Rating system is needed to measure quality of state’s preschool programs
As California struggles with a continuing budget deficit and we work to maintain investments in our state’s vital child development programs, we must keep in mind the long-term goal of increasing the quality of early care and education in California.
A vast body of research demonstrates that early learning programs help children develop the social and academic skills that build a foundation for future success, leading to higher test scores, more high school graduates, and other long-term benefits. However, we know only high-quality early learning programs produce these results for our children.
Unfortunately, not enough of our state’s children are enrolled in these high-quality programs. Less than a quarter of all preschool-age children – and just 13 percent of low-income children – in California are currently enrolled in the types of high-quality early learning programs that promote school readiness and later school achievement, according to research by the RAND Corporation. Additionally, California currently lacks a statewide system to measure the quality of early childhood programs and, in fact, even the basic licensing system in our state has one of the lowest inspection rates in the country.
This is why California urgently needs to develop a quality rating and improvement system that builds on our effective programs, and to redesign our health and safety monitoring system, according to a new report released by the California Early Learning Quality Improvement System Advisory Committee. The report identifies key policy opportunities and proposes a design for a quality rating and improvement system, which will be piloted statewide later this year.
The proposed quality rating system would assess five elements of quality, including ratios and group size; teaching and learning; family involvement; staff education and training; and program leadership. It would support and reward early care and education programs that achieve higher quality standards that are shown to result in improved child outcomes. It would also create a uniform rating scale that assists parents in making the best choices for their children, and policymakers would be able to use the information to increase accountability and invest in effective programs.
We have already seen how quality rating systems are raising student achievement in communities across California. In Los Angeles, for example, Los Angeles Universal Preschool’s (LAUP) Five Star rating system, which represents the largest, longest-operating early learning quality improvement system in California, has demonstrated significant increases in student achievement, according to a recent kindergarten readiness assessment. The results showed that children in LAUP made significant improvements in the cognitive, social, and emotional skills needed to do well in kindergarten, and the gains were especially pronounced for English language learners.
LAUP is among nine Power of Preschool demonstration projects funded by First 5 California that illustrate many elements of a quality rating and improvement system. Other counties with Power of Preschool projects include Merced, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Ventura, and Yolo. Developing a statewide system provides us with an opportunity to align these local quality improvement efforts with what is happening at the state level.
This work is also part of a larger national movement toward raising the quality of early learning programs. Twenty-three other states have already adopted these systems, and California is one of at least 20 more in the process of planning them. The recently formed California Early Learning Advisory Council has already received $10.8 million in federal stimulus funds for this work, and developing a quality rating and improvement system will make us even more competitive for potential future federal funding.
During this time of limited resources, it is even more important that we invest public funding wisely. California has an opportunity to use the recommendations from this report and the statewide pilots to inform our future work so our state’s quality rating and improvement system meets the needs of our diverse communities.
Catherine Atkin is president of Preschool California, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to increase access to high-quality early learning opportunities for all of California’s children, starting with those who need it most.
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