The second “I” in QRIS

November 24, 2014

NAEYC03_SquiresAs 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


Preschool and politics

November 4, 2014

In a recent post, Fawn Johnson of the National Journal’s Education Insider asked

If everyone wants preschool, why isn’t it growing? What catalyst is needed to dramatically grow preschool enrollment? Why has it stalled? What can state and city governments do to increase enrollment?

There is ample evidence the public, across the country and across political orientations, strongly supports early childhood education; some states and cities are seeking ways to provide it:

Just before children started back to school this year, Gallup surveyed Americans on their attitudes towards the importance of education, including preschool education. Results continue to indicate strong backing for early childhood education programs, supported by federal funds, even when Americans believe that preschool (and college) are less important to long-term life outcomes than the K-12 years. Together, 73 percent of Americans polled indicated that they believe preschool is very important for future success in life.

Figure 1: How important would you say the education a person receives at preschool is to a person’s ability to succeed in life?

Figure1preKandPolls

Image from Gallup.

There are differences in perspective along political lines, (53 percent support from Republicans, 87 percent from Democrats); as well as by income (81 percent in low-income families compared to 65 percent in both middle- and high-income families); and by status as parents of young children (75 percent among families with children under 18, compared to 68 percent for those without), but overall, approval is strong, with 70 percent supporting the use of federal money to “make sure high quality preschool programs are available for every child.”

Since at least 2013, polls have been showing growing, strong, bipartisan enthusiasm for early childhood programs. Polling in July showed similar results. NIEER Director Steve Barnett wrote then about the importance of maintaining high quality standards when increasing access to programs—providing care is not enough, without quality, to lead to the short- and long-term outcomes the public now expects from preschool.

A poll in North Carolina also showed strong public affirmation (88 percent) across parties for investing more in preschool. Specifically, they support home visiting, teacher training to improve quality, and improved access to preschool (65 percent). There is variation by political party on preschool viewed generally (51 percent of Republicans, 58 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Democrats) but strong agreement across affiliation for investing in classrooms and teacher training (81 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Independents, and 94 percent of Democrats).

The Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) just hosted an early education summit for candidates in the upcoming election. They discussed results of in-state polling indicating strong agreement on expanding voluntary pre-K in Georgia. Among those polled, 83 percent approved of using Georgia lottery funds to increase access to preschool.

Figure2govtexpand

Image from GEEARS.

Among Georgia respondents, 52 percent indicated they would be more likely to vote for a legislator who had worked to expand access to preschool. Overall, support was stronger among Democrats responding, although almost half of Republicans polled said they supported expanding access to preschool.

Politicians at all levels are responding to this public interest. This year, New York City has offered 50,000+ new preschool spots (not without some challenges) and states and cities across the country are wondering whether New York’s quick implementation can serve as a model for their own plans to scale up preschool programs. Across the country, states and cities are stepping up to find their own ways to increase access, along with quality. Politico recently reported on the role of pre-K in several high-profile races, including those in Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas. Several ballot initiatives as also focused on pre-K, including two separate initiatives in Seattle and San Francisco.

Preschool is on the rise in areas where it has historically not fared as well. Hawaiians are voting on a Constitutional amendment to allocate state funding to private preschools, an important question as the state seeks to expand public access to pre-K. The mayor of Indianapolis (in a state with no state-funded pre-K) has been working on an initiative introduced in July to provide scholarships for 4-year-olds to attend high quality preschools, and funds for programs to improve service quality. The scholarship program would be funded by reducing a tax credit to homeowners, at a cost of about $22 per home. Indiana has also introduced a 5-county pilot preschool program, and business and nonprofit leaders are strongly encouraging increased funding for that program to expands access.

At the federal level, there has also been movement toward expanding access to preschool programs. Two bills related to early childhood care and education have been addressed in Congress; the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which adds an increasing focus on quality in child care; and Strengthening Education Through Research, which will make data more accessible to schools, and research more relevant to policy decision-making. At least 30 states have also indicated their intent to apply for federal funding through Preschool Development Grants to introduce or expand state preschool programs; including Texas, which declined to participate in a previous round over Common Core concerns.

Along with improved access, voters also clearly want high-quality opportunities, as can be seen in a series of infographics from Grow America Stronger.

Figure3whatvoterswant

Image from Grow America Strong.

Grow America Strong also shows results by state. (Learn more about what makes a program great here.)

So the public is asking for high quality preschool. Some states and cities are looking for ways to make that happen. If yours isn’t one of them, maybe you should be asking why not.

—Kirsty Clarke Brown, NIEER Policy & Communications


Keeping early learning at arm’s length

October 29, 2014

We are a nation intrigued by lists, and I am no exception. I scour lists from top to bottom on any number of topics, from best companies to work for to international rankings for educational performance. I also look for any underlying trends that may tell the story behind the list.

