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State to adopt rating system for child ed

Jared Lindh

 Massachusetts is taking steps to join a national trend by launching a system to rate programs that provide early childhood care and education.

Over the last decade, a number of states have turned to the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) to measure education and care providers’ success. QRIS evaluates programs on a one- to five-star scale based on compliance with predetermined standards rooted in educational research.

Quality rating systems are nothing new to American consumers. Often used for tasks like comparing hotel amenities and reviewing automobile safety information, these measuring sticks help people make informed decisions by assessing whether or not products are as good as advertised.

The goal of implementing the system is to increase the quality and transparency of early childhood care provided by “pre-K programs, early education programs in public schools, day care centers — anywhere where you’d find young children,” said Valora Washington, president of the Community Advocates for Young Learners (CAYL) Institute, a Cambridge-based organization.

QRIS focuses on early childhood programs, Washington said, because objective measurement tools for that age group fall short of the abundance available for K-12 education.

“There are already ways for the public to find out what the quality of your public school is, for example,” she said. “You can check out the MCAS scores, [and] there are Web sites that compare school districts.”

Oklahoma became the first to adopt a statewide QRIS in 1998. As of June, 17 states had instituted the system, including Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Massachusetts is one of 28 states with a system in development.

Efforts to improve early childhood education in Massachusetts were thrust to the forefront in late July, when Patrick signed into law House Bill No. 4706. The bill, “An Act Relative to Early Education and Care,” was vetoed in 2006 by former Gov. Mitt Romney. This time, it passed the state Legislature unanimously.

It calls for a “comprehensive overhaul of regulations setting health, safety and quality standards for all licensed programs,” according to Patrick’s office.

“I am very proud to … celebrate this bill that takes us one very important step closer to providing every child in Massachusetts with the lifelong benefits of strong educational beginnings,” said Patrick.

Some observers, like the CAYL’s Washington, say that QRIS can help Patrick achieve that goal. But the process will take time. The state aims to pilot QRIS, now in the public input and design phase, in the fall of 2009. Full implementation is expected by January 2011.

Early care providers will not be required to participate in the rating system. But state officials say that if QRIS is implemented properly, the free market will compel programs to come aboard.

“The strategy is to build upon the strengths of the existing mixed system of early education and care that Massachusetts has, and to provide incentives, including financial incentives, for providers to participate,” said Matthew Veno, a spokesman for the state Department of Early Education and Care (EEC).

“The thinking is that as more and more parents see the QRIS as a valuable tool and its usage expands … more providers will see the importance of — and value in — participating,” he said.

As Washington sees it, the value of such a rating system is clear — holding programs accountable.

“If you want to send your child to child care or an early educational preschool, you’re paying for it,” she said. “Just as if you’re paying for a hotel room, you want to know as a consumer what it is that you’re buying.”

Another benefit, she added, is easing parents’ burden when it comes to selecting a care provider.

“It’s not reasonable for every parent to know all the details about all the research of what it takes for kids to learn and grow in a preschool setting,” said Washington. “What QRIS really is, is a communication strategy for the families.”

Just what the Massachusetts system will communicate is not yet clear. Evaluating standards used in QRIS differ from state to state, according to the National Child Care Information and Technical Assistance Center. Some components, however, are uniform for all states, including the mentoring and training of those who work in the early education and care field, and state-funded financial incentives for high-performing programs.

Among the questions evaluators may consider in rating programs:

• Are class sizes conducive to learning? “In high-quality early childhood centers, there is usually a very small class size, with a teacher and a teacher’s aide,” said Washington.

• Is the classroom environment safe for young children? “[QRIS will] be looking at health and safety standards … Is there water, and a toilet that is the right size for young children?” she asked.

• Do teachers take an age-appropriate educational approach? “Is there a curriculum that is based on how young children learn?” asked Washington. “[A high-quality system] would incorporate intentional and well-supervised play activities, which focus on young children’s strengths.”

• Are teachers trained specifically for their job? “Is there a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education with some specialized knowledge of how to teach young children?” asked Washington. “That is something that even Massachusetts does not even require.”

While Massachusetts does not mandate that pre-kindergarten teachers in state-funded programs hold bachelor’s degrees, the EEC’s Veno was quick to point out that the state does recognize bachelor’s degrees as quality indicators in early care programs, and that the department continues to support early care providers in furthering their education through various scholarships and grants.

Another major question lies in how to finance the establishment of QRIS, which state officials have yet to determine.

“We have not yet come to the stage of our planning to project costs, but as we further refine the plan, we will be developing cost estimates in the near future,” said Veno.