By Brenda Hoge
Assessing quality in Early Childhood Classrooms is not new to many of us in Colorado. We have been assessing quality in many of our classrooms and family childcare homes for over 12 years, primarily through the use of the Environment Rating Scales (ECERS-R, ITERS-R, FCCERS-R). As Colorado begins building a new version of the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), it’s important to reflect on what we have learned along the way – and what challenges remain. So as I think in terms of packing my “Quality Suitcase,” these are some of the things I would bring along on this next adventure:
The Importance of Training: One of the first things we’ve learned with our involvement using the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scales (ERS) is that training before implementation is critical. Providing overview trainings for teachers, providers and Directors on the tools as well as more in-depth training for coaches was key to improving quality based on the tools because it gave everyone the “why” behind the indicators and assured everyone that they could pick and choose the indicators that they felt was important to implement in their program.
Coaching Support is Key: Another thing we learned along the way is the importance of coaches and their role in the “Improvement” part of this process. As some communities began using the Rating, their programs were getting money for materials based on their ERS scores but we weren’t really changing the quality. We also had TA services where someone would come in and help the program “get ready for the rating” which worked for the “month rating window” but it really didn’t help create lasting improvements. Centers and homes that have been provided with individualized coaching have focused on not just the “test” but rather on more introspection, goal-setting, and education, and again, quality in these programs has improved over time. As coaches have begun working with the Raters, it has become more of a unified support system for the program, which has been very beneficial.
Reliability equals trust: The third thing we’ve learned along the way is how important it is to have a reliability system for our Quality Ratings. As the Qualistar Rating has become more “high stakes” having well-trained Rating Specialists whose reliability is checked regularly has been crucial in building trust in the system. Yes, not everyone can be consistent 100% of the time due to the high variance in the types of programs Rating Specialists encounter, but by having highly reliable Raters, program disputes over the observation portion of the rating have decreased over time.
Incentives: Because child care is so expensive to implement at a “quality level” the fourth important thing is that we need to provide incentives for programs that participate. Whether the incentives come in the form of grants for staff training or coaching or whether it comes in the form of higher reimbursement rates, programs need support to make “quality” happen.
Buy-in to the system: Finally one of the last things we learned over time is the importance of buy-in to the process both from the provider perspective and from the parents who put their children in our child care centers/homes. We want providers invested in improving the quality of their classrooms; that they really understand that quality is something you work on every single day – not just the day or month of the rating. Yes anyone can “pass the test” on any of these quality measures, but to really commit to quality every single day is extremely important. In our programs who have invested the time and energy to work on quality every day, the benefits to the children enrolled in those programs can be life-changing.
For parents, who are the consumers, it’s also important that they buy in to this system and that they no longer accept poor quality care for their children. Yes, the problem that we continue to face is that many parents’ choices in child care may, out of necessity, be driven by costs of programs rather than the quality. I’m fairly certain that if you asked any parent, they would prefer to put their child in a quality program if we could find a way to make it affordable.
So as we look to introducing more quality improvement measures for our child care centers and homes, it’s important to take what we have learned and improve upon it. And like any suitcase, there are some things that we take with us but we never use, and some things we forgot to bring along or couldn’t fit that are critical to our journey. Some of these include the buy-in of providers and parents, approaches and tools for working with Dual-Language Learners and Staff, support for the wide array of curricula that are being used by our programs, funding for our improved QRIS system, and having resources in place in all areas of Colorado and for all types of programs. And while this is just a small list of what we’ve learned and what we still need to answer, it’s a start. What other things have you learned from our ERS journey that we need to pack with us in our “Quality Suitcase” as we embark on this new direction?
By Lynn Andrews
Once again, the inability of our field to clearly define itself is getting us in trouble. This time it’s with the US Dept. of Labor. Recently, their Wage and Hour Division has been conducting audits on early childhood education programs around Colorado – checking that programs are compensating employees for overtime according to the law. This includes paying employees for attending required training after hours and evening parent meetings. This rule assumes that classroom staff in early childhood programs should not be classified as exempt employees because for the most part, they don’t meet the Dept. of Labor’s definition of “professionals.” Here is what they have to say about Preschool Teachers: www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs46.htm. (link opens new window)
“Bona fide teachers in preschool and kindergarten settings may qualify for exemption from the minimum wage and overtime pay requirements as “professionals” under the same conditions as a teacher in an elementary or secondary school. Teachers are exempt if their primary duty is teaching in (an) educational establishment. It should be noted that, although a preschool(s) may engage in some educational activities, preschool employees whose primary duty is to care for the physical needs for the facility’s children would ordinarily not meet the requirements for exception as teachers under the applicable regulations.”
In addition, to be considered a “professional”, the employee must make at least $455 per 40-hr. week (about $11.37 per hour), and be doing work that requires “advanced knowledge” gained through a combination of experience and “intellectual instruction” beyond high school.
In programs that have been audited, the two points of contention are whether ECE teachers are really teaching, and if so, whether they are teaching in an “educational establishment.”
Certainly, we know that our teachers are focused on children’s development and learning, not just their physical care. Of course, we have yet to adequately address the compensation issue for ECE teachers – so many working today would not meet the wage test. We are however making strides in requiring ECE teachers to have more formal education at the college level. Despite these attempts to professionalize our field, we are still viewed by many outside as providing primarily custodial care – strike two on the “educational establishment” test.
Now, I realize that advocating for our teachers to be recognized as professionals, and therefore eligible to be classified as exempt employees, doesn’t come without its challenges. Many programs do not have sufficient income to pay teachers the required minimum salary, or to give teachers the paid time off that generally comes with a professional position. We need to continue to work on this issue. But there is a lot of energy going into how to legitimately work around the issues identified in the audits – such as making ongoing training requirements the responsibility of the individual rather than of the program that employs them. But what message are we sending to our teachers, to the government, and to the public with this approach? Do we not want our programs to be considered educational establishments? Do we not want families, and other educators, and policymakers to see us as professionals? Is our best defense to try to change our system to fit ourselves into the current definitions, or should we be working to change the rules - to define ourselves in a way that truly reflects the value of the work we do?