It should come as no surprise that I eagerly reviewed the recently released list of states applying for $250 million in federal Preschool Development Grants. These grants–ranging in size from $5-20 million per state to develop a preschool program to $10–35 million annually for 4 years to expand existing preschool services for low- and moderate-income children–present an opportunity for states to reach children who have fallen between the cracks when it comes to participating voluntarily in a high-quality preschool, an opportunity the majority of Americans are clamoring for. Fifteen states and Puerto Rico were eligible to receive development funds with the remaining 35 states and District of Columbia eligible to expand existing programs.

As the list was released, 8 states and Puerto Rico submitted development applications and 27 states sought funding for program expansion. Eighteen states applying for expansion funds currently receive Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grants, with only ELC recipients Michigan and Wisconsin choosing not to apply.

States That Submitted Applications for the FY 2014 Preschool Development Grants

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.12.53 PM

Image from the US Department of Education Office of Early Learning

There are many lenses one can use to look for underlying story lines; geographic and political leadership being two common sets. Looking at a map of applicants, a swath across the Midwest extending from Canada to Mexico appears desolate if not for Texas’ application, and there must be something in the water leaving a bad taste for 3 of 4 states touching Lake Michigan–or all 3 states surrounding Yellowstone’s Old Faithful–causing them to keep this opportunity at arm’s length.

Governors were required to submit the application for these funds and, as such, wield a great deal of power and influence. And, if one were looking to pit Democrats against Republicans, she’d be disappointed, sort of. Half of the states seeking development grants, and 11 of 27 states going for the expansion gold, are red states, to demonstrate that early education is a bipartisan, perhaps nonpartisan issue for most states. Yet the glass looks half-empty as one considers the list of states not submitting applications. All 7 states eligible for development grants and 7 of 8 states eligible for expansion have Republican governors. Indiana was poised to submit an application, but Governor Pence’s decision to withhold his signature at the last moment, for reasons explained as the state initiates a pre-K pilot, moved it to the other side of the ledger. The hidden story behind decisions by Florida, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia may stem not from political disinterest, but from recognition that policies and resources have already resulted in achieving near-universal access for 4-year-olds.

Opportunities like this do not come along often. I’d be naïve to think that politics play an inconsequential role in this day and age. Based on the actions of states to pursue Preschool Development Grant funds, one can reasonably conclude that support for pre-K is bipartisan; however, the opposition to pre-K still remains partisan. As a result, the opportunity gap is alive and well, when it could be addressed with political will and leadership, and, I fear, we are destined to admire the problem of straight-arming children who continue to fall through the cracks.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow


The research says high quality preschool does benefit kids

October 21, 2014

In a response for the Washington Post Answer Sheet, Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research deconstructs a new Cato Institute policy brief by David J. Armor, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University, who also has a piece on washingtonpost.com arguing his position under the headline “We have no idea if universal preschool actually helps kids.” We do know. It does. Here are some excerpts from the post, which can be read in its entirety here, outlining what the research really says:

First, if one really believes that today’s preschool programs are much less effective than the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs because those programs were so much more costly and intensive, and started earlier, then the logical conclusion is that today’s programs should be better funded, more intensive, and start earlier. I would agree. Head Start needs to be put on steroids. New Jersey’s Abbott pre-K model (discussed later) starts at 3 and provides a guide as it has been found to have solid long-term effects on achievement and school success. Given the high rates of return estimated for the Perry and Abecedarian programs, it is economically foolish not to move ahead with stronger programs.

Blog set 3Second, Armor’s claims regarding flaws in the regression discontinuity (RD) studies of pre-K programs in New Jersey, Tulsa, Boston, and elsewhere are purely hypothetical and unsubstantiated. Every research study has limitations and potential weaknesses, including experiments. It is not enough to simply speculate about possible flaws; one must assess how likely they are to matter. (See the extended post for more details.)

Third, the evidence that Armor relies on to argue that Head Start and Tennessee pre-K have no long-term effects is not experimental. It’s akin to the evidence from the Chicago Longitudinal Study and other quasi-experimental studies that he disregards when they find persistent impacts. Bartik points to serious methodological concerns with this research. Even more disconcerting is Armor’s failure to recognize the import of all the evidence he cites from the Tennessee study. Tennessee has both a larger experimental study and a smaller quasi-experimental substudy. The larger experiment finds that pre-K reduces subsequent grade retention, from 8% to 4%. The smaller quasi-experimental substudy Armor cites as proof of fade-out finds a much smaller reduction from 6% to 4%. Armor fails to grasp that this indicates serious downward bias in the quasi-experimental substudy or that both approaches find a large subsequent impact on grade retention, contradicting his claim of fade-out.

