Promoting quality improvement in early care and education

BlogEarly ChildhoodFeb 9 2016

Early childhood is a critical time for brain development and building essential skills. Improving the quality of early education (ECE) settings to promote children’s well-being has been a priority in the field for the past two decades. With 40 quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) across the country, more states are working toward improving quality in ECE settings than ever before. Yet, surprisingly little is known about the effectiveness of these quality improvement initiatives, or what it takes to implement them successfully.

This week, Child Trends released a new evaluation report on one such effort– Success By 6® (SB6) in Greater Philadelphia. SB6 was designed to support the advancement of child care centers in Pennsylvania’s Keystone Stars QRIS by providing consultation, funds, and professional development opportunities. With funding from the William Penn Foundation, we examined how SB6 is being implemented, including the content and strategies used in consultation sessions, and the success rate of centers in Keystone STARS. The bottom line is that SB6 improvement strategies support advancement in Keystone STARS – 45 percent of SB6 centers move up, compared to just 29 percent of centers in a comparison group. Overall, however, quality improvement is challenging. Staff educational qualifications are one aspect of quality that was particularly hard to improve over time.

To provide a foundation for the SB6 evaluation findings, we developed A Blueprint for Early Care and Education Quality Improvement Initiatives, a research synthesis summarizing best practices in ECE quality improvement. Putting the Blueprint practices together with findings from the evaluation, we learned lessons about quality improvement that are important for the early care and education field as a whole:

  • Effective implementation of quality improvement initiatives requires monitoring and flexibility to adjust policies and procedures. Many quality improvement initiatives underway nationally have structures similar to SB6. Their consultation components involve multiple partners, and the initiatives require coordination with a state or local QRIS. We found that it’s important to put in place management structures to monitor activities in the field and identify solutions to implementation issues that arise. The evaluation also revealed the importance of investing in a data system that facilitates entry and review of documentation and supports communication across partners.
  • Collaboration across key partners from the ECE system is important for quality improvement initiatives. The SB6 management team includes representatives from United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, the agencies delivering technical assistance, and Keystone STARS. The partners reported that this structure supports regular communication and problem-solving and has allowed for adaptation of the initiative over time. The inclusion of this team is consistent with best practices in implementation.
  • Financial incentives are an important component of a quality improvement initiative. SB6 provides substantial financial incentives. SB6 funds are used primarily to support the purchase of classroom materials and facility improvements. Nearly all SB6 center directors agreed that the funds are a critical tool in quality improvement. As quality improvement initiatives shift to include a focus on intentional teaching, it’s important to consider how financial incentives can be used to promote improvements in the learning environment and in interactions with children.
  • Supporting the ECE workforce is a key challenge for quality improvement initiatives. Results from the SB6 evaluation indicate that TA consultants spend most of their time in centers focusing on improvements in the learning environment. An opportunity exists to enhance this classroom assistance with workforce supports such as scholarships for higher education, wage supplements, and credit-bearing training opportunities. Embedding these options in a quality improvement initiative would require a significant investment of funds and a longer timeframe for results.

You can read more in our full report, Improving Quality for Child Care Centers in Greater Philadelphia: An Evaluation of Success By 6, accompanied by an executive summary and appendices.