We’re celebrating 40 years of impact! Learn more about our accomplishments over the last four decades. learn more

Start Early is excited to announce Dionne Dobbins as Vice President of Research and Evaluation. In her role, Dionne will lead the Research & Evaluation division and oversee research efforts under Start Early’s expanded Head Start grant.

“Dionne has dedicated her career to thinking about how child, family, and community outcomes can drive and influence policy efforts. She has a strong interest in using research in applied settings and reaching non-researchers by developing tools and resources relevant to their work,” says Rebecca Berlin, chief learning officer at Start Early.

Most recently, Dionne served as the Sr. Director of Research at Child Care Aware of America, where she set the research agenda for the organization and led a team of researchers in executing it. Notably, she led the production of the popular Child Care Aware of America annual report on the Price of Child Care used among many researchers, policymakers, and advocates. Dionne has led research projects for Head Start, child care, family literacy, military child mental health, and early childhood financing. She is also a former Head Start Fellow who supported the leadership team at the Office of Head Start. She holds a doctorate in applied developmental psychology from the University of Miami and did her postdoctoral work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Dionne’s extensive systems-level, research-to-practice expertise, with a strong understanding of how to create a unified data picture from diverse sources of information will be invaluable to Start Early. We are thrilled to have Dionne join Start Early and support our efforts to produce research and evaluation data that is relatable, easy to understand, and centers equity,” Berlin concludes.

Follow Dionne on LinkedIn.

The Partnership for Pre-K Improvement (PPI) was launched in 2016 with a vision to develop and sustain high-quality, equitable state pre-K systems. Throughout the 5-year project, we partnered with 3 states – Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington – to learn alongside state education leaders, advocates and researchers about how to systematically improve pre-K quality. Along the way, we focused in on infrastructure and the policies, data, and implementation supports pre-K programs need to succeed.

As a culmination of this project, we created a report to capture lessons learned and recommendations for state early learning agency leaders, researchers and advocates, along with a free toolkit to support pre-K systems improvement.

What We Learned

  • Systems change is complex and occurs over a long period of time. Although we saw important improvements during the life of the project, substantial systems change is ongoing and occurs in cycles as states navigate governmental, political, leadership, and funding changes and challenges.
  • Practice frameworks can both advance and impede systems change work. While focusing on core elements of teaching and learning seemed that it would yield the greatest impact on quality, states were most successful when focusing on just one or two elements at a time.
  • Implementation science is useful at the systems level but does not sufficiently advance equity. While an implementation science framework was very helpful in driving improvements, equity does not automatically follow quality changes. Equity must instead be intentionally centered.
  • At the systems level, coordination, alignment, and resource-sharing across programs are necessary when striving to improve pre-K statewide. Quality and equity can only improve when pre-K is seen as a legitimate part of the broader education system.
  • Strong, trusting, and stable partnerships between advocates and researchers are key to success of improvement efforts. Specifically, relationships that are pre-existing, intentional in terms of allocating staff and resources, and provide opportunities to learn from each other, are all critical factors in building stable and successful partnerships.


For state systems leaders, advocates and research partners:

  • Build meaningful partnerships among systems leaders, advocates, and researchers.
  • Think beyond pre-K.
  • Recognize that implementation and infrastructure are critical missing pieces of systems change.
  • Use intentional strategies for increasing equity and elevating parent and teacher voices.
  • Prioritize data infrastructure and your state’s ability to use data for improvement.

For national and local consultants and technical assistance providers:

  • Center equity from the beginning of any project.
  • Ensure that state and local voices drive systems improvement consultation and technical assistance.
  • Throughout this work, keep in mind both long-term vision, and more pressing, daily challenges.
  • Provide flexible resources and funding.


Partnership for Pre-K Improvement Resources

For more on how our experiences in the Partnership for Pre-K Improvement provide critical lessons and actionable recommendations for those engaged in the complex work of improving state pre-K systems, download our new report & access the free Partnership for Pre-K Toolkit.

Looking for Additional Resources and Support for Your Quality Improvement Efforts?

Drawing from our experience on PPI and our work in states and communities across the country, the Start Early Consulting team supports partners to ensure that prenatal to five systems have the right policies, programs, and funding in place to prepare young children and their families for lifelong success. Email us for additional information.

