Joan Lombardi, Ph.D.
Director, Early Opportunities LLC
Looking back, for so many years the debate about the quality of child care was static; either we talked about basic health and safety protections, or about higher quality standards that too often were out of reach of many child care programs. While pre-k and Head Start programs grew within a system that supported higher standards, too often child care programs seemed to be reduced to the most basic elements of quality. Driven by financing constraints, and the false dichotomy between care and education, these two different levels of quality standards seemed to be forever separate.
Then a bridge began to emerge-The Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS). From North Carolina, Oklahoma, Colorado, and then moving to states across the country- the outlines of a new way of thinking about standards appeared to take hold. The “star rating” system was a way to think about quality standards as a continuum. While the early days focused on “the rating,” over time the focus became more and more on “improvement.”
In chapter 8 of Rising to the Challenge, Debi Mathias chronicles the history, trends and innovations that have come to characterize this unique way of thinking about quality. In many ways, QRIS was the heart of the Early Learning Challenge as it was one way to assess a primary goal of a program: to increase the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged young children enrolled in high-quality early learning programs. This made the validity of the standards particularly important.
So what is the promise of QRIS and what are the challenges to meeting its full potential? As Debi so clearly points out, states have taken impressive steps forward. For example, states are:
- Bridging across child care, Head Start and pre-k to create a more coordinated set of standards;
- Developing new tools to track improvements;
- Putting a renewed focus on family engagement; and
- Implementing policies that support improvement.
The list of innovations goes on and on. QRIS has become a laboratory for continuous improvement. There is a vibrancy in the efforts and in the sharing and learning going on around the country as people come together to better define and improve the quality of care for children.
Yet there are critical challenges. Let me raise four. First, we have to continue to assure that the various levels of quality actually correspond to a continuum of better care – thus, every level must be reliable and valid. Second, we need more consistency in standards across the country. What a quality experience means for a child in one state should not vary based solely on geography. There need to be some guidelines or benchmarks set across the country. Third, QRIS emerged primarily as a voluntary system, yet it is time to assure that all programs serving young children are part of this new system so that parents can actually make more informed decisions about the care for their children. While nothing substitutes for getting to know the staff, one of the real advances of QRIS is the ability to provide parents with better information about programs in their community.
Finally, and most important of all, the financing of a system of quality improvement is the biggest challenge, particularly if programs are to attract and retain qualified staff, the backbone of a quality system. This important chapter includes valuable examples of state efforts to provide financial incentives. However, we know that lack of resources continues to plague the child care system; there is a shrinking number of children being served through federal child care assistance and new requirements that are long overdue but need financing to become a reality. If states can meet these and other challenges in the coming years, the innovations emerging in QRIS will be full of promise for the children and families served.