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The Path to Quality Child Care Just Became a Little Less Elusive: New Research Shows Star-rating Systems Can Drive Improvement At-Scale

Those following the debates regarding President Biden’s historic child care proposal may be experiencing whiplash. On the one hand, a study came out of Boston adding to the substantive research showing that investing in early education, as Biden has proposed, is exceptionally smart policy. On the other hand, opponents of the plan claim that child care can hurt kids.

There’s truth to both sides: Studies have credited high quality child care for everything from helping mothers remain stably employed, to bridging the classroom racial and ethnic achievement gap, to improving the life prospects not only for kids who receive it, but for their siblings and, in some cases, even future generations.

And then there’s other research suggesting that poor quality child care can have a lingering negative effect.

The big idea behind QRIS is simple: that applying a publicly-available star rating system to preschools, and offering supports and financial incentives for quality improvement, can drive change at-scale.

The takeaway? Quality matters, a lot. But improving program quality is an inherently tricky proposition in a sprawling, market-driven child care system that encompasses everything from small programs in providers’ living rooms to national for-profit child care chains. Many efforts to that end have hoped for the near-impossible: that programs with shoestring budgets and teachers making low-level wages find the time, money and energy to invest in improvement without added remuneration.

The awkwardly-named Quality Rating Improvement System, or QRIS, offers a different way. The big idea behind QRIS is simple: that applying a publicly-available star rating system to preschools, and offering supports and financial incentives for quality improvement, can drive change at-scale. But until recently, that theory has not been tested. Now, two recent studies provide compelling evidence that a well-designed, well-resourced QRIS can, in fact, drive change at-scale.

QRIS systems first launched in a handful of states in the late 1990s. At the time, advances in the biological and social sciences provided new evidence that the first three years of life are a time of rapid brain development, and that the quality of care a child receives during this time matters immensely. This is especially true for children from low-income families who research shows stand to benefit the most from high quality care, but tend to wind up in programs that are lower quality. But it would take another two decades before the quality rating system movement gained steam, when the federal 2011 Race to the Top— Early Learning Challenge grant encouraged the use of QRIS. In 2005 there were only 11 QRIS programs nationwide. By 2017, over 40 states had at least one quality initiative.

A comprehensive QRIS model has the following components working in unison: a clear definition of quality; assessments of child care programs that assess quality and identify areas for growth; supports and financial incentives to help programs improve; and a star rating system that lets parents easily identify quality care, further incentivizing quality through increased enrollment.

QRIS systems are often carried out by states in tandem with universities and other partners who decide how to define and measure quality, and how to realize the rating systems. Chronic “underinvestment and underutilization” have thwarted many QRIS models, says Chris Herbst, a professor at Arizona State University who studies child care policy. This has led some states to offer mere skeletal versions of the original vision. Most programs offer financial incentives for program improvement, but not all make the star ratings public, and fewer than 10 states require child care centers receiving public money to participate, according to information compiled by the Quality Compendium. This has made it difficult for researchers to determine whether QRIS can even work as intended. A lack of evidence, in turn, likely contributes to the systems’ limited funding.

Two recent studies tackle the question of whether investing in QRIS leads to improvement by looking at data from two of the country’s most robust QRIS systems, both of which require all publicly-funded programs to participate. Daphna Bassok, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, associate director of EdPolicy Works and a co-author of both studies, says this mandatory participation was key to helping to determine how QRIS functions when brought to scale.

Bassok, along with Preston Magouirk and Anna Markowitz, published one of the two studies earlier this year in a peer-reviewed journal. That study explores the first four years of Louisiana’s recently launched quality rating system. While most QRIS systems measure multiple aspects of child care programs, Louisiana’s QRIS focuses exclusively on the quality of interactions between caregivers and children, something some experts describe as the magic ingredient for early learning. The state uses the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) to measure these interactions and incentivizes program improvement with tax credits that increase as a program’s rating improves. Programs that score “Unsatisfactory” for two years in a row lose their license.