Thank you to our partners: Cultivate Learning, Alliance for Early Success, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

By Joan Lombardi

Over the holidays, I heard the term metaverse across multiple media platforms. From TV talk shows and the news to newspaper articles, the concept was everywhere, and I wanted to understand what it means. Meta seems to have several meanings depending on how it is used – as a prefix it sometimes means transformation or transcending.  In the “tech world” the metaverse seems to be referring to some overarching system that would transcend the different parts that make up that world today.

While not totally grasping this emerging concept, these ideas are not completely new to a student of child development. We can relate to the idea of an overarching system evolving beyond its current collection of parts to create an all-encompassing approach to achieving a common goal.

We know health, learning and behavior are connected, and holistic child development requires an integration of these elements that transcends their parts; health affects learning, learning affects health, and social-emotional development affects them both. We also know development begins early, with each stage building on another. Moreover, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory has grounded our thinking: we can’t separate the child from the well-being of the family. They both depend on supportive communities and policies.

As we enter 2022, let’s recommit our energies to creating a system that could be thought of as meta-care. This approach would go beyond a collection of isolated programs and services to an interconnected system supporting the whole developing child. In this community, the parent, childcare provider, physicians, home visitors, teachers, local librarians and housing agencies all matter for a successful start in life.

Last year, I had the opportunity to talk to several parents, providers and local leaders across the country. Each was working to build these connections to make their community “the best place to raise a child.” I recognized four common elements in these initiatives:

  • Firm beliefs in centering all actions on family and caregiver voices to improve their living and working conditions
  • Commitment to equity
  • Processes for data tracking and mapping services
  • Continuous improvement mechanisms that include ongoing partnerships across services and sectors

The country’s future depends on how we care for young children and families. In the upcoming year, our hope remains that landmark federal legislation is passed to provide the critical investments we need. When this happens, implementation will move to the states and communities and new opportunities to work together will emerge. We must renew our efforts of support to assure a robust continuum of care: from healthy births to children thriving at age three, at five and beyond.

It doesn’t matter if we use a new term like meta-care; what matters is that we intensify our pursuit of better outcomes for all children. Let’s allow the needs of families and caregivers to guide our actions, transcend old boundaries and make a system of caring a reality for the next generation.

Dr. Joan Lombardi is a national and international thought leader in early childhood. She has been a key collaborator and consultant to Start Early in a variety of ways over the years. 

More Like This

By Debra Pacchiano, Vice President of Translational Research and Isabel Farrar, Research Associate at Start Early

Start Early recently organized a session at the 2021 Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) conference that highlighted three soon-to-be published research studies from across the field that push our understanding of whether and how The Essential 0-5 Survey framework relates to other aspects of quality and outcomes we care about in early childhood programs. Together, these studies examine how specific organizational conditions identified in the survey framework impact teacher well-being and retention and how to measure the strength of these essential conditions within programs serving infants and toddlers.

What we continue to find is that nurturing begets nurturing: when teachers, staff and families are nurtured and supported by robust organizational conditions, especially facilitative and instructional leadership and routine collaboration with peers, teachers and staff are more committed, persistent, and competent in meeting the dynamic and changing needs of children and families.

In one upcoming study, researchers Anna J. Markowitz, Daphna Bassok, and Amanda Rosensky of the University of Virginia used data from early childhood programs across Louisiana to explore associations between teachers’ perceptions of their leaders as effective instructional leaders and measures of teacher turnover intentions, observed turnover, teacher well-being and the quality of teacher-child interactions. Their initial findings strengthen the evidence that site leadership is critically important to the quality of teachers’ interactions with children, as well as to teachers’ commitment to the program and decisions to remain in their position. These authors suggest that their findings indicate that coherent leadership development is a “potentially powerful area of intervention” impacting teacher/staff retention and quality improvements in early education settings.

Another study, conducted by Allison Friedman-Krauss, Milagros Nores, Charles Whitman, and W. Steven Barnett at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) examines how differences in teachers’ perceptions of organizational conditions vary by teacher/school/district characterizations and impact classroom quality and teachers’ well-being. This research finds a strong association between teacher perceptions of their school organizational conditions and teacher depressive symptoms, suggesting that supporting teacher well-being is particularly important in today’s pandemic context.

Early Childhood Education & Workplace Conditions

Learn more about our three upcoming research studies.

Read More

And finally, we presented recent research conducted with Marc Brodersen and Joshua Stewart at Marzano Research that explores whether an adapted version of The Essential 0-5 Survey is relevant to and effectively measures the strength of organizational conditions in infant and toddler settings, something the field currently lacks. The team used cognitive interviews and survey data from a sample of Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grantees and programs in three states to evaluate the technical adequacy of the surveys. Initial findings suggest the adapted surveys do capture teacher, staff, and parent perceptions of these essential conditions meaningfully and reliably within programs serving infants, toddlers and their families.