Among the many additional errors in Armor’s review I address 3 that I find particularly egregious. First, he miscalculates cost. Second, he misses much of the most rigorous evidence. And, third he misrepresents the New Jersey Abbott pre-K programs and its impacts. (See the extended post for more details.)

When a reviewer calls for policy makers to hold off on a policy decision because more research is needed, one might assume that he had considered all the relevant research. However, Armor’s review omits much of the relevant research. (See the extended post for more details.)

Those who want an even more comprehensive assessment of the flaws in Armor’s review can turn to Tim Bartik’s blog post and a paper NIEER released last year, as little of Armor’s argument is new. For a more thorough review of the evidence regarding the benefits of preschool I recommend the NIEER papers and WSIPP papers already cited and a recent review by an array of distinguished researchers in child development policy.

If all the evidence is taken into account, I believe that policy makers from across the political spectrum will come to the conclusion that high-quality pre-K is indeed a sound public investment.

–Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


If Everyone Wants Preschool, Why Isn’t It Growing?

October 21, 2014

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog in response to the prompt “If Everyone Wants Preschool, Why Isn’t It Growing” from Fawn Johnson:

What catalyst is needed to dramatically grow preschool enrollment? Why has it stalled? What can state and city governments do to increase enrollment? Does it matter what kind of preschool kids enroll in? Should preschool enrollment be required, as K-12 is? Should lower-income households get priority when preschool slots are limited?

As always, Fawn Johnson poses insightful, but difficult, questions. One reason that preschool policy has not advanced more successfully despite overwhelming popular support is that those who oppose it wield considerable clout. Opponents across political leanings often assert that no public money should be used to help the middle class, though research shows that children of all income levels can benefit. Special interests of all stripes prioritize their needs over those of young children generally, and researchers and advocates are forced to set the research record straight.

Also, politicians are adept at giving the appearance of more support than they actually deliver. Very few voters have direct experiences that would help them sort out truth from fiction in this regard.Children with potted plants

Increasing public awareness is the primary reason that NIEER publishes an annual state-by-state review of preschool policy. Even so we encounter considerable difficulty setting the record straight, as politicians seek to confuse the electorate with their own media strategies. They introduce bills supporting preschool that they have no intention of passing. They propose budgets and spending plans that never fully materialize. They authorize expenditures in excess of appropriations and cut budgets mid-year. Final tallies are rarely released with the fanfare that accompanies all of the initial proclamations of support. And, all too many politicians are not above simply misstating the facts.

Finally, the impact of the Great Recession should not be underestimated. More than anything else, it took the wind out of the preschool movement’s sails. The recovery has been slow, but as revenues rise at local, state, and federal levels we can expect to see the growing support for preschool programs manifest in expansions of both enrollment and quality.

- Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


Resources for early childhood teachers in teacher evaluation systems

August 14, 2014

The Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) wanted to know how states are incorporating early childhood teachers in their teacher evaluation systems, and additionally, whether requirements for evaluating early childhood teachers are different from teachers of higher grades. CEELO has done extensive work and produced many resources on teacher evaluation in early education classrooms, including producing a policy report on an extensive study of 11 states. In addition, an Executive Summary  outlines the report’s policy recommendations and findings. There is also an annotated bibliography, Selected Resources to Support Early Childhood Teachers in State Educator Evaluation Systems, a collection of resources that were helpful in gathering information on teacher evaluation.

Some resources CEELO found especially helpful in collecting information were New Jersey’s Teacher Evaluation Support Document for Pre-K & K, which helps evaluators think about using the Danielson rubric with an early childhood perspective in order to evaluate these teachers fairly, and provides sample early childhood Student Growth Outcome charts; and Rhode Island’s Online Modules, video toolkits for creating SLOs and developing assessment.

Teacher evaluation has been at the forefront of education policy in the past few years. Teacher evaluation systems link the results of methods to evaluate teacher effectiveness to targeted professional development to help teachers grow in their profession. Evaluating birth-through-third-grade teachers in public schools is especially important, because we know that a teacher’s impact on children’s learning during the early years affects long-term educational outcomes (see our post from last week). Knowing where states are headed in creating policy to ensure every child is in a quality classroom–and taught by a high quality teacher–is important in making this issue a priority for policymakers. States are beginning to include guidance and supports for early childhood teachers in teacher evaluation protocols, rolling out new tools and rubrics for teachers and evaluators to better understand the process.

CEELO found that states vary on where they are in terms of implementation, and how teachers are licensed and evaluated. States are also responding to changes in teacher evaluation policy by increasing and targeting professional development to make sure educators understand this changing system. For example, New Jersey uses evaluation scores to determine a pathway to targeted professional development. All states have unique ways of sharing information, whether through regional education networks or online databases. This process is ongoing and states will continue to evolve every school year as new research and information becomes available on best practices.

