The RTT-ELC is the first joint grant competition between the Departments of ED and HHS. Pictured here are U.S. Secretaries Arne Duncan and Kathleen Sebelius, leaders of the two departments.
This is the first post in a month-long series examining the nine winning states in the 2011 Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) and their plans to improve the quality and coordination of early childhood programs. This post focuses on the use of quality rating improvement systems (QRIS). Later posts will explore states’ plans to evaluate those rating systems, improve early learning standards, develop the early childhood workforce and implement kindergarten entry assessments.
When the Obama Administration unveiled its priorities for the early childhood version of Race to the Top, two focus areas were apparent at the start: improving access to high-quality early learning programs for high-need children and creating coordinated systems of early education, birth through pre-kindergarten. To do both, the administration designed the competition to favor states with big plans for rating the quality of childcare and pre-K programs and using those ratings to prompt improvements.
These rating systems – known as tiered Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) – became a critical part of the grant competition. All the winners, with the exception of California, which we’ll talk about shortly, got high marks for their plans.
QRISs, which are compared to market-based approaches like hotel ratings, often use a simple 3-, 4- or 5-star rating to summarize information on quality in multiple categories, such as child/staff ratios and teacher credentials. States publish the ratings on Web sites and in community brochures so that parents (the consumers) can make smart choices about where to enroll their children.* The ratings are also supposed to help determine what types of professional development may be required by different centers to achieve higher levels of quality. The ratings are designed to help ensure that public childcare subsidies – many of which are paid to low-income parents in the forms of vouchers – go to providers with some evidence of providing a good experience for children.
All states vying for the grant were required to complete a “core area” in the RTT-ELC application titled “High Quality, Accountable Programs.” Peer reviewers were employed to read those applications and score them according to set criteria. In this section, the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services asked states to:
1. Explain how they have implemented or plan to implement a system that is linked to the state’s licensing system, includes standards that are measurable and that differentiate between levels of program quality, and adopts a statewide set of tiered program standards.
2. Describe how they will promote participation in the QRIS among early education programs for children from birth through 5, including:
- State-funded preschool programs;
- Early Head Start and Head Start;
- Programs funding under IDEA or Title I of ESEA; and
- Programs funded by the Child Care Development Fund (Block Grant)
(They also had to explain how they have implemented or plan to implement policies and practices that help more families afford high-quality childcare.)
3. Explain how they will rate and monitor participating programs and provide tiered QRIS and licensing information to parents.
4. Describe their plan to improve the quality of programs participating in the tiered QRIS.
5. Validate the effectiveness of their QRIS in at least two ways:
- Whether the tiers accurately reflect differential levels of program quality; and
- The extent to which changes in quality ratings are related to progress in children’s learning, development and school readiness.
We’ll get to the last bullet in our next post. For now, we’ll focus on which states scored the highest on the first four areas above, based on peer reviewers’ scores. (Thanks to Sara Mead – an EdWeek blogger, senior associate at Bellwether Education Partners, and former director of the Early Education Initiative here at New America – for compiling all the scores and making them available in an easy-to-read spreadsheet.):
A Core Area of the RTT-ELC Application: High Quality, Accountable Programs
1. Development of or plan to develop statewide TQRIS
Massachusetts (10 points), Delaware (9.4), Ohio (9)
2. Promote participation among programs and help families afford high-quality programs
Massachusetts (14), North Carolina (13.4), Ohio (13.4)
3. Rate and Monitor programs
Delaware (14.4), North Carolina (13.6), Arkansas* (13)
4. Improve program quality
North Carolina (19.2), Delaware (18), Oregon* (18)
Key: * = non-winners
It’s not surprising that North Carolina made the top in almost every section; the state implemented its original QRIS in 1999, and then revised it in 2005. North Carolina has been doing this work a long time.
The winners put forth thoughtful plans to encourage participation and improve program quality. Many of the states that won grants included a 100 percent participation goal for all licensed and publicly funded programs, including home daycare providers, state-funded pre-K programs, Head Stars and center-based early learning programs. Rhode Island, for example, will require all licensed programs to participate in BrightStars, the state’s QRIS, by making licensing the first tier of its rating system. And beginning in 2014, the state will also require all programs receiving state or federal funds to participate.
We also noticed several categories of innovations. Below are some of the main categories we spotted, along with some examples from winning states.