These new research findings add to the growing body of evidence that surrounding teachers and practitioners with robust workplace supports improves their well-being, increases collective purpose and responsibility, and builds their individual and collective capacity to successfully meet the changing and diverse needs of young children and their families starting at birth. Efforts to support leaders in early childhood settings as they support their staff are more important now more than ever given the reality that programs are acutely struggling to support and retain staff due to COVID-19.

Learn more about the three upcoming research studies in our research brief.

More Like This

By Debra Pacchiano, Vice President of Translational Research and Isabel Farrar, Research Associate at Start Early and Marc Brodersen, Managing Senior Researcher and Joshua Stewart, Senior Researcher at Marzano Research

Whether a tool such as a rubric, assessment, or survey is used to measure teaching practices or academic standards, validation is an important step to ensure users can trust the results. Start Early recently worked with the national education research and consulting firm Marzano Research to examine the validity of a survey developed to support the professional growth and development of early care and education (ECE) staff and administrators.

A growing body of research in ECE and quality improvement shows that strong site-level organizational conditions are key to realizing strong implementation of quality standards and continuous quality improvement in ECE settings. Yet most instruments designed to support the professional growth and development of ECE staff and administrators focus primarily on classroom-level processes, creating a gap that could stifle improvements at the organizational-level related to mindsets and practices surrounding caregiving, teaching and family engagement.

Researchers at Start Early developed The Essential 0-5 Survey to bridge this gap and provide data and actionable information to administrators, teachers, and staff in ECE settings (both school and center-based) serving the families of preschoolers — and now also infants and toddlers. The Essential 0-5 Survey collects teacher, staff and parent experiences and perceptions of the organizationwide mindsets and practices aligned to Start Early’s evidence-based framework of essential conditions: Effective Instructional Leaders, Collaborative Teachers, Involved Families, Supportive Environment, Ambitious Instruction and Parent Voice. Research conducted in both K-12 and ECE settings demonstrates the direct impacts these conditions have on quality practices and children’s immediate and longer-term success. The Essential 0-5 Survey builds on prior research and development efforts between Start Early and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, where 5 Essentials survey and evidence-based framework of essential conditions was originally developed and tested in K-12 settings.

To test the relevance of The Essential 0-5 Survey for infant-toddler settings, Start Early conducted 88 cognitive interviews in English and Spanish with teachers, staff and parents from Early Head Start Child Care Partnership programs in two states, which then informed additional revisions. To prepare for pilot study, the refined survey was translated into Spanish, Arabic and Aramaic, and administered to more than 500 teachers and staff and 1,100 parents in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, and Washington D.C.

Validation and Results

Using data from the survey pilot study, Marzano Research conducted a psychometric validation study to understand the following questions:

  1. Does the survey consistently measure the aspects of organizational quality it was designed to measure?
  2. Does the survey distinguish sites with different levels of organizational quality?
  3. Do users with different background characteristics, such as their primary spoken language or the age of the child served by the ECE program, respond to the survey items in similar or systematically different ways?

Pilot study results confirmed the survey items intended to measure particular aspects of ECE organizational quality do group together as intended, and with few exceptions, each grouping measures a singular aspect of ECE organizational quality. Additionally, a majority of the survey items were found to contribute to the overall functionality of the survey; with only a handful of items found to be redundant to each other, or to potentially address different aspects of ECE organizational quality.

These findings speak to the rigor of the survey development team’s process in adapting, writing and vetting the survey items, and importantly endorse the overall psychometric reliability and validity of the surveys for use in infant-toddler center-based settings. However, preliminary analyses also showed that teachers and parents who completed the survey in Spanish or English respond differently to items on several sections of the survey. In some instances, Spanish speakers would generally provide more positive responses to a selection of items while in other instances English speakers would provide more positive responses to a selection of items. Some differences to a selection of items were also found between teachers working with children from birth to age 2 versus those working with children ages 3 to 5.

Next Steps

Start Early is currently using the results of the pilot study to revise items and conduct additional interviews with teachers, staff, and family members of infants and toddlers. Start Early will conduct a formal validation study in 2022 which will include linking survey responses to additional quality outcomes of concern, for example children’s attendance and developmental progress and the quality of teacher-child interactions and family engagement. Learn more about the research behind The Essential 0-5 Survey.