The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders Databases on State Teacher and Principal Evaluation Policies includes a number of databases that track teacher and principal teacher evaluation policies. This site also offers users the option of comparing up to three states on their teacher or principal evaluation systems. This includes a variety of resources on professional development and online tools with state-specific contexts.

In order for progress to be made in teacher evaluation, CEELO recommends ensuring inter-department coordination and involvement on evaluation changes and suggestions. This is particularly important in making decisions related to early education classrooms, since many states are just beginning to implement programs to evaluate early childhood teachers. Continuing to encourage targeted professional development efforts also ensures that educators are aware of changing policies, and maintains coherence among educators keeping up with the changes.

–Michelle Horowitz is a Research Assistant at the National Institute for Early Education Research and the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes.


Hiding Behind the Sofa: One Child’s Perspective of a Teacher’s Home Visit

July 30, 2014

The space behind the sofa in our den provided the perfect hiding place when Miss Miller, my kindergarten teacher, stopped by for her September home visit. I was caught off-guard by this “out-of-context” experience, trying to process competing feelings of excitement, apprehension, and bashfulness. While confident at school, I was transformed into a turtle-like schoolchild whose head popped out periodically to make sure she was aware of my presence. After all, she was on my turf.

Engaging families in the education of young children is nothing new. Education was always viewed as a partnership between parents and teachers, with teachers held in high regard by their families and parents valued for their contributions and ability to reinforce shared values and expectations. Home visits were part and parcel of the home-school connection a half-century ago in my youth, and parent-teacher conferences were sacrosanct throughout elementary years.

Hiding behind the couch, from Flickr Creative Commons user Taylor Brigode: https://www.flickr.com/photos/taylorlb/9110126712/in/photostream/

Hiding behind the couch, from Flickr Creative Commons user Taylor Brigode: https://www.flickr.com/photos/taylorlb/9110126712/in/photostream/

Yet the NIEER State of Preschool 2013 paints a somewhat different picture. The survey indicates a range of policies and practices for parental involvement across 53 state-funded pre-K programs in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Eight-five (85) percent require programs to provide some form of parent involvement activities, yet one in five programs does not require either parent conferences or home visits. Slightly more than half (51%) require programs to offer parenting support or training. Policies for 21% of programs allowed local jurisdictions to determine the type of parent involvement activities offered, reaffirming that a family’s zip code often shapes one’s early education opportunities.

Parent involvement was a cornerstone for Head Start from its inception and family engagement remains a key component. Regardless of the Head Start program model employed (center-based, home-based, combination option), parent engagement remains a program value and expectation. Head Start Policy Manual 70.2 was a mantra during my years with the program, defining the forms of parent participation including involvement in the decision-making process; engagement in the classroom as employees, volunteers, and observers; participation in and development of activities; and working with children in cooperation with Head Start staff. These elements have been expanded in current Head Start regulations (45 CFR section 1304.40), maintaining a provision for programs to offer at least two home visits annually. Other federally funded programs such as Early Head Start and Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) programs maintain active parent-provider engagement in program policy and design, and the defunct Even Start Family Literacy program was built upon a strong family-school relationship in its two-generation model. NAEYC featured home visiting in an article in Young Children last summer, and has a literature review on the topic as well.

The importance of strong parent-teacher relationships has never been questioned, yet with more parents participating in the workforce, engaging parents in meaningful ways appears to be more difficult. Home visits are no longer considered standard practice, due to scheduling challenges and safety concerns, and parent conferences conducted during regular program hours are often difficult for working parents to attend. This is particularly evident in kindergarten and the primary grades.

Though some wish to turn back the hands of time when stereotypical Ozzie and Harriet families were the perceived norm, policymakers and educators would be wise to support innovative policies and practices that adapt to the changing work-family-school context. Consideration should be given to new approaches such as workplace visits with the support of business owners, to provide paid release time for parent-teacher conferences and volunteering in one’s child’s classroom. Summer, evenings, and weekends also provide excellent times for teachers to exercise greater flexibility in connecting with parents, yet this would require a rethinking of the traditional school calendar and compensation schedules. Care must be taken to make these accommodations in a way that supports teachers and administrators, rather than creating a well-intended but burdensome add-on, and visits should not impinge on valuable time families spend together. It would be a shame for home visits to become a relic of the past.

Thinking back to Miss Miller’s home visit, by the time she was done I had fully emerged from my shell and was trying my best to thwart her escape to her next student’s home. She had toured my bedroom, surveyed my favorite toys and books, and gained a sense of my world. I’m sure she left with a better understanding of me within my environment, a stronger connection with my parents, and ideas for personalizing my formative education experience. I’m also sure my mother was relieved as Miss Miller drove away, in part knowing she had an ally when it came to coaching little Jimmy out of his shell and fostering his education.

–Jim Squires, NIEER/CEELO Senior Research Fellow


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