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.