More Like This

At first glance, the price tag for the transformative investments in early childhood care and education included in the American Families Plan looks steep: $450 billion. And with the significant federal spending, policy scope and potential for tax increases included in President Biden’s $3.5 trillion economic package, we should be having conversations about whether this is where we want to invest our tax dollars.

This June, economists Jorge Luis García, Frederik H. Bennhoff, Duncan Ermini Leaf and Nobel laureate James Heckman released a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper that demonstrates these investments in early learning and care could produce incredible returns.

The paper returns to the Perry Preschool Project, an intervention in the 1960s where a randomized group of students who received two years of preschool sessions on weekdays and weekly teacher home visits, beginning at age 3. Because the study has followed participants into their 50s, economists can now examine the impacts the program had on the siblings and the children of the original participants, who are now well into their adulthoods.

Ask Congress to Make a Lasting Investment in America’s Next Generation

Join Start Early in asking Congress to pass the American Families Plan. Write a letter to your legislator expressing what the promise of the American Families Plan means to you.

Act Now

Their conclusion: the Perry Preschool Project produced dynastic benefits within the first generation (intragenerational) and across multiple generations (intergenerational). The life-cycle benefits of the program include increases in labor income, reductions in crime and in the cost of the criminal justice system. The program also led to improved health and health behaviors. In addition, because the siblings and children of the original participants had higher incomes, they also were able to focus on health and actually logged higher medical expenditures.

As a result of these dynastic benefits, these economists revised the return on investment of the Perry Preschool Project, now estimating that for every $1 invested in the Perry Preschool Project generates $9 in returns to society.

The research makes the proposed federal investments in quality early childhood and care an even smarter investment. Starting early benefits all of us, as it sets children, families and communities up for success for generations to come.

More Like This

In this blog, Amanda Stein, director of research and evaluation, discusses new research with Start Early, NORC at the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Read the full report.

Current Opportunities

Coming off the heels of the pandemic, the massive influx of federal spending on early childhood care and education (ECCE) offers systems, district and program leaders an opportunity to intentionally design and implement equity-focused policies and practices that ensure families and children — especially young children living in marginalized, under-served or otherwise vulnerable communities — have access and are engaged in high quality early learning experiences.

Young children, their families, and our broader society are unable to reap the benefits of quality ECCE programs if children and families are not able to access them. Existing research evidence shows that differential access is an important contributing factor to inequities in enrollment. There is an enormous body of work about the long-term benefits associated with quality care and education in a child’s earliest years, including the recent research evidence coming out of Boston, that makes disparities in access to programming particularly concerning.

Prior Research Findings

Our previous work in Chicago found that after major policy changes focused on reallocating pre-K classrooms to specific schools and neighborhoods throughout the city and increasing the overall number of full-day, pre-K classrooms — both access and enrollment improved for high-priority student groups (students of color, students speaking a language other than English and students living in neighborhoods with lower income and higher unemployment). Furthermore, we found a persistent link between access to and enrollment in full-day, school-based pre-K. In other words, living closer to a school with full-day pre-K increased a child’s likelihood of enrolling, especially for high-priority student groups.  Learn more about our earlier research findings.

Newest Research Findings: Evidence of Improved Student Outcomes Linked to Policies Focused on Equity in Preschool Access
Recent research from Start Early with NORC at the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research examines if and how these pre-K policy changes intended to increase access and enrollment to full-day pre-K are related to later student outcomes. We found that these equity-centered policies at the pre-K level in Chicago created a pathway to higher test scores and grades in second grade. Specifically, these policy shifts were related to higher kindergarten entry skills and ultimately better academic outcomes in second grade, particularly for high-priority students. Reading test scores in second grade also increased among Black students and students in the lowest income group. Importantly, the pathway from full-day pre-K to better second grade outcomes proved especially strong among Black students, students in the lowest-income group, and students living in mostly-Black neighborhoods.

Policy Implications and Directions for Future Research
Overall, the study provides evidence that the geographic placement of school-based, full-day pre-K classrooms is an important mechanism for advancing equity in pre-K access and enrollment and for improved academic achievement in early elementary school, especially for high-priority student groups. In particular the pathway from full-day pre-K to better second grade outcomes proved especially strong among Black students, students in the lowest-income group, and students living in mostly-Black neighborhoods.

