Developed in the 1990s, Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) aim to increase the availability of high-quality early education programs, to facilitate professional development and to strengthen parents’ understanding of their options. Child care providers earn stars, as if they were restaurants or hotels.
While nobody opposes quality per se, the pandemic and the reckoning over racial equity have raised urgent new questions about QRIS. Are the criteria fair and equitable? Do the systems succeed in expanding transparency and accountability? Can the flaws be remedied? Or is it time to admit defeat?
According to Kelly Etter, Ph.D., vice president of Early Childhood Equity Initiatives with the Policy Equity Group, evidence is mounting that this supposedly evidence-based approach to the early education classroom experience is, at best, ineffective—and in many cases it may be racist and destructive. In “QRIS: Building the Case for Knocking It Down,” Dr. Etter presents a series of ingenious videos using Duplo blocks. The lesson: “As any three-year-old in the block area will tell you (or gleefully show you), sometimes you have to knock it all down to rebuild.”
The first video casts doubt on the evidence that higher-quality ratings predict better child developmental outcomes. (See also this Hechinger Report story published earlier this year, which gathers much of the damning evidence together and points to shifting circumstances in states like Maine.)
The second video provides four reasons why QRIS don’t work:
They put too much emphasis on diplomas as other “pieces of paper” that don’t necessarily lead to quality.
They assume there’s just one “right way” to quality, whereas, in the real world, educators navigate varied paths. Some get there because they’ve been in the field for 25 years. Some go to school at night and earn a bachelor’s degree. Others have a fantastic mentor on staff. (In addition, parents don’t always see quality the same way the rating systems do. As Alabama activist Lenice Emanuel told me: “They want their children to be safe. They care nothing about these rubrics that [the state wants] to invest so much money into. Quality is subjective, and for many Black and often poor families, quality is quantified in the personal character of those caring for their children.”)
They combine too much complex information into a single data point. “When you’re measuring everything,” says Dr. Etter, “You’re measuring nothing.”
They ignore variation across classrooms within the same setting. If you have one one-star classroom and one five-star classroom, the average is three stars, but that doesn’t describe the education that any children in that center are receiving.
The third video offers fixes for QRIS:
Centering teacher-child interactions
Providing educators with tailored supports to hone their craft
Replacing the incentives that widen inequities with investment in workforce compensation and upfront funding for providers
Retiring the star ratings in favor of “badges” for specializations. According to Dr. Etter, there’s some fantastic work going on in the K-12 space around micro-credentials (read more). “From the parent standpoint,” she says, “Instead of this crummy choice that parents have between a one-star and a five-star, what about giving them to tools to identify what makes the most sense for their family?”
Early learning is “in the blood” for Dr. Etter, since her mom directed a child development center in Colorado for about 40 years. Today, as a researcher as well as a mom of a six-year-old and a three-year-old, Etter is seeing for herself the error in building one-size-fits-all systems.
Maybe the pursuit of quality as currently defined has come at the expense of equity. “When you break down the historic data in Mississippi, for example,” Dr. Etter says, “you find BIPOC-owned providers tend to be lower-rated than their white-owned counterparts. BIPOC children are disproportionately attending lower-rated programs. As a result, the programs that are already more well-resourced get more, and the programs that are less well-resourced for a variety of systemic reasons get less.”
QRIS isn’t a single system. At least 45 states have a QRIS, up from 5 in 2001, and the priorities and criteria vary considerably. The growth stems from Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge, a federal grant program that arose in 2011 to establish successful state systems. Even the states that haven’t been awarded federal money have used the process as a strategic planning opportunity to bring in state funding.
To understand how this flawed system came into being, it’s important to keep broader historic trends in mind, namely, an obsession with quality that started in the manufacturing sector and then overtook business and government in the 1990s, with important-sounding concepts like Total Quality Management and Continuous Quality Improvement permeating health care, education and other fields. Consultants came along to develop metrics for quality and to cite the oft-repeated maxim What gets measured gets done.
Dr. Etter opines that “the quality-industrial complex,” which comprises assessment publishers, departments within state agencies to manage QRIS, the raters and the coaches, perpetuates inequities. “The further an individual is from the classroom, the more likely they are to look like me—white, middle class, highly educated—and the more money they make.”
Dr. Etter believes the early childhood field erred when it began to regard parents as consumers. “Gosh!” she exclaims, channeling the logic behind QRIS, “‘The consumers will all just want five-star programs, and the ones that aren’t making the cut will go out of business and, so, the market will essentially correct for quality.’ But that has not panned out.”
According to Dr. Etter, there are three states to watch for indicators of the dismantling and reformation of QRIS:
Where a lot of states make the mistake of adopting a kitchen sink approach, Louisiana monitors just a single criterion—adult-child interactions. “They’re focusing on what we know has a ton of studies showing the linkage to child outcomes,” she says. “It’s the secret sauce.” (A study highlighted last year in Early Learning Nationcontended that QRIS led to “substantial quality improvement” in Louisiana.)
Dr. Etter is presenting her QRIS research at the BUILD 2022 Virtual Conference, July 11-13 and hopes that more state agencies and practitioners will take a new look at QRIS and the inequities the systems are causing. “We don’t have to start from scratch,” she says, “but if we’re fearless—as fearless as toddlers—we can reimagine something much better.”
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.