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Crafting QRIS Standards That Work Across Sectors

Guest post by Louise Stoney.

In my previous post I described QRIS as a powerful tool for early care and education (ECE) system reform if it is used as a framework for co-creating a new, cross-sector structure for quality, accountability and finance. Let's look more closely at what that statement means and how it might look in various states.

The ECE system has multiple funders, regulatory agencies and planning entities, and each typically has its own set of standards and requirements. However, if one maps the program and practitioner and child standards from multiple places - state child care licensing, funding standards from CCDF or PreK, Head Start performance standards, accreditation, and so forth - it becomes clear that the systems include many common elements. If you are willing to sift through the details, carefully assess the research, and boil it down to the most essential ingredients (e.g. factors such as teacher quality, class size, child assessments that are used to inform reflective practice, etc.) you can actually create a pathway for accountability and quality improvement that makes sense out of all these systems.

Some folks might challenge this notion, and underscore that what programs need to do at the lower end of a QRIS is fundamentally different from what they need to do at the higher end. But that difference is typically in scope, scale or complexity of implementation, not in the core elements that yield quality. For example, we know that teacher quality is a key element. At the lower star levels this could mean making sure that program administrators and classroom teachers are aware of the importance of reflective practice and intentional teaching even if they haven't mastered these skills yet. As a program moves up the star levels, teachers would be expected to engage in progressively deeper steps focused on interactions, reflective practice and intentional teaching. For example, at Star 2 teachers would learn more about child development and learn to observe children's behavior and record those observations. At Star 3 they might complete training on a teacher observation instrument like CLASS or FFT; at Star 4 they might begin using the instrument and draw up an intentional improvement plan, working, for example, with a coach to improve practice. At Star 5 they are proficient. This is just one example. Clearly other measures can and should be used. I am not suggesting that I know what the right standards are. My point is that we need to figure this out, and acknowledge that creating a structure that can help all ECE settings move in the same direction is hugely important.

I fully understand that what I am suggesting is difficult to implement. Each of the current ECE 'silos' (e.g. child care, Head Start, PreK, early intervention/preschool special education) appears, at first blush, to have its own unique philosophy. All too often the focus is on what keeps the systems apart, what is different among them, rather than what they have in common or what strategies can keep them moving in the same direction. And my worry is that as we build cross-sector QRIS the result will be a process of adding up the myriad requirements (to satisfy each silo) rather than sifting through them all to identify the few elements that are most powerful and most appropriately shared. I see this happening already. As states seek to extend QRIS to include programs that receive Head Start or state PreK funding they are adding new standards, child or classroom assessments or checklists but they aren't taking anything away. So the list of compliance requirements just gets longer, more complex, and more expensive to monitor. Is this necessary? To what extent are we making longer lists of requirements simply because we are afraid to slay some sacred cows or challenge ourselves to stick to a few measures that are most likely to produce results?

Once again, crafting program and practitioner standards focused on effective practice is a place where common needs, and collaborative work, can and should lead. We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged down into the "care" vs. "education" debate or the "regulate facilities" vs. "regulate teachers" quagmire. While each approach has merits, the best answers are likely beyond the dominance of one approach or the other. Effective practice requires reflection, focus, skilled leadership--qualities that include both programs and practitioners, observation and flexibility and that often escape simple measures. To be honest, no one has it right yet. Every ECE sector struggles to effectively measure results. Determining the 'right' set of requirements will require careful thinking by many minds. So let's get to work and figure it out together. Let's embed those best practice standards in QRIS for ALL settings at the higher star levels. And then let's identify the pathway to get there and create 'steps' that we embed in each of the stair steps. To me, that's the real work.

Bottom line--there is something positive that each partner can bring to the table. We need a 'new wave' of QRIS standards that are co-created, and designed to advance in depth and complexity so that they can simultaneously apply to a wide range of ECE settings. You may think this is a pipe dream, but I don't. In my recent reading and analysis of RTT-ELC I saw clear evidence that states are 'getting it' with regard to this new approach to QRIS.

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