Early Childhood

Preschool Rating Systems Need Fine-Tuning, Study Says

By Linda Jacobson — October 28, 2008 4 min read
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The use of rating scales as a way to encourage child-care centers and preschools to improve their programs continues to increase in popularity across the states, even as researchers say states need to do more to share what they find and to demonstrate whether rating systems improve children’s learning.

Last month, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, signed a bill creating an advisory committee that will begin the process of designing a scale for the state, which has lagged behind others on indicators of preschool classroom quality.

In Washington state, the department of early learning is set to begin piloting its new Seeds of Success quality rating and improvement system with 125 providers in five communities.

And in Virginia, Gov. Tim Kaine’s new office of early childhood development is in the second year of field testing its new Star Quality system with 350 state-funded pre-K, Head Start, and private child-care classrooms.

But a recent study by researchers at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. suggests that officials haven’t done a great job of sharing what they’ve learned from operating these programs.

Gail L. Zellman and Michal Perlman gathered representatives from five states that were among the first to implement what are known as quality rating and improvement systems: Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.

The researchers wrote that despite the widespread appeal and growth of such systems, “there is a dearth of practical knowledge and empirical data to draw on in crafting qris legislation, designing qris and implementing qris components.”

They found that the five states included the education and training levels of a center’s teachers and measured classroom quality in some way. But states differed on other components of their rating systems, such as whether to include a measure of parent involvement or whether a center is nationally accredited.

Several recommendations emerged from the interviews, such as securing funding for programs before the process begins, conducting public-awareness campaigns, and having the experts who rate a center be different from the ones who provide technical assistance.

Market-Driven Approach

Like health department grades for eating establishments, rating scales are viewed as a market-driven way to encourage centers to increase the level of quality they provide and to better inform parents about the centers they are choosing for their children.

The National Child Care Information and Technical Assistance Center, part of the federal government’s Child Care Bureau, says 16 states had statewide rating systems as of January, and more than 25 states were exploring or designing them.

In most states, participation is voluntary, but in North Carolina and Tennessee, quality ratings are integrated into the state child-care licensing system. Ratings typically focus on elements such as the teachers’ level of education, staff-to-child ratios, and measures of classroom quality.

Most states also attach a continuous-improvement process, which can include funding to improve facilities, purchase learning materials, or work with master teachers. Providers with higher ratings can also receive more than the base amount of money from the state for children who are eligible for child-care subsidies.

Outcomes Studied

Evaluations in individual states have shown that rating scales can improve early-childhood-education environments for children.

A 2006 study of Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS Quality Rating System showed that on average, centers participating in the program score higher on measures of quality than those not participating. The researchers, from the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development and the Pennsylvania State University Prevention Research Center in University Park, credited the program with reversing a decline in child-care quality in the late 1990s.

But it will take more research to determine if such rating systems contribute to improving children’s school-readiness skills.

A separate study that Ms. Zellman and Ms. Perlman conducted on Colorado’s Qualistar Early Learning, a nonprofit organization that rates centers, found almost no relationship between the quality rating system and child outcomes such as school readiness, cognitive skills, and social skills.

“While it makes sense and holds general appeal that improved quality will translate into improved child outcomes, the many factors that shape children over time may swamp the association, at least in the short term,” they wrote in the study, released earlier this year.

In their interviews, Ms. Zellman and Ms. Perlman found that because many states did not pilot their rating scales before rolling them out across the state, substantial revisions needed to be made.

“What we’re hoping to learn from this process is that the system is viable,” said Juliet Torres, an assistant director of the department of early learning in Washington state. “We’re also looking to see how parents view this information that they receive.”

Sandra Giarde, the executive director of the California Association for the Education of Young Children, said her group “is looking forward to having an opportunity to be a participant in the process.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Preschool Rating Systems Need Fine-Tuning, Study Says

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