California creates system for rating early childhood centers

January 19, 2015

A young student at the Kai Ming preschool in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood practices Chinese calligraphy.

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For the first time in California, thousands of early-learning centers in most of the state, from preschools to licensed child-care centers and homes, are in the process of implementing a common system to rate the quality of their programs.

The system is a result of the only statewide grants California received from President Barack Obama’s signature $4.3 billion Race to the Top program. The state was unsuccessful in getting significant Race to the Top funding for its K-12 schools, but won $75 million in two “Early Learning Challenge” awards to institute a range of reforms to improve the quality of its vast system of publicly and privately funded preschool and child-care programs.

As the state’s Race to the Top grant application stated, “California’s 1,729 local educational agencies and over 50,000 early learning providers span a far wider spectrum of size, infrastructure, and readiness for change than exists in any other state.”

The ranking system is intended to address a long-standing challenge in California’s complex system of early learning centers: how to come up with a way to assess the quality of the centers while also giving parents some way to gauge whether to send their children there.

California is halfway through the grant period, and officials say they have made significant progress toward putting the system in place.

A central goal of the grants was to expand the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) that some counties had started to set up in 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Developed in Oklahoma nearly two decades ago, the system is currently being used in some form in more than two dozen states.

To address the diversity of California’s population and educational system, the grants call for establishing local consortia to set up a statewide rating system that is responsive to local needs and conditions.

California’s rating system aims to provide parents with information to help them make informed choices about early-learning programs for their children, while giving programs a way to measure how they are doing and to set goals for improvement. It uses a five-tiered system that sets increasingly difficult standards on a 1-5 scale and awards points ranging from 5 to 35, depending on whether programs meet specific standards.

“We want to make rating systems clear and simple for parents and focus on the type of experiences their children should have in classrooms,” said Dawn Kurtz, Senior Vice President of Programs at Los Angeles Universal Preschool.

One of the state’s goals is to better serve students from low-income families and those with special needs, said Cecelia Fisher-Dahms, the Quality Improvement Administrator for Early Education and Support at the California Department of Education, which helped create the ratings system.

While quality ratings of early-learning schools have been used in several California counties in the past, this is the first time such a system is being built statewide, with major help from local government. Education officials in 30 of California’s 58 counties are now evaluating early-learning centers in their areas. Ninety percent of California’s children from birth to 5 years old live in those counties, Fisher-Dahms said.

Gov. Jerry Brown made a significant political statement when he encouraged giving the county consortia the authority to administer the early-learning ratings system, said Bruce Fuller, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education who is an expert in early childhood education.

The governor was saying that the quality of early-learning centers “should be locally determined,” Fuller said. “That’s a big stride forward.” But how well local officials can manage the system remains to be seen, he added.

State officials say the rating system will be fully up and running by June 2016, when the federal funding ends. Some schools, including those in Fresno County, have posted their ratings on their websites, giving parents, educators and others access to the data. More ratings are expected to be made public in the coming months.

Los Angeles County aims to begin posting school ratings this year, said Dawn Kurtz, Senior Vice President of Programs at Los Angeles Universal Preschool, which is funded by proceeds from a 50-cent-a-pack tobacco tax approved by California voters in 1999. Proceeds from the tax help support early childhood education programs in the state.

“We want to make rating systems clear and simple for parents and focus on the type of experiences their children should have in classrooms,” Kurtz said.

Ratings are based on several factors, such as whether a center screens every child for developmental and health issues, whether teachers have the required qualifications, whether the center meets state-mandated child-teacher ratios, and the local assessment team’s observations of in-class interactions between children and teachers.

“We found that the process worked smoothly,” Sarah Sun, education director at Kai Ming preschools in San Francisco, said of the schools’ first assessments. “It was helpful, and we need those assessments to improve. We didn’t feel that it was a pain.”

Most early-learning centers across the state have completed their rating plans and are in the process of being assessed by county education officials.

In Los Angeles County, school officials have rated 200 of 600 early-learning sites, and are in the process of shifting 300 preschools from a pre-existing rating system into the new system so they can be assessed in the coming months, Kurtz said.

Teachers in Los Angeles will be trained by professional coaches about how to ask students questions that prompt better interactions. In some cases, changes to the physical layout of classrooms are being considered to make better spaces for kids to learn.

San Francisco, which administers 150 preschools, has quality plans in place for those sites and has completed the first assessments of all but seven schools, said Laurel Kloomok, executive director of San Francisco First 5, which oversees educational programs in the city for children from birth to five years.

Dual language learning

The Kai Ming preschools in San Francisco received their first quality assessment from First 5 in 2014, and the centers received high marks, said Sarah Sun, educational director of programs at the nonprofit’s five sites in the city.

“We found that the process worked smoothly,” Sun said. “It was helpful, and we need those assessments to improve. We didn’t feel that it was a pain.” Given the complexity of the ratings system, Sun said, Kai Ming isn’t making its ratings public until after it meets with parents to explain what the scores mean.

The biggest challenge for Kai Ming’s center in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood is teaching English to the 85 percent of its students who speak Cantonese.

To do that, it staffs two classrooms a day, and each class has at least two teachers – including one who speaks English to students and one who speaks Cantonese to students. Each day, the children grapple with “a lot of words” in each language, said Nesanna Lee, who is lead teacher and the site manager.

By the time the 40 3- and 4-year-olds leave the North Beach center for kindergarten, they must be able to write their names, know the alphabet and learn to count to 100.

Counties cooperating

Consortia representing 16 counties across the state are administering the ratings system and are sharing resources to help 14 neighboring counties do the same in their areas. While most of the ratings standards are set by the state, county school officials can add their own requirements.

For example, Santa Barbara County requires that a school program must be accredited by a national organization to receive the highest rating. By contrast, Los Angeles County wants to include a center’s success in engaging families in its activities.

Fresno County, which has a high percentage of Spanish-speaking students, requires that lesson plans and class materials reflect the cultures and languages of students, said Isela Turner, a project specialist for the Fresno County Office of Education. In addition, classes with at least 20 percent of English learners who speak the same language must have at least one teacher who is fluent in that language.

County officials who are assessing the early-learning centers say the quest to improve the quality of programs can be daunting.

“There is a pretty high staff turnover rate in preschools,” said Kurtz of Los Angeles Universal Preschool. “That puts a burden on staff, especially when we want to improve the quality of our workforce.”

Dawn Kurtz’ job title has been corrected. It is Senior Vice President of Programs at Los Angeles Universal Preschool.

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