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Rating Program Quality for Dual Language Learners in Early Ed


April 16, 2018
Janie T. Carnock
New America

In addition to tracking the enrollment of DLLs in public early care and education (ECE)—as explored in the previous blog of this series—state leaders should also collect data on the quality of ECE programs serving DLLs. Indeed, it is not enough to increase DLL access to ECE generally; DLLs need access to high-quality services in order to reap the full benefits that early learning offers.

Defining and measuring “quality” has historically proved a challenge to the ECE field as a whole. This difficulty has resulted in information gaps for policymakers, program leaders, and families seeking to select the best providers for their children, including child care centers, home-based care, Head Start, and state pre-K programs. For example, parents often struggle to accurately assess the quality of their children’s program, suggesting a need for what researchers at University of Virginia’s EdPolicyWorks call “informational interventions in ECE markets.”

In recent years, states have turned to quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) as a data-driven strategy along these lines. First implemented in Oklahoma in 1998, QRIS have spread substantially in the last two decades. From 2012-2016, the federal government incentivized states’ adoption of QRIS through Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge competitive grants, administered by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. Now nearly every state has such a system in place or is developing one, with 81,000 participating programs currently across the U.S. (see the map below from the QRIS National Learning Network).

With origins in the child care context, QRIS have evolved over the years into a “state-based framework to define and support high-quality ECE” more globally, according to the BUILD Initiative. QRIS is now a more unified, cross-sector approach; in addition to child care, many states include state pre-Ks and Head Start in these systems. Like rating systems for hotels or restaurants, QRIS evaluates providers on a continuum of multiple indicators (also referred to as standards) across various domains, such as health and safety, learning environment, staff qualifications, family partnership, and more, and then shares those results publicly. In addition to posting ratings online for families and the general public, leaders also use QRIS data to support quality improvement efforts with providers, such as through coaching, professional development opportunities, and other financial incentives.

As QRIS gain prominence and undergo refinement, leaders should consider how they incorporate data on program quality for DLLs in these systems. Julie Sugarman, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), explores this issue in depth in a recent report. She stresses that states should consider how they are explicitly incorporating DLLs’ needs into the indicators used by QRIS to evaluate providers. For example, as suggested by federal guidance and the Center For Law and Social Policy, DLL-specific criteria in QRIS might address whether ECE programs:

  • Establish a process to identify DLLs when initially enrolled;
  • Require program materials to reflect and value DLLs’ home cultures and languages;
  • Provide written plans for best practices in working with DLLs;
  • Communicate with families in their home language;
  • Support children’s home language in addition to English development;
  • Require professional development on culturally and linguistically responsive practices;
  • Require bilingual staff proficient in the language of the majority of DLLs in a program.