For nearly four decades, students at Andrew Hill High School in San Jose have studied the growth and development of young children through elective classes in a campus learning laboratory that serves as a day care center for 2- to 5-year-olds.
Now the school’s Early Childhood Development Center has earned statewide recognition: It has been rated among the best of thousands of early education programs in California. Under the state’s new Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), it received a near-perfect overall score.
California’s system, which has assessed the quality of early education sites throughout the state in the past year, answers for the first time a longstanding question for parents with children in child care: How can the quality of their kids’ programs be measured in a meaningful way that parents can understand?
The San Jose center’s top-tier rating, and the ratings of more than 3,000 other sites across the state, have been posted publicly, online and at many childcare sites. Parents now can discern how their center stacks up against others, what improvements are needed and whether they should look for another program that may better suit their child’s needs. After these initial scores, each site will be rated every two years.
Provider participation in the rating system has exceeded expectations. As of Feb. 24, nearly 3,300 programs have been rated. The latest numbers surpass the state’s target by 33 percent, and are likely to increase in March, said Cecelia Fisher-Dahms, an administrator in the state Department of Education, which is leading the effort with help from nearly four dozen counties that are sending experts to visit and rate sites.
In 2012 and 2013, California received $75 million in two grants from the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge program to build a rating system to help improve the quality of childcare and preschool programs.
Research has shown that children in high-quality programs are likely to do better in school, have higher incomes as adults and avoid high-risk behaviors. Other studies have found that for low-income students in particular, one or two years of early education are not enough to sustain achievement gains, and current statewide efforts are emphasizing improvements in programs that serve those children. In California, about 90 percent of low-income children live in 44 of the state’s 58 counties, which is why the state is focusing its quality-rating efforts on those counties.
Sites are rated on seven measures: observation of children onsite, ensuring that children receive annual screenings for vision and hearing, teacher-student ratios, qualifications of the lead teacher at the site, effective teacher-child interactions, the physical environment of the program and the qualifications of the site director. Overall scores range from 2 to 5.
The Andrew Hill Early Childhood Development Center achieved an overall score of 5. George Philipp, a senior program associate at WestEd, a nonprofit research agency, conducted the site evaluation. Twelve of the 110 early education sites that are rated or in the process of being rated and posted in Santa Clara County also achieved an overall score of 5.
Philipp said the San Jose center was “very high-quality,” and the school’s rating “backed that up.”
Quality-rating scores, which county offices of education are posting online, vary widely from county to county. In Fresno County, only three of 52 sites achieved an overall rating of 5, and two of those sites were on the campuses of Fresno State University and Reedley College. Forty-three of the rated sites scored ratings of 4, and six sites received a rating of 3. The lowest rating in the state’s system is a 2 because all sites are given credit for being licensed in good standing.
In Contra Costa County, just two of 36 sites rated to date and posted on First 5 Contra Costa’s website were given a rating of 5. Eighteen, or half of the site ratings posted, received a rating of 4, while 10 sites received a rating of 3. Six sites rated a score of 2.
Sean Casey, executive director of First 5 Contra Costa, said the county’s ratings show the benefits of investments made several years ago to boost the quality of childcare.
“By the time Race to the Top came along,” Casey said, “many of these programs were up and running. We had already created a culture of quality.”
While the rating system is an important development, there are other pressing issues in early education, he said, such as family engagement. “There is no measurement of that,” Casey said, “but it’s key. So is dual language learning, teacher compensation and professional development. That’s going to require big money.”
In December, the Los Angeles County Office of Childcare posted ratings of 82 early education sites, with 53 sites receiving a rating of 2. Eighteen sites rated a score of 3 and 11 sites received a rating of 4. None of the sites received the top rating of 5.
Dawn Kurtz, chief program officer at Los Angeles Universal Preschool, a nonprofit that helps rate and support preschools in the county, said her agency’s goal “is always quality improvement.”
The ratings in Los Angeles County provide “a good opportunity” to work more closely with early education providers to develop plans for improving the quality of their programs, Kurtz said. One element of that effort is including more professional development to boost the quality of teacher-student interaction, she said.
Damian Carroll, a Los Angeles County parent whose daughters attended preschool at the Van Nuys Civic Children’s Development Center before the ratings system was created, said the new system will help make early education programs in California more accountable to the communities they serve by providing oversight.
Parents in his community, Carroll said, “are always talking about how difficult it is to find quality preschools where you can feel comfortable.” Carroll said the tiered rating system is difficult for many parents to understand. But some basic knowledge of how the ratings work can help parents, “especially those looking for preschool for the first time,” he said.
Some early education providers are using lawn signs outside their sites to trumpet their ratings, Fisher-Dahms said, while other providers “are working with local childcare resource and referral agencies to provide rating information to parents inquiring about child care.”
Several county agencies are offering “scripts” to childcare providers to “help them explain the ratings to parents, in person or on the phone,” Fisher-Dahms said.
Other agencies are holding training sessions with providers to help them communicate the meaning of ratings to parents. In addition, some providers are including ratings information in their brochures.
WestEd’s Philipp said other questions and challenges remain as the rating system evolves.
“We are just now getting real data on a significant number of sites,” he said. “Now we can compare programs and have deeper discussions about what quality is and how we are measuring it.”
At the Andrew Hill center, director Debbie Barnes said there is room to improve even though the site scored very high.
“The program has always been on the forefront,” she said, “and we want to continue to value best practices with young children.”