer employees paid time off and provide adequate breaks throughout the day. They can also incentivize programs to follow a pay scale that rewards employees for their knowledge and skills.
The key to creating better systems is not just changing the quality indicators to better reflect equitable practices, but also providing programs with the means to do so. Many programs want to improve but lack the necessary resources they need to meet quality indicators. The report recommends that states work with parents, providers, and communities when rethinking quality indicators and supports to ensure that their needs are met.
One of the paper’s authors, Iheoma U. Iruka, PhD, Founding Director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at FPG at The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, presented on this topic at the BUILD Initiative’s July conference in a session titled, “Centering Equity in Revisions and Redesign of Quality Rating Systems.” Dr. Iruka said, “Quality for the most part comes from a white-dominant, middle class lens, and we need to make sure we are thinking about equity writ large.” She added, “some of the markers for quality also privilege some programs and settings….there is an assumption that one set of programs is higher quality than another.”
Dr. Iruka explained that the logic model for QRIS makes sense in theory, but not in practice, because parents do not really have the ability to choose the programs they want. Panelist Carlise King, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Data Collaborative at Child Trends, encouraged states to “engage families and providers in the design and implementation of policies to reflect their lived experiences and support their needs.”
QRIS are complex and there is a great deal of work to be done to improve them and ensure they promote equity for children, families, and providers. As Sarah Daily, co-director of the Equity, Quality, and Access to Early Care and Education Unit at Child Trends, said as a panelist during the BUILD conference, “The burden of the additional effort needed to engage in any quality improvement strategy has fallen squarely on the women and individuals who make up the child care workforce.” As experts rethink systems, the burden of quality and equity cannot fall solely on providers, but instead needs to be supported by meaningful investments and policies at the local, state, and federal level.
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