By Karina Rivera  |  June 9th, 2015

 

With less than one year left in California’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grant that developed and piloted regional Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) in 16 counties across California, many questions are being raised. Is the seven-element matrix that places early learning programs on a tiered rating scale sensitive enough to accurately measure quality? Is the QRIS going to positively influence child level outcomes? Who is going to pay for the core infrastructure required to operate these systems?

VIVA staff has been spending time reflecting on the gains made in the past three years, considering the upcoming challenges, and pondering the following: What is QRIS 2.0 in California?

Decisions about the QRIS work and how to manage the transition away from RTT-ELC funding are especially critical given the findings that came out of the Half-Term Report of the Independent Evaluation of California’s RTT-ELC Quality Rating and Improvement System, released in April by the American Institute for Research and the RAND Corporation. The report examined 472 early learning program ratings, interviews with QRIS administrators across the state, and existing research for the quality elements to determine the validity and feasibility of the existing standards and matrix. The results are in and reviews are mixed. In short, although quality did improve as ratings improved, the overall matrix rating was not as sensitive to variations of quality as was hoped. Some specific preliminary recommendations from the evaluation report include:

  • Exploring different rating methodology calculations that make the rating more sensitive to quality levels among early learning programs
  • Identifying alternatives to the current implementation of the Environmental Rating Scale (ERS)
  • Increasing the threshold for Classroom Assessment and Scoring System (CLASS) scores

When considering the report, it is important to reflect on the basic intent of QRIS. The QRIS is a framework for standards of quality, and it is important not to confuse the organizing structure with the criteria. As with most areas of study, standards are tested and refined to increase their effectiveness. However, implementing these recommendations will be challenging, to say the least, because in California, virtually all QRIS participating counties get a say in the rating matrix itself. This can be compared to having the finest chefs from each county agree on how to choose the best restaurant in the state.

The California Legislature is also paying attention to QRIS and appears to want to build upon the enormous gains already made by the 16 pilot counties. Among other things, this attention has led to significant funding increases in the form of mini grants to thousands of California subsidized preschool programs that are high quality. However, it has also significantly increased the pressure for VIVA clients to fund the core infrastructure to develop and manage QRIS, which does not have adequate funding with all current sources combined.

VIVA predicts QRIS 2.0 in California for FY 2015-2016 will include the following:

  1. Significantly increased numbers of QRIS-rated early learning programs and participating counties
  2. Increased attention and support from the California legislature, but not for core infrastructure
  3. Extremely difficult conversations about amendments to the rating matrix standards and calculation methodology

We tip our hats to the 16 pilot RTT-ELC counties, along with the participating First 5 Commissions, County Offices of Education, and especially those early learning programs that raised their hands to be rated in California’s evolving QRIS.

Loosen your seatbelt and get ready to pivot at a moment’s notice. It will be an interesting year.