Recently, a group of Head Start programs sued the federal government alleging they were unfairly labeled as “deficient” and required to re-compete for funding. While the lawsuit was not successful, the controversy is very instructive. It reflects a much broader problem in the early education sector. There are many methods for measuring quality that are widely debated and not easily understood by the general public.
The United States has a wide array of early learning providers and funding programs. Some are federally funded, governed by quality standards the size of a phone book. Others are funded by parent fees and state subsidies governed by a patchwork of local rules. A key challenge for the early learning field is developing shared measures of quality. It would be misguided to use “standardized tests” as the measure. Head Start tried a few years ago, but that was the wrong direction.
For most people who visit early learning programs, you know quality when you see it. Quality is rich learning environments. Quality is skilled, reflective staff. Quality is involved parents. These marks of quality can be assessed, but it takes special tools that can be confusing to the average person.
Are there ways to rate quality that are both genuine and easy to grasp? One good place to start is national accreditation, through the National Association for the Education of Young Children. It is like a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval.” The State of Illinois has developed an optional 4-star “Quality Rating System”. Mayor Emanuel has proposed a similar mandatory rating system city-wide for all early learning centers. This would be a big step forward, but only if designed with careful planning and learning from other experiments around the country.
This is the next frontier for early learning – raising the public visibility of quality, so that parents can make informed choices. And the measures of quality must be thoughtfully crafted – much more thoughtfully than the complicated process used to measure Head Start programs for re-competition.
Creativity needed, not ‘cookie-cutter’ approach
Quality rating systems must encourage providers to pursue creative approaches and not promote cookie- cutter formulas. For example, Chicago Commons has spent 20 years learning and applying the Reggio Emilia Approach to our curriculum. In this approach, the child plays a key role in directing their own learning. And teachers view themselves as researchers. It has led us to see that quality requires an atmosphere where teachers are not afraid to experiment and to reflect critically on their work. So, it would be a mistake to define a narrow list of curriculum options in a quality rating system.
And quality rating should consider results — are children learning and growing and are parents engaged? There are many approaches for measuring child learning and parent engagement. Chicago Commons is participating in a benchmarking collaborative with five other organizations to compare our results. As a group, we selected tools to measure child cognitive and social development, as well as the frequency that family members engage in learning activities with their children.
The Pennsylvania Early Learning Network offers a useful example of a system that does not mandate a single assessment tool, instead offering choices for early learning programs to consider. This puts the onus on local programs to take charge of their own quality improvement process. This is a good direction, as quality improvement must be a living and breathing process within each school or center, not a bureaucratic mandate.
During the recent Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge, many states put forward innovative proposals for statewide quality rating and improvement systems (TQRIS). So, there are many experiments to learn from. New Mexico proposed a new approach to TQRIS standards that includes a child observation/assessment curriculum planning process as well as a deeper focus on cultural competence and home visits. Kentucky plans a competitive “Early Childhood Program of Excellence” award based on child outcomes, population served and innovative teaching strategies.
There is widespread understanding that early education for children under 5 years old is one of the highest-impact educational investments there is. It is also widely understood that these early education investments are most powerful when combined with strong parent involvement.
We have come a long way in the early learning field. Now we need to develop thoughtful rating systems that allow for creativity in the classroom and reward centers with creative learning environments and involved parents. And we should reward these providers who achieve high quality regardless of their location – home-based, private or public school.
Dan Valliere is executive director of Chicago Commons.