Four years into the program’s launch, researchers found “substantial quality improvement” on CLASS scores across the state, with the statewide proficiency rating jumping from 62% to 85%. This improvement was driven not by the closure of poorly-performing programs, the researchers discovered, but by programs improving, with initially lower-scoring programs showing the largest gains. Child care settings—which had initially scored, on average, much lower than both Pre-K programs and Head Start programs—improved the most over the four-year-period. The proportion of child care programs meeting the proficiency standard increased from 40% to 73%, substantially narrowing the proficiency gap between child care and the more richly resourced Pre-K and federally-funded Head Start programs.

One key critique of quality rating systems is that “the idea that an accountability system will incentivize [early educators] to get better can feel dismissive of how hard teachers are already working,” says Bassok. But “Louisiana’s experience suggests that clearly defining quality, measuring it regularly and giving teachers supports to improve can really make a difference and drive improvement.”

“Louisiana’s experience suggests that clearly defining quality, measuring it regularly and giving teachers supports to improve can really make a difference and drive improvement.” — Daphna Bassok, Professor of Education and Public Policy, the University of Virginia; Asssociate Director of EdPolicy Works; a co-author of both studies

That was also a finding of an earlier study published by Bassok, Thonas Dee, and Scott Latham. For that study, the researchers scoured data from North Carolina, which has one of the country’s oldest and most developed QRIS systems. Close to 90% of all licensed programs in the state participate in QRIS, and programs receive substantially higher subsidy rates for each additional star they earn.

The study found that receiving a lower-star rating led programs to improve their quality as measured by the QRIS, and that program ratings also spurred changes in parent behavior. In areas with limited child care options, a lower-star rating led to reductions in program enrollment, suggesting that parents were “voting with their feet” and choosing programs that received a higher star rating. But in areas with scant child care programs, there was no detectable effect on enrollment, suggesting that when faced with a dearth of child care options, parents prioritize their families’ need for child care over the quality rating of a program.

Before these two studies, most research of QRIS systems was concerned not with whether QRIS drives change, but how best to define and measure quality—that’s something that the field continues to struggle with, says Pete Nabozny, director of policy at The Children’s Agenda. “I worry about how valid and reliable the assessments are across the country,” says Nabozny.

Some in the field argue that it is not fair to use the same quality measures when comparing, say, a child care center where teachers are poorly paid to a state-funded Pre-K program where teachers receive compensation on par with K-12 teachers. Others say assessment tools designed for center-based programs aren’t a good fit for home-based settings, and that quality measures are, by definition, rooted in the cultural bias of those who create them. In the case of QRIS assessment tools, that’s often highly-educated white people, whereas the early childhood workforce is disproportionately comprised of women of color, most who make very low wages. “QRIS was designed without the people it was meant to support. It was something ‘done to them, not with them,’” California advocates wrote in a 2020 memo.

Bassok shares some of these concerns. “How do you define quality, and then how do you make it equitable [for programs to achieve] is a real question,” she says. She adds that the most direct way to raise program quality is likely through increased teacher pay—a funding challenge that “QRIS will not fix.”

But Bassok is also among those who believe it’s important for the early education field to have a clear definition of quality to strive for, even if it’s an imperfect one. The new research provides important evidence that however states and the field decide to define quality, QRIS can help them get there.

Kendra Hurley is a journalist and researcher whose work has fueled reform and helped shape policy in education, child welfare, and homeless services. Her writing has appeared in Bloomberg's CityLab, the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, and others, and her investigation into teen adoption received an award from the Casey Journalism Center. For over a decade, Kendra worked as senior editor and reporter of the families and poverty project at an applied policy institute at The New School. Before that, she launched an online journal covering the youth media field for the Open Society Institute, and worked with teenagers living in foster care for the youth media publication Represent. While coaching the young writers, she received a PASEsetter award for impactful afterschool educators.

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