It’s time to challenge the QRIS movement:

The true cost of developing an effective QRIS system:

The Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) movement began in the 1990s and by 1998, Oklahoma had developed the nation’s first Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS National Learning Network, 2011). NAEYC was fully on board by 2005, with its QRIS Initiative. Early QRIS efforts in California such as Steps To Excellence in Los Angeles County and Los Angeles Universal Preschool both cited NAEYC and NAEYC Accreditation in the development of their respective projects.

In its July 2010 QRIS Tool Kit, NAEYC identified what it considered to be the four “major costs involved in a QRIS”:

  • “designing the system,
  • system administration and accountability,
  • supports for providers and programs, and
  • outreach to families and other consumers (NAEYC, 2010).”

Unfortunately, this perspective embodies the typical, administration-heavy, misguided approach to improving the early childhood education delivery system in the U.S.   In the QRIS Tool Kit, when NAEYC considered “supports for providers and programs” it focused upon the following four strategies:

  • “professional development for providers,
  • technical assistance for program quality improvement,
  • financial incentives, and
  • resources explaining the QRIS and how to participate (NAEYC, 2010).”

In actuality, this approach promises arguably the least effective utilization of funds.

The approach recommended by NAEYC’s QRIS Tool Kit is a top-down design. “Subject experts” create a rating system and design the assessment tools. Well-paid “expert” consultants provide technical assistance that ultimately validates the system design and assessment tools. A marketing campaign is designed. And finally, a limited amount of financial incentives, typically one-time or attached to additional requirements are rolled out. This top-down funding design leaves little room for marshaling political will towards committing the long-term budgetary support necessary for meaningful change.

As an example, an exploration of the professional educator job site, Edjoin, provided some quick insight. A position titled Early Learning Systems Specialist with Merced County Office of Education offered $4,214 to $5,121 monthly. This individual’s tasks include providing technical assistance in program quality improvement. Also listed by Merced County Office of Education was the position of Coordinator – California Preschool Instructional Network, with an annual salary of $80,608 to $98,096 (edjoin.org). Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics places the mean annual preschool teacher salary at $32,040 and median wage at $28,120 (United States Department of Labor, 2014). We can see therefore, that designing a system emphasizing professional development for providers brings classroom teachers face to face with experts who are easily earning 2 ½ to 4 times their salaries. One such training conducted in Sacramento by WestEd on the forthcoming Desired Results Developmental Profile 2015 (DRDP 2015) brought together center directors, site supervisors and a few teachers. The training provided me with two important takeaways. Firstly, the DRDP 2015 is a wonderful tool. Secondly, there are not enough teachers in a typical preschool classroom to implement the tool according to its intended design. Clearly California’s Department of Education has adopted NAEYC’s view emphasizing professional development for providers, technical assistance and resources explaining QRIS without considering the realities of the classroom teacher. During this training, I did a quick ballpark estimate and concluded that in order to implement the new DRDP 2015 in the way it was intended, a 25% increase in classroom staff would be necessary. In the day to day world of the early learning professionals, the singular, most critical expense, however overlooked it may be, is that of staffing the classroom.

Assessment overload:

The DRDP 2010 contains 39 measures for preschoolers to be assessed twice per year (43 measures for English Language Learners).   Even in the most generously staffed classrooms where all adults are teacher-qualified this means a teacher might expect to assess 8 children x 2 assessments x 39 measures = 624 documented pages.

The DRDP 2015 has 52 measures (56 for English Language Learners) – 832 documented pages. Given that the expectation is that each measure deserves multiple instances of documentation we’re now looking at upwards of 2,500 documented events. Given that, on average, a minimally thoughtful example of documentation takes at least 2 or 3 minutes (including the observation or interaction, written or photographic documentation, and associated paperwork) we’re realistically looking at a minimum of 100 hours of labor per eight children (equivalent to six weeks of a full time teacher). Put together a classroom of 24 part day State Preschool (CSPP) children and multiply by 2 sessions and we’re approaching at least 600 hours of labor (15 weeks of a full time teacher). Throw in team meetings, action planning, and annual report information gathering, and it’s easy to realize that even the smallest of programs will need an additional part time teacher if they are to approach even the most limited investment towards actualizing the intent of the assessment tool. Besides the DRDP 2015, teachers in California’s State-funded programs can look forward the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale and parent questionnaires (surveys).

For some lucky teachers that participate in the federally supported Race To the Top (RTT) program, you can add the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), Ages and Stages 3, and Ages and Stages: SE. So while California may indeed be well on the way to addressing NAEYC’s notions of the “major costs involved in a QRIS” (NAEYC, 2010) – we teachers are left out of the equation – overworked, underpaid, and forgotten by our country’s premier professional membership association and by national, State and local policy-makers.

At what cost, quality?

