I've been writing this week about some of my concerns about the Early Learning Challenge program, many of which I laid out in this article.
But there's one big concern I wasn't able to talk about due to space considerations--the fear that the Quality Rating and Improvement Systems that the program requires states to establish might not only fail to improve child learning outcomes, but actually impede the creation of high-quality programs.
How's that? QRIS are designed to create a common set of quality standards across all early learning and development programs in a state, including child care, pre-k, and Head Start programs. In theory, the idea of one common set of quality standards for all early learning providers is appealing. But in practice, most of the standards in existing state QRIS were designed with an eye towards the current child care market, where average quality is low. As a result, they often do little or nothing to drive programs at the higher end of the quality spectrum to deliver the rich instructional experiences needed to close achievement gaps for low-income children.
Further, standards that are designed with a view toward setting floors that improve quality of weaker providers can actually hurt higher quality programs. Consider an analogy from writing: When elementary school students learn the "5 paragraph essay" format, it gives them a structure that improves their ability to write coherent and well-reasoned reports. But requiring a New Yorker caliber writer to use that same format would dramatically reduce the quality of his or her writing. In the same way, requirements that can boost the quality of weaker early childhood programs can actually create constraints that limit the ability of the highest quality providers to serve children effectively. Moreover, because QRIS quality standards reflect current wisdom about what makes for effective early childhood programs, they may unwittingly create barriers to future innovations that would enable us to more efficiently or effectively serve children.
These may sound like superfluous worries when we know that many children are currently attending low-quality child care, but they are real costs worth taking into account in developing and embracing QRIS. Some states, such as Washington, are innovating in the design of their QRIS in ways that place more of the focus on child learning outcomes and reduce the focus on inputs. But as states continue to move forward with these systems, we need to be very careful that we are not imposing unrecognized costs or setting a ceiling below the level needed to ensure quality instruction that drives the greatest learning improvements for children.