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Debi Mathias, Director, BUILD's QRIS National Learning NetworkDebi Mathias, Director
QRIS National Learning Network

There has been a great deal of discussion about the Science magazine article “Can Policy-Relevant Ratings of Pre-K Programs Predict Children's Learning?” This article provides a great opportunity to use our best thinking and create an informed debate around understanding research and the implications for improving protocols and interventions within the QRIS framework.

My initial concern was that the article might be mistaken as a call to dismantle systems building efforts in the states, rather than a piece about how to focus interventions within a system to achieve stated goals and outcomes. I also think it is important for us to understand the limitations of the research and regard the conclusions in a context of “building a case,” rather than a final affirmation of how to proceed.


The quality rating improvement system (QRIS) began as an intervention to improve early learning, specifically child care. It also serves as a process of incremental steps for programs to move up the quality continuum. The metamorphosis of subsidized child care from a program providing families support in moving from welfare to work into a school readiness initiative is well documented.

Early QRIS systems, out of necessity, addressed the structural and global quality of programs. Child care for low-income families experienced eroding financing and a crisis in the stability of the workforce based on economic, political and societal factors. The foundation of licensing was often a low bar and dealt mainly with important health and safety factors.

As states began to address school readiness and the quality of child care, the work was around improving baseline performance in child care programs and building small incremental steps to higher quality. This was especially true at the beginning levels of the QRIS. Approaches to monitoring and sources of evidence for quality included using available environmental and other structural assessments. This approach helped stabilize programs and identified capacity for further investment.

Louise Stoney, cofounder of the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance, tells us that tending to the initial program stability is critical as we consider next steps. Can teachers lacking qualifications, skills, and experience with young children provide differential instruction, scaffold learning, and create a consistent supportive interaction with children? Can teachers pressed to accomplish daily routines in settings with a high staff/child ratio provide individual learning opportunities for children? Are programs without strong management procedures and leadership threatening the bottom line, good investments for public funding?

In essence, it is akin to Maslow’s hierarchy and understanding that improving quality is a developmental process. This concept is illuminated in The Urban Institute’s article “Understanding Quality in Context.”

QRIS as a Framework

More recently, QRIS was re-envisioned as a framework to align standards and bring together the disparate programs within states including Head Start, pre-K, IDEA parts C and B 619 and Title I under a statewide early learning umbrella connected to the K-12 system. These programs often brought more rigorous performance standards and regulations to the table as a foundation. Embedded in this framework or systems alignment approach are interventions and strategies that can and should be improved as research and experience inform implementation and development.

States have typically identified multiple goals for their QRIS. One of the main goals is to identify tools and interventions, which will improve child outcomes, impact school readiness, and embed them into the QRIS framework – either in the standards or as a support to programs.

In addition to child outcomes, Martha Zaslow and Kathryn Tout identified other potential outcomes and supported the use of logic models to map the multiple activities and expected outcomes in QRIS: A Framework for Quality Improvement in Support of Multiple Outcomes during a plenary session at the QRIS National Meeting in August 2013:

  • Increasing the professionalization of the early childhood workforce (as articulated in the 2011 NAS workshop on the early childhood workforce).
  • Improving early child care and education as a system, for example, through alignment of quality standards across different types of ECCE; encouraging clear linkages between professional development and core competencies or early learning standards; and increasing reliance on accredited trainers and training.
  • Enhancing family outcomes, such as strengthening parents’ understanding of how to support their child’s development and improved work-family life balance.

Research Informing the Next Generation of QRIS

State leaders are taking the initiative to improve their ability to understand research methods, findings, and limitations; discuss implications for implementation; and glean promising practices. When is a research finding an initial source of evidence, and when is there a substantial research base that must be acted on?

Many state leaders have felt that observational tools, child assessments, and measurements were not appropriate for high stakes accountability and were not responsive to cultural context, specifically for Dual Language Learners. States are honing in on the questions to ask and answer, and focusing on the specific results they are seeing and seeking. The research opportunities and information will emerge in increasingly rapid waves.

A few interesting sources of information include Research Connections, National Institute for Early Education Research, and the Early Childhood Data Collaborative. Our due diligence can impact standards, improve implementation, focus accountability and results for children, enhance professional development, refine technical assistance and strengthen other supports developed with practitioners and stakeholders. Examples of the latest research include:

  1. The earlier cited Science article, “Can Policy-Relevant Ratings of Pre-K Programs Predict Children’s Learning?” T.J. Sabol, S.L. Soliday Hong, R.C. Pianta, M.R. Burchinal (2013). This piece evaluates whether higher QRIS ratings are likely to be associated with improved student learning outcomes in publicly-funded pre-K programs.
  2. Teachers’ Emotional Consistency Matters for Preschool Children, Curby & Brock (2013), examines teachers’ emotional support in classrooms and how it relates to children’s outcomes in preschool and kindergarten. 
  3. Understanding variation in classroom quality within early childhood centers: Evidence from Colorado’s quality rating and improvement system, Karoly, Zellman, & Perlman (2013), examines variability in quality across classrooms within early childhood centers and its implications for how quality rating systems capture center-level quality.
  4. Parent Engagement from Preschool through Grade 3: A Guide for Policymakers, Smith, Robbins, Stagman, Mathur (2013), highlights research on preschool through grade three parent engagement, promising models, opportunities for states to strengthen parent engagement, and recommendations for policymakers.
  5. Playmakers: How Great Principals Build and Lead Great Teams of Teachers from New Leaders shows us that looking to K-12 education can be informative to early childhood continuous quality improvement. This research synthesis and review shows how great principals amplified great teaching by working in three intersecting areas: 1) developing teachers, 2) managing talent, and 3) creating a great place to work.

Looking Ahead

There are also many resources, many ideas, and much research coming forward as we learned in the presentation by Kate Tarrant at the QRIS National Meeting. Her presentation was based on the soon to be released A Conceptual Model and Typology for Quality Improvement: A Look at the Evidence. (Tarrant, Boller, Schaak). This resource builds our understanding of which interventions are successful to reach the stated goals and how the complex array of interventions work together within systems.

It is now time for an emphasis at the state and national level for continuous quality improvement of the QRIS system. The evolution to the next generation of QRIS can better serve our families and communities if we continue a robust dialogue with an inquiry approach, use data to inform our process and engage within our communities to learn from each other and the research, cull the best ideas and implement a strong continuous quality improvement cycle at the system building level.

Showing 3 Comments

Jim van Horn 8 years ago

Good to see u in print! Good article.

Christine Behm 8 years ago

Great resources Debi, I will share the articles with our OCDELians. Thank you again

Junlei Li 8 years ago

The key take-away for us here in Pittsburgh (when the previous version of the Science article was published a few years ago) is that we need to find a way to directly identify, capture, and improve the "active ingredient" of teacher-student interaction - instead of having that important aspect buried within sub-scales on ECERS, or having a teacher's actual competency overshallowed by whether the teacher has the right degree. The QRIS, or more importantly, the professional development process embedded within it, need to reduce complexity and compliance elements and enable greater focus and more breathing room for the active ingredient that truly matter on the ground (teacher-child interaction), as this recent Science article and numerous studies have pointed to. Our effort, "Everyday Interactions Matter", a partnership between Fred Rogers Company and Center, and Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), supported by a grant from Heinz Endowment, is just a first step towards a continuous improvement of the QRIS system itself. We'd be happy to connect with anyone who has an interest and stake in this.

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