Besides considering the number of teachers in the classroom, one must consider their compensation – salary and benefits. “(T)eacher compensation is directly associated with education quality… teacher qualifications, teacher behaviors, morale and turnover” (Barnett, 2003). Unfortunately, teacher wages continue to hover near minimum wage. Ironically, as California has increased the minimum wage, many teachers have found themselves more impoverished than before. So while NAEYC may see the future of quality in system design, administration and oversight, training, and outreach – the everyday needs of the lynchpin of quality – the teacher, remain unaddressed.

Because there have not been funding increases to provide for the extra staff necessary to collect DRDP assessment data, many teachers struggle to find ways to meet the unfunded mandate of an increasing assessment workload. Some sacrifice the quality of their teacher-child interactions. Others reluctantly rely upon artificial exercises to collect assessment data quickly. Yet others work “off the clock” donating their time to meet the assessment timelines. Some teachers complete the DRDP quickly, relying on hurried, poor-quality documentation in order to get back to the hundreds of other pressing tasks that make up their daily responsibilities. The results are (more frequently than one might think) less than reliable assessment data and compromised early learning experiences.

As a classroom teacher with a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Studies, I see the flagging morale of my colleagues. I receive the aforementioned technical assistance and professional development; I see what goes into the QRIS system design, administration and accountability. I’ve participated in focus group meetings and master planning. Yet, at the end of the day there are only three things that drive my commitment to quality in my profession – the fact that I love children; that I believe in the essential need that humans have for a true childhood; and that I love teaching. None of those are adequately or sincerely addressed by QRIS.

A wonderful, yet perplexing system:

California’s child care delivery system is fantastically diverse. And it is this diversity that makes it most difficult to quantify its quality. Currently state-subsidized programs include both Regional Market Rate (RMR) and Standardized Reimbursement Rate (SRR) reimbursement schedules to contractors. The programs with the greatest requirements for teachers are reimbursed at the SRR, while general child care programs typically receive the RMR. Oddly enough, the SRR in many counties in California is lower than the RMR. This means that programs that are required to hire teachers meeting specific educational requirements such as degrees in ECE are often reimbursed at a lower rate than programs lacking such mandates (Legislative Analyst’s Office, 2014). After considering other required reporting such as Food Program (CACFP), Annual Reports, Audits, Enrollment and Attendance reporting, Certifications, etc. the California Department of Education’s contractors endure a significant burden of labor.

It is nevertheless noteworthy that many highly qualified teachers elect to work at programs that are not Federally or State-subsidized (Whitebook, et al. 2006). Such teachers may gravitate to the less restrictive teaching environments of private programs. Indeed, the percentages of Assistant Teachers with Bachelor’s and Associate degrees were higher in programs without Head Start Start or CDE contracts than those in contracted programs, and the percentages of Teachers with Bachelor’s degrees was comparable (35.7% for Head Start/CDE contracts/33% for programs without vouchers or contracts). The percentage of non-contract teachers with 24 or more ECE credits outpaced that of their Head Start and State Preschool colleagues significantly (Whitebook, et al, 2006). Other highly qualified teachers open their own family child care businesses. Many ECE advocates will claim that the requirements of an educated workforce in State and Federally subsidized programs have not universally attracted the best and brightest teachers.

It is clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to identifying program quality simply will not work in California.

In Conclusion:

Quality will ultimately be found in respect for early educators – for those that work with infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Respect will take the form of not only salary and benefit improvement – but in respect for the art and heart of teaching – something that is not reducible to measures that have been observed or bubbles that have been filled in or degrees. It will be found in the eyes and hearts of the children and those that spend their days as witness to the wonder of childhood.

It is time for us to challenge the QRIS system for the things it has consistently failed to improve – our abilities to earn a worthy wage, our ability to spend our time meaningfully connecting with the children, and the wonder of childhood itself.

References:

Edjoin. Search for jobs by title, city, state, etc. Retrieved April 11, 2015 from https://www.edjoin.org

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). 2010. The NAEYC quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) toolkit.

Barnett, W.S. 2003. Low wages = low quality: solving the real preschool teacher crisis. National Institute for Early Education Research Preschool Policy Matters Issue 3 / March 2003.

Legislative Analyst’s Office. 2014. Restructuring California’s child care and development system.

Office of Head Start. 2014. Administrative cost limitations narrative. Retrieved from https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/operations/mang-sys/fiscal-mang/narrative/Administrative%20Cost%20Limitations.htm

QRIS National Learning Network. 2011. QRIS Resource Guide. Retrieved from http://qrisnetwork.org/sites/all/files/resources/gscobb/2011-12-15%2006:10/QRISResourceGuide.pdf

United States Department of Labor. 2015. Occupational employment and wages, May 2014 preschool teachers, except special education.

Whitebook, M., Sakai, L., Kipnis, F., Lee, Y., Bellm, D., Almaraz, M., Tran, P. 2006. California early care and education workforce study: licensed child care centers, Los Angeles County 2006. Center for the Study of the Child Care Workforce and California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

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