BUILDing Strong Foundations

Three Ways States Can Improve the Quality of Early Childhood Programs

6/20/2017 12:00:00 AM
Posted by: Build Initiative

Simon Workman, Associate Director, Early Childhood Policy, Center for American Progress

The need for high-quality early childhood education has never been greater. Decades of research have demonstrated the short- and long-term benefits for children and society of attending a high-quality program. Unfortunately, these programs are out of reach for many families. Tuition rates rival or exceed the cost of college, and high-quality child care spaces are so limited that many families find themselves in “child care deserts.”  With federal initiatives to support high-quality programs increasingly unlikely under the current administration and Congress, states must pick up the baton and act to increase access to quality early childhood education for all children.

Almost every state has a Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS, designed to measure and improve the quality of early childhood programs and inform parents and the community about program quality. QRIS offer a promising framework to increase the number of high-quality programs, but they are often underutilized.  According to a Center for American Progress analysis of data reported in the QRIS Compendium, many QRIS suffer from low participation, with 17 QRIS reporting that less than 50 percent of licensed child care centers participate and 23 QRIS reporting that less than 50 percent of family child care providers participate. Among programs that do participate, only a small number have received the highest quality rating.

There are several reasons for low participation, but key among them is a lack of sufficient funding to support the goals of QRIS. QRIS can only truly be effective when they are part of a well-funded early childhood system and when the financial supports and rewards that programs can receive at the higher levels of quality are sufficient to cover the true costs of operating a high-quality program. 

For too many programs, there is little incentive to participate. Child care subsidy rates, even with tiered reimbursement, don’t cover the cost of high-quality, and one-time financial rewards or bonuses for achieving a higher quality level, while welcome, are insufficient to increase teacher compensation or to make structural changes to a program.

Fortunately, states have the power to improve their QRIS. Here are three ways states can ensure their QRIS is focused on quality improvement and adequately supports providers to achieve and maintain high quality:

  1. Focus on the data: Collecting and using comprehensive data is key to a successful QRIS. States need to have a full picture of their early childhood landscape to identify areas with the greatest need for quality improvement supports. States can modify workforce registries and market rate surveys to gather comprehensive data from providers and ensure they are linked to QRIS data and demographic data.  A comprehensive data system can be an invaluable tool for assessing provider and family needs and ensuring quality improvement supports are tailored to meet the multiple needs that exist across programs.
  2. Make the best use of limited resources: Data from the QRIS Compendium shows that almost half of all QRIS make technical assistance supports broadly available to all providers. While this provides equal opportunity, in a time of tight budgets this can result in inefficient use of limited resources, where already high-performing programs get access to critical supports, like coaching, at the same level as lower-performing programs. States can use data to target key quality improvement resources where they are most needed, for example, targeting programs serving low-income communities, or in areas of the state where no high-quality programs currently exist. By collecting and analyzing data and then targeting resources where they can be most impactful, states can ensure they are getting the most bang for their buck when investing in quality improvement supports.
  3. Be realistic about the cost of quality: While nearly two thirds of QRIS offer some sort of financial incentives to participating providers, they are often insufficient to cover the costs of operating a high-quality program. As a result, QRIS financial awards are used to make small material purchases or to boost moral through staff recognition events. While these are worthwhile uses of funds, they cannot make significant and lasting impacts on the quality level of a program. States should analyze the cost of operating a high-quality program that meets their QRIS standards, and then re-design QRIS financial incentives - including tiered reimbursement - to ensure they are sufficient to achieve their purpose. 
Ultimately, state early childhood systems need additional public investments to adequately support high-quality programs. Subsidy rates are insufficient to cover the cost of quality, and parents cannot afford to pay higher tuition rates. Early childhood advocates should continue to push policymakers to prioritize investments in the early years and promote QRIS as a mechanism by which programs can be held accountable for increased public funding. 

In the meantime, state child care and QRIS administrators must ensure quality improvement is central to the design of their QRIS. While program rating and parent education is important, resources should primarily be spent on efforts to improve quality, including supporting the workforce. Administrators should collect and analyze data and use it to design a suite of supports that can have the most impact on provider quality.

With sufficient investment and a clear focus on the core goal of improving quality, QRIS offer a promising framework to provide this support and to ultimately increase access to high-quality programs for all children.   

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