By Anne Mitchell
President of Early Childhood Research and Co-Founder of the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance
The BUILD Initiative paper, Quality Rating and Improvement Systems: Stakeholder Theories of Change and Models of Practice, by Diane Schilder and Iheoma Iruka with Harriet Dichter and Debi Mathias captures the changing context and the factors influencing QRIS. The recommendations it offers are beyond reproach, with each one providing a concept worthy of its own focus. But just as a QRIS is a framework containing various inter-related elements, so are the paper’s recommendations inter-related, with the second recommendation in particular–focus on financing--being an integral part of all the others. The reason for this is obvious: a state can aspire to the highest level of quality in each of the elements of a QRIS, but if it isn’t able to fund it, the goal will not be reached.
The paper also highlights the fact that QRIS must be viewed as a big-tent movement toward quality improvement with many examples under the tent of how things can be done, as the three practice models reveal. It is because we are 50 states with 50 contexts that it will take a long time for us all to find our place in the tent. While QRIS have been in existence for 25 years, when seen as a movement, we understand that this is just a fraction of the amount of time it will take for them to fully take root across the country. But no matter the time it takes, as the paper clearly delineates, states will likely be informed by the same fundamental guidelines to get there.
High-Quality QRIS: You Can Get There from Here
Streamlining QRIS Models
As QRIS have evolved, they have come to be seen as a useful framework. But we have to avoid attaching to the QRIS everything we’ve always wanted early childhood programs to do because doing so weighs them down. As the paper notes in its first recommendation, it is essential that we create streamlined QRIS models. And the focus of the models needs to be squarely on what really matters – high quality, well-financed. For example, teacher-student ratios and group size are key to high quality but they come at a cost, and even more so when compensation is factored in. In addition, we need to take a step back and see early childhood programs as a huge market in which all families who want programs and need childcare are participating. We must consider that many families need financial support to be able to get the best programs for their children, as very few families have enough resources to afford really high-quality programs. And, further, while it’s essential to consider financing in relation to the subsidy system, if the conversation ends there, middle class families and the programs that serve them are going to lose out.
Continuous Quality Improvement
As the authors indicate, If we really want improvements to the early childhood field, then the field must understand Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) - how to look at a program, how to use assessments, how to create quality improvement plans, and how to use the practices and structure of programs to implement them. But the key to CQI - to really enacting quality – are the people in the workplace. If we aren’t paying them enough to inspire them to do a good job, feel valued, and feel part of a team that’s working to make a place the best it can be for children and families, then we are missing the boat.
The fact is, there is ample evidence, over many decades, that in any given year, preschool teachers and child care workers get paid the same fraction of what kindergarten teachers get paid, obviously with childcare workers at a lower percent than preschool teachers. We’ve made practically zero progress in changing that. But change it must if we want to improve quality.
Unify Sectors of Early Education and Care
I agree with the recommendation to use QRIS to unify the sectors of early education and care but we must acknowledge that this is a question of both design and finance: if you design a QRIS so that it is meant to include Head Start programs, pre-k programs, public schools, and for-profit and non-profit community-based programs, then you’re including a set of funding streams for pre-k and Head Start that otherwise are outside the QRIS; by including these programs their funding streams can be brought into supporting the QRIS. Public schools, for example, make big investments in professional development and those funds can be realigned to support progress in the QRIS. So, in contemplating design, we need to ask how these standards and systems fit together but repurposing their financing also needs to be considered.
Implementing a system that is equitable for all children is of paramount importance. Paying attention to race culture and language is essential in QRIS policy and implementation – in standards, in leadership, in access to supports to increase qualifications and compensation. We need a better balance among all aspects of equity. Equity issues, too, need to be viewed through an economic lens. Most QRIS are focused on low-income families, reaching families using subsidies. However, our childcare subsidy systems reach about 20% of the families that are eligible for them. Somebody is serving the other 80% of families who can’t afford childcare but don’t have a subsidy -- and these are often low-quality, low- and moderate-cost programs. Subsidy money is what states have to manipulate but we have to think bigger than that. As Phil Sirinides, an expert in the application of quantitative research methods observed in an article on this topic, over time, an expanding gap can be seen in the price between high and low quality. This may be an indication of market separation leading to two different child care markets: one that is high-cost high quality and another that is low-cost low quality. Sirinides does not see this as a positive. Subsidy policy is important but if we don’t see the bigger picture, we will leave out huge swaths of needy families.
The Choice: Get What We Pay For or Get What We Invest
There really is only one path to take because short-shrifting our children is not an option any of us embraces. We must invest not only in terms of money but also in the strong connection between the components of each QRIS model and the model's outcomes. The aspiration to improve child outcomes is widespread in the states, which highlights the fact that the finance piece of QRIS really matters. With compensation being so important to quality, there is no alternative but to aim for sufficient funding. The focus needs to be on figuring out where the money will come from. BUILD’s QRIS think tank has led to a better understanding of the need to fund the QRIS itself – assessment and rating, professional development, administration, and a data system. Further focus is needed on how to repurpose investments already being made, e.g. how to meaningfully use the childcare resource and referral system that we’ve been investing in for years and ensure a laser-like focus from every part of the system on implementing the QRIS. We need meaningful estimates of the true total cost of a quality system of ECE that families can afford and a long-term financing plan. Let’s focus both on the lowest income families (the 20% now served as well as the 80% who need to be in a higher quality program than they can afford) and how we are going to help them. Maybe we need to focus simultaneously on compensation equity for the workforce and affordability for families as we design finance plans. The magnitude of the investment is not daunting if we look at it over a very long period of time. It’s an issue we will solve in closer to 50 years than ten. We shouldn’t let this fact slow us down. Remember, it took almost 100 years to establish a fully functioning K-12 education system in the US. We just need to match our expenditures with our expectations.
 Above-mentioned statement is according to the author’s own calculations and research, which is not yet published.