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Deputy Assistant Secretary and Inter-Departmental Liaison for Early Childhood Development for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesLinda K. Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Inter-Departmental Liaison for Early Childhood Development
Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Those who know me know that I strongly believe in continuous quality improvement (CQI).

What did we do? What did we learn? How can we use what we now know to make it even better?

Continuous quality improvement is about creating an environment in which management and workers strive to create constantly improving quality. It’s a process to ensure that programs are systematically and intentionally improving services and increasing positive outcomes for the children/families they serve. It’s a cyclical, data-driven process. It is proactive, not reactive. It is an environment that uses collected data to makes positive changes – even when things are going well – rather than waiting for something to go wrong and then fixing it.

It is with a continuous quality improvement lens that quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) began just over a decade ago! In the research environment, that makes QRIS a really young, new tool for early education settings.

You may have seen the research recently published in Science. We appreciate that QRIS is beginning to be looked at by researchers, and we at the federal level are continuing to work with states and other partners to continually improve QRIS – including which measures of quality help us know what really works to get kids ready for school. It is significant to note that the study focused on four-year-old children in public pre-K programs. As the authors note, this limitation is important because child care programs that are part of a QRIS system are often a more diverse set of settings – including children from birth to 12 years old in both public and private settings.

Fortunately, the Administration has been working on many fronts to help more children – especially low–income children – access high quality early learning settings. Even more importantly, we have not been doing this alone but with our partners across the country from states like Oklahoma and North Carolina who developed the QRIS tool for their states 15 years ago to Washington that has just implemented a very comprehensive evidence-based system of quality improvement. Today, almost every state is working on its quality rating and improvement system.

It’s important, however, for us to be clear about the role we expect QRIS to play. QRIS is not a specific intervention – like a specific curriculum or program model. Instead, it’s a way of measuring quality and then targeting training, funding, and other supports to help the continuous improvement process. The QRIS is a framework or umbrella for multiple efforts to support quality in a systemic way. And it is going to need to be refined as we learn more – the goal of a continuous quality improvement process.

Early on, we recognized that QRIS was an asset for:

  • Greater consumer awareness of quality programs
  • Increasing resources to help programs improve and sustain higher quality and
  • Creating system-wide improvements in the quality of all programs, including all settings and auspices and ages of children served.

That said, it’s important that the measures of quality used in the QRIS are the ones that really distinguish which programs are going to have a strong positive effect on children – and which need more support to be able to achieve that goal. The study published in Science demonstrated that measures commonly used weren’t shown to correlate to better outcomes.

For those of us working in the field of early childhood development, that finding is not a big surprise. The QRIS systems developed in the last decade relied on measures of quality we had at the time – including collecting information on teacher-child ratio, teacher’s education, and a widely used tool for measuring the learning environment (Environment Rating Scales). Those were all important to the continuous quality improvement process, but not the whole story.

Recent research has shown that the teacher-child interactions are more predictive of child outcomes than some of the other characteristics. Researchers, program designers, and practitioners have been working hard to take this research into account and to develop better measures of teacher-child interaction. The study in Science found that one of these measures of interactions, the CLASS, was more highly correlated with outcomes than other measures. Every study allows us to learn more and to continue to improve.

Although teacher-child interactions are an essential component of program quality, we also want to measure and track other classroom features. For example, research has shown that maintaining lower teacher-child ratio make it more likely that teachers will have high quality interactions with children – but don’t guarantee it. So, most programs are moving to an approach that combines factors like teacher education and ratios with observations of classroom interactions. These lessons are part of the continuous improvement process.

We all know that we will continue to improve as we evolve. ACF is using emerging research in a number of ways.

  • We added CLASS assessments to our Head Start training and monitoring. Head Start is truly the Nation’s laboratory, and we expect that child care, pre-K, and QRIS designers will learn from Head Start’s experience with CLASS.
  • The Race to the Top – Early learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program will help states build the most effective systems possible. RTT-ELC states are required to validate their QRIS – meaning they have to show that it is built on the latest research.
  • In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Office of Child Care (OCC) included evaluation of quality activities, such as QRIS, as part of its recommend quality framework.

The goal of the President’s Early Learning Initiative is to expand access to high-quality preschool to every child in America. As part of that effort, the President wants Congress to invest in a continuum of high-quality early learning for a child – beginning at birth and continuing to age five. We know that in order to implement this plan, there are additional targeted outcomes that are part of QRIS in addition to the goal of improving child outcomes that are also important:

  • Increasing the professionalism of the early childhood workforce through systems of supports.
  • Improving early childhood care and education as a system through alignment of quality standards across different types, encouraging clear linkages between professional development and core competencies and increasing reliance on accredited trainers and training.
  • Enhanced family outcomes such as strengthened understanding how to support a child’s development.

Thank goodness we will continue to learn more. Our research office has a consortium of early childhood quality researchers (called INQUIRE) that convenes researchers, policymakers, designers, and implementers of QRIS to share lessons learned from early implementers – and to access the research evidence that inform both redesign and new design of QRIS in states and localities.

The Administration is aligning early care and education programs and raising the bar on quality so that more low-income children have access to high quality early education. While there is much work to be done, states are strong partners in these efforts. We look forward to sharing our work, lessons learned, research and continuous quality improvement. We hope you will too.

For more information on the Office of Early Childhood Development, please visit our website.

Ms. Smith was a featured speaker at the BUILD Initiative’s summer 2013 Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) National Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Showing 1 Comment

Richard Winefield 8 years ago

We at BANANAS (an agency focused on early care and learning in Oakland, CA), are concerned that QRIS might reflect what is already happening in K-12, with the urgency to measure overriding the best interests of children, and teachers being assessed on their students' test scores. Metrics-driven initiatives use measures and tests that may be convenient or easily collected, but might not be true measures of success for children (i.e. the research in Science regarding QRIS). It may be difficult to measure the warmth and affection between a provider and a child, but that "metric" is more important than other, easy-to-measure success-indicators.

Dr. Smith, thank you for your willingness to question assumptions, and your focus on the best interests of the children we serve.

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