A new study has found that "quality rating and improvement systems" designed to strengthen child care and early learning offer a road map to improvement, but need a few tweaks to be truly effective.
The study, conducted by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Women's Law Center, interviewed nearly 50 child-care center directors from around the country to find out what they thought about QRIS and how they worked "on the ground."
Under QRIS, which are designed to improve families' access to high-quality child care, child-care centers and programs receive progressively higher ratings as they meet progressively higher quality standards.
"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," according to the study report, "A Count for Quality: Child Care Center Directors on Rating and Improvement Systems."
The use of QRIS is growing across the country. Twenty-two states employed statewide systems and another four used QRIS in one or more communities in 201O, according to the report. The authors say those numbers are expected increase because developing and implementing such systems is a central component of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, the federally funded competitive grant program.
Researchers found that states use different approaches to implementing the ratings and improvement systems, including determining their own standards for achieving higher quality ratings.
The study involved interviews with 48 child-care center directors in eight states with statewide systems: Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Florida's Palm Beach County was also included.
The directors represented a diverse group of centers serving a broad range of kids from varied economic backgrounds; some served infants through school-age kids, others offered pre-kindergarten and early intervention services. The centers' current QRIS ratings varied as well.
For QRIS to be effective, the child-care center directors agreed that these principles and practices were critical:
• good communication between everyone involved;
• incorporation of criteria that encourage positive child and caregiver interactions and the development of strong relationships with families;
• availability of outside funding and resources to help child-care centers achieve and maintain improvements; and
• review and reassessment of standards to make sure they are effective at improving care and meeting the needs of all kids.
"QRIS work best 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," the report said.
The report's authors recommended that state and local policymakers take the following steps:
• Set quality rating standards that appropriately reflect elements essential to the quality of care.
• Establish a quality assessment process that is reliable and responsive.
• Provide sufficient, sustained incentives and support for improving quality.
• Design QRIS to meet the needs of all children.
• Educate parents about QRIS and high-quality care.
• Align QRIS with other high-quality programs and components within the early childhood system.
Overall, the directors saw "the promise offered by QRIS" and were hopeful that the systems would eventually improve care and early learning, the report said. As a director from Oklahoma put it, QRIS offer a way that "...you can see where you've been, what you're at now, and where you're going."