It’s in the Stars: More States are Using Quality Rating Systems for Pre-K

They Were Originally Developed For Child Care. Will They Work For Preschool?

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The growth in child care and preschool education, along with the need for families to be more informed about quality has spurred the adoption in several states of systems for rating program quality through the assignment of stars or other quality indicators consumers are used to seeing for other services like hotels and restaurants. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), 13 states are now using some sort of quality rating system (QRS) and 30 others are considering them. With numbers like that, it’s safe to say the move to QRS is a trend.

Proponents of QRS say they serve as a consumer guide by providing consumers of child care and preschool education with stars or other symbols denoting compliance with various quality parameters. If effectively implemented, proponents believe QRS can enlist informed consumers in the effort to nudge program quality upward while at the same time serving as a benchmark against which providers can measure and plan improvement. In many cases, QRS is used to inform funding decisions and achieve higher levels of quality. The additive effect of all this, say proponents, is an ever improving early childhood education system that can’t help but improve early childhood learning outcomes.

While there is anecdotal evidence that QRS is having positive effects on program quality and child outcomes, little research exists to back up that assertion. A study is now being conducted on Colorado’s Qualistar Early Learning QRS system to determine its effect on classroom quality and learning outcomes and those findings are eagerly awaited. Meanwhile, education experts like NIEER co-director Ellen Frede sound a note of caution. “Quality rating systems certainly have the potential to act as a positive force, but, depending on how they are structured and administered, they also have the potential for setting the quality bar too low or providing additional funding to better programs for what they are already doing without increasing quality on a broad scale. Research on implementation and effects is clearly needed,” she says.

That hasn’t stopped states from moving forward with star-based systems. In Virginia, where Governor Tim Kaine is pushing an aggressive early education agenda, a system for measuring and reporting quality has been incorporated into the pilot program that will serve as a springboard for eventually making state-funded preschool education available to all 4-year-olds in the state. Virginia is incorporating QRS into its plans for state-funded preschool education in the policy conception phase as opposed to developing a system later.

Framers of the pilot program say including a quality rating system right up front recognizes that achieving quality through regulation is important and that with increased public investment also comes increased accountability. According to Kathy Glazer, who heads the governor’s working group on early childhood initiatives, policymakers also hope QRS will exert a positive effect in governor Kaine’s efforts to raise third-grade reading scores, a benchmark he considers critical.

In most states with QRS systems, revenue flows according some type of tiered reimbursements or grants that are awarded based on some measure of quality. Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS system, for instance, offers grants that are calibrated by enrollment size and star level attained. Richard Fiene at Pennsylvania State University recently completed an evaluation of Keystone STARS and found that centers and home-based settings with higher STAR ratings had higher scores on the Environmental Rating Scales (ERS) and that the system is improving quality in child care centers. Classrooms with defined curricula and teachers with college degrees provided higher quality early education and care.

QRS systems vary by state. In Ohio, child care centers and preschools can attain a maximum of three stars. A one-star rating, for instance, can indicate a center has achieved better than the required licensing standard in staff-child ratio and at least one teacher has an early childhood certificate or degree and the staff completes at least 5 hours of additional child development training yearly. The highest rating (3 stars) indicates centers meet national standards for high-quality care, that teachers have degrees in early childhood education and both teachers and administrators have at least 15 hours of additional training yearly.

North Carolina, one of the early states to establish a star-based system, continues to lead the way. The state recently upgraded its 5-Star system to concentrate on program standards and staff education. The old system awarded points in three areas. One star was awarded simply for complying with licensing requirements. Anna Carter, who oversees licensing at the North Carolina Division of Child Development, says awarding stars for compliance in the old system amounted to “free points.” Providers who had achieved a 5-Star rating under the old system are now wrestling with how to keep their rating under the more stringent new system. Carter says inaugurating the new system has required a big communication effort with providers and parents. “How do you explain to parents that nothing has changed with the way you deliver care but today you’re a two-star facility and yesterday you had three stars?” Carter asks.

Most states make participation in their QRS programs voluntary, but in North Carolina and Tennessee it is part of the licensing process and therefore mandatory. Nearly all states with quality ratings include accreditation as a requisite for achieving the top levels. Anne Mitchell, president of NAEYC’s board and author of the United Way Guide on Quality Rating Systems, says the quest for accreditation actually gave rise to QRS systems in the first place. States recognized the huge gap between the national standards and their own regulatory requirements. As programs struggled to achieve national accreditation, many fell short and states saw the need to establish levels of achievement.

With so many states now exploring quality rankings, it makes sense to align the various accreditations more closely. Through a joint project, NAEYC, the National Association for Family Child Care and the National After School Association will collaborate to help states build accreditation benchmarks into their quality rating standards so providers don’t have to satisfy two separate sets of requirements.

North Carolina’s Carter and Virginia’s Glazer are among those who believe national accreditation isn’t necessary to demonstrate quality in state program. In fact, Carter says that even though legislative restrictions on using national accreditation as a licensing requirement have been lifted, her state is better off for having one agency oversee licensing and quality assessment. Her team in North Carolina has advised other states like Washington, Wyoming and Indiana on ways to raise program quality. She cautions against applying a cookiecutter approach to quality rating systems. “We were fortunate that we had other systems in place (Smart Start, a strong community college system, TEACH, and salary supplements) before we implemented our star system,” she explains. “Not all states have those supports in place, so they may be shooting themselves in the foot if they try to simply copy what other states have done.”