Guest post by Louise Stoney
Quality standards have meaning only when compliance with them results in improved practice among a significant percentage of programs and practitioners. Results come from a combination of factors -- standards that focus on what matters most, programs that have the desire and resources needed to improve, and access to the technical assistance, training and coaching needed to improve quality. State Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) include a technical assistance (TA) component aimed at strengthening ECE program capacity to meet standards. Today's blog will explore the challenges and opportunities of QRIS-related technical assistance.
It is important to be clear about the relationship between TA and the QRIS standards. In most states, TA or coaching is designed to prepare ECE programs for a QRIS rating, facilitate the rating process, or improve the rating. It is not surprising, then, that TA staff typically spend most of their time with paperwork and checklists: helping programs assemble the QRIS documentation package or prepare for ERS observations-- because that's what the QRIS requires. A recent NCCP report on QRIS coaching found that most TA providers do not focus on "early learning related to school readiness," model a teaching strategy or intentionally observe staff practicing a teaching strategy. Why not? Because in most states excellent teaching won't necessarily boost a QRIS score, and complying with every detailed requirement in an ERS assessment frequently will. In other words, if we want our TA providers to focus on strengthening early learning then we need to re-think our QRIS standards and required documentation. And as I mentioned in my previous blog, I do not believe the answer is adding more requirements but rather challenging ourselves to winnow requirements down to a few standards that are more directly related to reflective practice and child learning and development.
Depending on how it is structured, the cost of QRIS-related TA can be unsustainably high. Without strategic thinking regarding how resources are spent, it is a cost that can grow exponentially as the QRIS grows. Sometimes money is well spent, regardless of the high cost, but in this case I think it is essential to recognize that even the best TA will be lost on an ECE program that does not have the desire, leadership and/or resources needed to improve or maintain improvements over time.
In addition to being somewhat defined by QRIS standards, TA costs are also related to scope, dosage, modality and participation level. States with QRIS that automatically assign every participant a coach, take a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to TA, and link coaching to a program improvement plan with too much focus on documentation are likely to have significant TA costs. Those who make TA available 'on demand', streamline standards and documentation, assume that many providers can complete their own portfolio, or who target TA to time-limited contractual agreements focused on specific outcomes are likely to have more manageable TA costs. Strategic use of web-based tools can also lower TA costs.
Lately I've been reading everything I can get my hands on regarding technical assistance and coaching to improve ECE program quality, in an effort to more fully understand how to spend limited resources. The more I read, the more questions I have. Quite frankly, it is frustrating that the field is not further along in answering key questions such as what makes TA assistance effective or how much support is needed, by whom, and with what focus. Some ECE leaders are convinced that every QRIS participant must receive TA and that all TA services must follow a consistent protocol or approach. Others feel the focus should be on "intelligent judgment", empowering program leaders to keep the focus on reflective practice and to leverage the financial resources to secure a qualified workforce. Pennsylvania--which has a unique approach to QRIS technical assistance and has introduced a "stickiness factor" measurement to evaluate results--offers some helpful lessons. Indeed, there are no easy answers, but I think it is important to ask --and seek to answer-the following questions:
- Can we identify the areas where coaching has the greatest benefit (e.g. teaching practices) and those where programs are more likely to succeed on their own without coaching (e.g. health and safety practices)?
- Can we identify which ECE programs are most likely to benefit from TA and which do not have the institutional capacity or resources to improve?
- How can we most effectively help ECE programs with little or no institutional capacity?
- What about issues of race, class, culture? Or accommodations made to address a child's disability or the needs of English Language Learners? TA providers and coaches must understand how these issues uniquely influence program structure, philosophy and teaching practices.
- How should we hold TA providers and coaches accountable? Some states focus on inputs (e.g. TA provider educational credentials or a specific coaching curriculum) while others focus on results (e.g. did the TA actually improve quality?) What do we know about effective accountability in this context?
- How should TA link to professional preparation? What changes are needed in Institutions of Higher Education?
Perhaps the most perplexing issue, in my view, is the challenge posed by ECE programs that simply do not have the resources they need to provide high-quality early learning opportunities, including well-qualified teachers. If we spend our limited dollars to craft QRIS, and linked TA systems, without helping ECE programs secure the ongoing revenues they need to attain and maintain a high quality program, are we setting the stage for failure over the long haul? I will discuss this issue in more detail in my next, and final, post.