Assessing quality with tools for observing interactions between teachers and children
- All of the winners mentioned that they already use or plan to use the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), and/or other similar tools to measure teacher-child interactions. The CLASS measures these interactions within three domains (emotional climate, classroom organization, and instructional support) along multiple dimensions, including quality of feedback and concept development, among others. (For more on observation tools and the importance of measuring teacher-child interactions, read our recent paper, Watching Teachers Work: Using Observation Tools to Promote Effective Teaching in the Early Years and Early Grades.)
Tying subsidies to highly rated programs
- Delaware plans to increase its childcare subsidy reimbursement rates for all participating programs that serve children living in poverty. The highest-rated programs, those achieving 5-stars, will be reimbursed at 100 percent of market rate. According to the state’s application, no other state reimburses at that rate.
- To encourage low-income families to choose higher quality centers for their children, Maryland is introducing a co-payment differential based on the center’s “check” level (which is the same as the star level in other states). At the same time, the state will also provide increased subsidy reimbursement rates for programs that attain a higher level of quality. If a family chooses a check-level-5 center, for example, their co-payment would be 75 percent less than if they chose a check-level-1 center, and the level 5 program would receive 44 percent above the base reimbursement rate.
- The North Carolina legislature enacted a law that prohibits children receiving a subsidy to be served by 1- or 2-star programs. This law takes effect July 1, 2012.
- Ohio will pilot the elimination of co-payments for publicly subsidized childcare when families choose a tier-2- or tier-3 program – programs considered high-quality under the current ratings structure. (Ohio currently has a three-tiered QRIS, but plans to expand to a five-tiered system as part of this grant.)The state will examine whether that additional financial support will help to drive families to attend highly rated programs. The state will use the results to inform future co-payment policies.
Easing administrative burdens
- Delaware is establishing a “card swipe” system, which will make it easy to register a child‘s attendance, assessment data and other important factors each day. According to the state’s application, this feature will also provide programs and state officials with greater visibility into data trends at a group level and offer parents a potential window into their child‘s learning outcomes.
- Minnesota developed an accelerated pathway for providers to achieve a higher rating. The pathway allows accredited childcare programs, Head Start, and public school-based prekindergarten programs (known as School Readiness programs) to complete an abbreviated application to attain a 4-star rating. The purpose is to alleviate burdens on programs that already meet high standards such as those required by the Office of Head Start and for NAYEC accreditation.
- North Carolina is part of a partnership with the federal government, Learning Laboratories L2, to explore opportunities to align monitoring requirements across federal and state early childhood systems. North Carolina will investigate requirements for childcare, its QRIS, the state-funded pre-K program and federal Head Start.
Creating professional-development and resource hubs
- Maryland intends to establish “Early Childhood Education Breakthrough Centers” in its Title I attendance areas. These centers will advise programs on quality improvement incentives, consult with programs on effective strategies for professional development, child wellness, family engagement and early learning, and provide coaching and mentoring. The breakthrough centers will mirror those established as part of Maryland’s Race to the Top – K-12 grant.
- The Massachusetts’s Department of Early Education and Care, in collaboration with the United Way of MassBay and Wheelock College, are developing a tiered QRIS overview as an online course available to all early educators. The 12-hour online course will be translated into three languages (Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian), explore the current science of brain development, explain the QRIS standards and the tools that measure process and structural quality indicators and cover how to apply this knowledge to early education.
- In Washington, programs funded by Head Start and the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) will be eligible to receive an annual incentive for becoming local training hubs in their community, providing leadership and support to local licensed childcare facilities participating in the state’s QRIS. Head Start/ECEAP programs may provide training on observation tools and other classroom assessments, family engagement and other quality practices. The state intends the training hubs to become “communities of practice,” where programs can share resources and improve community specific efforts.
There is one RTT-ELC winner that plans to do things a little differently. California will establish 16 regional tiered QRISs instead of a statewide system. This did not put the state at a disadvantage because officials explained in the application that each regional consortium would align their local system with the set of statewide program standards – a requirement of the competition. California plans to leave much of the QRIS design up to the local consortia, including incentives, the details of the rating system and the creation of tiers and benchmarks. The potential strength in California’s plan is that the state will expect the consortia to mentor and support each other as they work toward building sound systems that meet the needs of their respective communities.
Look for our next post in this series later this week, which will explore how states plan to evaluate these rating systems.
*For more on how QRISs work, see our 2009 issue brief as well as resources from the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Center for Law and Social Policy. Also be sure to visit our special page on the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge for continuing coverage.