Not unexpectedly, the long-term increases in outcomes following Chicago’s access-focused pre-K policy changes account for a relatively small portion of the overall disparities in academic outcomes between student groups. In other words, point-in-time policy changes at the pre-K grade level alone cannot fully address the effects of long-standing systemic inequities within and beyond the educational system. We must work toward building a comprehensive, equity-centered ECCE system that acknowledges the infrastructural role that early care and learning play in the overall economy.

Nonetheless, this research evidence demonstrates that access to full-day pre-K is an important policy strategy that ECCE systems and district leaders can leverage to advance more equitable access and improve academic outcomes in later years. Current ECCE systems and policy conditions are ripe with opportunity for cities and districts to expand full-day pre-K close to where historically underserved students live. It is also possible that the pandemic has led to changes in families’ needs and priorities for care and learning experiences for their children. Therefore, systems and district leaders should develop strategies to actively engage families about their needs, worries, and considerations in addition to location of full-day pre-k and to support families’ awareness and reduce barriers to enrollment in those options. And researchers should continue to study the effectiveness of those efforts. Other key policies beyond access to pre-K must be considered, including policies that support improved classroom quality and family engagement within pre-K settings, support preschool-to-3rd grade instructional alignment, and reduction of poverty and violence as multiple approaches that move us to a time and space where sociodemographic characteristics are not determinants of student outcomes.

Continue the Conversation
Join the Early Childhood Connector to learn from and collaborate with peers and experts in the ECE field, as we continue our work to improve access for our youngest learners.

The early childhood sector is celebrating unprecedented federal investments in our nation’s youngest learners, especially children and families from historically underserved populations. Rising to this unprecedented opportunity will require coordinated, coherent and collaborative action, and state, community and early childhood professionals know they must stay focused on quality and evidence-based decision making to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of this moment in time. Two new publications featuring Start Early research offer leaders information about research-practice partnerships (RPPs) and embedded workforce development that they can use to navigate change confidently and collaboratively.

First, the most recent and final issue of the “Future of Children” focuses on how RPPs can strengthen early education. In our chapter, researcher Maia Connors and colleagues illustrate Start Early’s approach to RPPs; one that partners program implementation and research teams within our single organization to build capacity for “research within practice” and “practice within research.” Our “embedded” RPPs have assisted with evidence-based policymaking, data-driven decision making, continuous quality improvement, innovation, and overtime, stronger early learning outcomes for children and their families.

The Future of Children chapter highlights the importance of building strong infrastructure to successfully organize, conduct and sustain RPPs. It highlights Start Early’s organizational culture that values research evidence, sound measurement, and continuous learning, along with interdisciplinary expertise and teaming. We draw key insights from our experience conducting research and evaluation as part of two of Start Early’s longest standing RPPs: one focused on improving and scaling The Essential Fellowship (formerly Lead Learn Excel), a professional development program for early childhood leaders, and a second focused on implementing and improving outcomes of Educare Chicago, Start Early’s innovative early learning school serving infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families on Chicago’s South Side.

Second, in a chapter in the forthcoming edited book from the Kenneth C. Griffin Applied Economics Incubator titled “The Scale-Up Effect in Early Childhood and Public Policy: Why Interventions Lose Impact at Scale and What We Can Do About It,” Start Early researcher Debra Pacchiano and colleagues discuss Start Early’s approach to professional development. This chapter examines how and why our approach equips early childhood leaders with a key antidote to the problem of declining impacts when interventions are implemented at scale. Specifically, it shares insights and evidence from the work of our embedded RPPs regarding innovative models and delivery of professional development for program leaders and supervisors, teachers and home visitors.

The challenges and realities of the early childhood workforce have compelled Start Early to reimagine workforce development as an emotionally supportive cycle of learning, embedded in the program and leader-facilitated, that nurtures staff well-being and results in staff commitment, persistence and skillfulness with evidence-based models and practices. In the Scale-Up Effect chapter, we define the key elements of embedded professional development and provide three case illustrations of how Start Early partners with leaders to use embedded professional development in their programs to achieve high levels of administration and implementation quality for their chosen evidence-based models and interventions.

These exciting new publications come at a pivotal time. Communities, states and early childhood programs across the country are seeking information and partnerships that empower them to navigate new opportunities and effectively lead change. Together these two publications provide actionable information on how:

  • RPPs can strengthen evidence-informed decision making to build and sustain strong early childhood policies, systems and programs; and
  • Leader-facilitated, embedded professional development can nurture staff well-being and capacity in the daily delivery of quality, high-impact early childhood experiences before kindergarten.

