States View Teacher Quality as Pre-K Rating Factor
The progress is hard even for Laura J. Johns to believe.
In a matter of months, her home state of Georgia has gone from having a patchwork of struggling day-care centers and preschools staffed by low-paid practitioners to what the state early education official sees as an aggressive push to professionalize the field.
The quality of the teaching force is a key piece of Georgia's effort, which has gained momentum because of proactive lawmakers, an infusion of $6.5 million for teacher incentives from state government and foundations, and a statewide rating system for early education programs, said Ms. Johns, the director of Quality Initiative for the state's Department of Early Care and Learning.
The state's rating system for preschool operations "is going gangbusters," Ms. Johns said, adding that 150 programs have been rated in the past year or so and that 1,200 more are ramping up to do so. "We're in a great position to be a model for the country."
Georgia may be ahead of the competition in terms of its pace, but it isn't alone in its effort. More than 13,000 early-childhood programs in 20 states have now been rated by what's known as a Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS. Nearly every other state is either starting to implement or is developing its own program, said Robert Pianta, who studies QRIS systems and is the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as well as the director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning there.
The aim, he said, is to improve the quality of early-childhood education while providing an easy-to-understand evaluation of day-care and preschool programs for the consumers who use them.
While states vary in the way they assess programs for ratings, he said, most offer some financial incentive—provided by the state or federal government or, in some cases, foundations—for good quality, including teachers' educational advancement.
"The concept is an A," Mr. Pianta said. "It really matters what teachers are doing with kids in classrooms."
That said, he's one of many national sources who criticize the fact that the ratings systems don't yet tie teacher performance to student output in many states. Others say the systems don't accurately depict what's happening in classrooms and are hard for consumers to interpret.
Implementation, Mr. Pianta said, "is more of a C right now with a lot of room for improvements."
The QRIS concept dates back more than a decade to North Carolina and Oklahoma, said Louise Stoney, the co-founder of the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance, an online advocacy and information group that focuses on the complexities of early education funding.
"North Carolina and Oklahoma had really low standards for quality for licensing, and they wanted to improve early-childhood education but needed something that was voluntary," Ms. Stoney said.
Evaluators began looking at day-care programs and preschools to assess a host of variables including administrative structures, basic child health and safety, availability and use of teaching materials, instructor licensure and education levels, and student-to-teacher ratios, she said.
Variation Across the Nation
Meanwhile, other states with similar goals began setting up their own programs. Some awarded points for achievement in each category; others required programs to perform sufficiently on certain aspects before allowing them to be assessed on others.
Nearly all states have or are developing Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, or QRIS, to evaluate preschools.
- Rating systems are seen as a way to give the public a handle on the quality of early education programs, day-care centers, and other operations for young children that can vary widely in their makeup and aims.
- Nearly every state has or is developing a QRIS program.
- To date, more than 13,000 early education centers in 20 states have been QRIS-rated.
- Ratings may be based on a complex set of factors that include instructor licensure and education levels, student-to-teacher ratios, administrative structures, basic child health and safety, and availability and use of teaching materials.
- Only states with a QRIS in place or already under development were eligible to compete for a federal Early Learning Challenge Grant under the Race to the Top program.
Programs were given simple star ratings, with the belief that parents would use them to make choices about early-childhood programs, Ms. Stoney said. The hope was that parents would pick programs with higher quality ratings, pushing competitors to improve.
Most states tied financial gains to the QRIS, awarding funding and sometimes materials for improvement to programs, directors, or teachers in the form of cash bonuses or tax incentives. Some states offered tax write-offs to individuals and businesses that donated toward such programs.
In 2011, the federal government deemed having a QRIS so important that it provided an incentive to states for such programs by offering money via Race to the Top Early Challenge Grants only to those with such systems in place or under development. The aim of the grants—about $630 million of which has been awarded nationally so far—was to increase the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged children in high-quality early-childhood programs.
"The states that have been at this for five or 10 years … are showing a constant uptick" in general quality, said Mark P. Branaugh, the CEO of the San Francisco-based Branaugh Information Group, which makes software for the QRIS and inputs the data for states.
Pennsylvania has had a QRIS for 11 years, and administrators there back up Mr. Branaugh's conclusion with their own state data.
"In 2011 and 2012, the percentage of pre-K students with proficiency in age-appropriate skills in language and math and social skills has more than doubled from the beginning of the year to the end of the year in our … three- and four-star programs," said Barbara Minzenberg, the deputy secretary of the office of Child Development and Early Learning for the Keystone State. The number of students rose from one in three at the start of the 2011-12 school year to two in three at the end, she noted.
She attributes such gains to what the state considers to be a significant increase in the scores of educators over a seven-year period on its own assessments, which are based on a complex formula.
"It's difficult to move that needle," Ms. Minzenberg said.
Currently, 63 percent of Pennsylvania's 8,500 early-childhood- education programs participate in the voluntary system, she said. Programs are evaluated based on two themes—staff qualifications and learning programs.
Louisiana's 6-year-old program uses a point system and has had, by its own account, success in improving teacher quality.
The state has done this by encouraging members of the early education workforce to increase their educational attainment through tax incentives. Directors and teachers who work at a program with two or more stars and advance their education are rewarded with anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 via a tax credit, part of a $12.8 million incentive package for improvements made on the QRIS.
Last year alone, 3,000 directors and teachers took advantage of the program, according to the state's Department of Children and Family Services.
"This is a real opportunity to support staff as they become more educated … and gain an awareness of classroom practice and children's success," said Gail B. Kelso, the program manager for the Child Development and Early Learning at the department.
Some, however, say that it's difficult to know whether the QRIS systems are actually improving teacher quality.
Even though most states use a complex assessment of educators that includes observations, many variables go into teaching—especially in the early years when much of what's taught is socioemotional—and that's tough to parse out, said Gail L. Zellman, a senior research psychologist at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp., a think tank that has studied QRIS systems and generally finds value in the concept.
"Part of the issue is that the field is still struggling to define teacher quality," Ms. Zellman said. "What we're going for is a cadre of people who are really good at interacting one-on-one with young children. That's much more difficult to sort out."
Moreover, rating systems don't break down how programmatic value is specifically achieved, which in some cases can lead consumers to believe a program is strong in the area of teacher quality when it might not be.
A state that utilizes a point-based system might value all attributes equally, Mr. Pianta said. So, for example, a preschool might not employ many instructors with a deep knowledge of child development, but because it serves hot lunches and offers ample space for nap cots, it might appear on the state list as a four-star program.
Parent Engagement Lags
Meanwhile, a lack of parent engagement in state ratings systems is the weakest link to date, added Deb Mathias, the director of the online Quality Rating and Improvement System National Learning Network, a coalition of states and organizations that offer, in part, technical assistance to governments implementing such programs.
"I don't think parents are using them," she said, referring to the ratings systems, "and part of the reason is price." Parents may assume they simply can't afford a four- or five-star option.
In fact, 57 percent of money spent for early-childhood programs comes from the pockets of parents, Ms. Stoney said.
"What QRIS can do is be an incredibly powerful structure," she added, "but we're still a long ways off."
Vol. 32, Issue 35, Pages 31, 34Published in Print: June 12, 2013, as States Fold Teaching Into Preschool Rating Factors