As quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS, QRS, and Tiered QRIS) take hold across states with support from federal agencies via the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge’s high-quality, accountable programs and Preschool Development Grant opportunities, the “system of systems” still remains under quiet scrutiny and undergoes continuous improvement itself. This is particularly true to better serve children with special needs and their families.
The intention of QRIS is to encourage a combination of inputs assumed to yield improved results for children, and provide the basis for distributing quality- or effort-based financial incentives to cash-strapped providers. A QRIS is often seen as an alternative to a more expensive, all-or-nothing quality designation through accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children or similar organizations. It also seeks to develop internal commitment by programs to continuous quality improvement, rather than building an externally forced scheme with underfunded mandates–a carrot rather than a stick approach. Most important, QRIS was predicated on the premise that as quality of services improved, children and families would be the primary beneficiaries.
Yet QRIS systems are not without questions or concerns. In “Assessing QRIS as a Change Agent (forthcoming special issue of Early Childhood Research Quarterly),” Stacie Goffin and W. Steven Barnett cite the paucity of empirical evidence to substantiate QRIS as an effective tool for improving program quality and child outcomes, and the field is playing “catch-up” with policy and practice to demonstrate QRIS’ validity and efficacy. Uneven buy-in to QRIS results from inconsistent standar
ds criteria and scoring rubrics across state systems; an emphasis on compliance-oriented inputs; insufficient attention to child outcome data; and uneven participation of stakeholders in QRIS design, including parents and public schools. The closing commentary in the special issue by Kim Boller and Kelly Maxwell raises several issues based on the research reviewed, including the lack of a national QRIS picture and implications for future research to address current gaps in understanding.
One of the most compelling arguments for establishing a QRIS is to provide parents seeking early childhood services with an easy, trustworthy method for identifying a quality program; a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” of sorts. Finding a space in a high quality program is tough enough for most families; quality often competes with other factors influencing parental choice, such as location, program schedule, and cost. This difficulty is exacerbated for hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities. There is a golden opportunity for QRIS to assist all parents in making informed decisions about where and with whom their young children should spend their days away from home, particularly children with special needs.
As reported in a new CEELO FastFact reviewing 42 state QRIS systems, 20 states make some provisions for children with special needs. Many provisions reflect open enrollment policies and collaborative relationships with outside professionals to deliver or reinforce specialized services. Seldom do QRIS criteria reflect specialized staff knowledge, qualifications, or skills to address inclusion deeply, and often opportunities to incorporate elements of DEC/CEC’s Recommended Practices such as instruction, environment, interaction, and family are missed.
Several states are making headway in this area. In Georgia’s Bright from the Start: Department of Early Care and Learning, the Quality Rated system eventually plans programs to attach a designation of “I” (for inclusion) indicating it meets additional criteria for effectively serving children with disabilities. One such requirement is successfully completing the Inclusive Classroom Profile (ICP), a rating scale developed at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute specifically measuring inclusion, with results verified during an unannounced visit by a regional inclusion coordinator. As the first state to offer universal pre-K, Georgia is again demonstrating leadership in early education.
ExceleRate Illinois also stands out for its plans to establish an Award of Excellence (AOE) dedicated to Inclusion of Children with Special Needs. Comprehensive indicators in the accompanying Illinois Inclusion Guidelines Checklist enable programs to conduct a self-assessment to prepare for peer review and on-site verification. This designation will allow parents to identify programs taking inclusion to a higher standard of quality. Parents will be able to contact their Resource and Referral agency to easily locate a program well-suited to their child’s abilities and needs.
Other states are also considering inclusion in their QRIS designs, utilizing the leadership and resources of the National Early Childhood Inclusion Institute, Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, Early Learning Challenge Technical Assistance Center, BUILD Initiative, QRIS National Learning Network, and CEELO. The recently launched online QRIS Compendium, developed by BUILD and Child Trends, provides an excellent searchable database for strengthening QRIS.
QRIS designs are evolving quickly in the spirit of continuous improvement, and in response to emerging research. Inclusion is an important component of a quality early education program, and should be recognized in a meaningful, visible way for parents and providers. Adding a second “I” to QRIS represents an opportunity to demonstrate that high quality programs serving “all children” really means all children- no exceptions, no excuses.
–Jim Squires, NIEER/CEELO Research Fellow