In support of the Every Child Ready Chicago initiative, Start Early began exploring the creation of a Chicago early childhood research consortium, which would bring together researchers, policymakers, practitioners, families, and community representatives across sectors in a robust, long-term research-practice partnership focused on helping Chicago achieve its vision for a strong early childhood system.

Access to relevant, actionable, and timely evidence and data that can guide the decisions of policymakers and program leaders is critical to the success of early childhood, and any other, systems-building initiatives. For an early childhood system as large and ambitious as Chicago, no one research partner or institution can provide these supports alone; a consortium of researchers and research institutions working together is key. Chicago already benefits from several research consortia, but none focus specifically on the city’s early childhood system.

Our exploratory report presents the findings of the initial inquiry phase: stakeholder interviews with 26 participants from 16 different organizations, including researchers, advocates, practitioners, leaders of community-based organizations, City of Chicago officials and staff, and other experts. The consensus that emerged was clear:

  • Chicago needs an early childhood research consortium to serve as a long-term, sustainable research partnership focused exclusively on Chicago’s cross-sector, systemwide early childhood priorities.
  • The research consortium should function as:
    • A neutral third-party without allegiance to, or conflicts of interest with, any City agency, office or department.
    • A trusted thought partner and capacity support for City agencies, offices and departments, as well as community and systems leaders.
    • A “hub” for researchers across institutions and disciplines.
    • An integrated complement to existing and emerging infrastructure, systems, consortia and partnerships; it should not duplicate or replace them.

The exploratory interviews also helped to specify a set of important strategic questions that remain unanswered. In the next phase of this work, it will be important to bring together potential partners for nuanced discussions regarding these recommendations, strategic questions and additional topics that emerge as this work progresses. We are excited to catalyze these conversations and facilitate this process for Chicago’s early childhood community.

Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) have become a popular policy strategy for assessing, improving and communicating about the quality of early childhood education programs. Bolstered by federal grant requirements and significant investments of state dollars, nearly every state has established QRIS, and tens of thousands of programs have chosen to participate over the last 20 years. Research shows that most QRISs can distinguish between low- and high- quality programs and can help children access higher quality early learning experiences. While QRIS has significant potential, it is limited by the communities actually reached.

The reality is that access to high-quality early childhood education programs is currently inequitable—high-quality options are far more limited in under-resourced communities where many low-income families and families of color live. For QRISs to help correct economic and racial inequities, they must serve and support the programs in these communities. Most QRIS participation is voluntary, so to do this, it must be relevant and beneficial to a diverse array of programs.

So, which early childhood programs and communities do—and do not—participate in QRIS? In a recently-published study, Jade Jenkins and Jennifer Duer from the University of California at Irvine and I explored this very question. We learned that:

  • Approximately 1/3 of center-based early childhood education programs nationwide participated in QRIS in 2012 (the most recent year for which data are available)
  • Centers that blend multiple funding sources and those with state pre-K funding participated in QRIS at higher rates than other programs
  • Participation was more likely for programs in some communities than in others – 1) participation was higher among centers located in higher-poverty communities 2) participation was lower among centers located in communities with more Black residents.

These findings show that resources, supports and other benefits of QRIS have not been equitably distributed across communities. Our study cannot answer the question of why centers are more or less likely to participate in QRIS, but we do have some speculations. As mentioned previously, since QRIS participation is often voluntary, a center would likely only choose to partake if the benefits outweigh the burden of time and cost. Participating in QRIS requires an early childhood education program to invest money and staff time, which many simply cannot spare.

In addition, the calculus of costs and benefits may look different for different programs. For example, advocates have raised serious concerns about whether the measures, supports, incentives and processes that comprise QRIS are relevant to programs serving communities of color. In fact, advocates in California came to the devastating conclusion that their state’s “QRIS is racist.” If programs in Black communities do not see themselves or the families they serve reflected in QRIS standards, then what benefits would they gain from participating?

Our research helped to shine a light on the problem. If QRIS is going to advance its of goal of improving economic and racial equities in early childhood education, they must engage and support a diverse set of programs in a broader range of communities.

Policymakers, systems leaders and advocates have an important opportunity to make QRIS more equitable. Solutions will require careful examination of QRIS recruitment and outreach strategies, assessment tools, supports and incentives offered to programs, and barriers to participation. The process must include the voices of those programs and the families they serve in redefining quality and redesigning the system.

QRIS is a vehicle through which we can create change in early learning policy. We must steer it towards equity—now.