Study: NC’s early care and education Quality Rating and Improvement System works – but does it measure the most important thing?

North Carolina was one of the first states to create an early care and education Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). The goal of a QRIS is to raise the quality of early care and education programs. North Carolina’s system is called the Star Rated License and provides an easy rule of thumb for parents to follow—programs are rated one through five stars, and more stars means a higher quality program.

A new study has found that North Carolina’s system works – early care and education programs in the state are motivated by their ratings to increase their standards, and parents, at least in urban areas, make choices of which programs to use based on the ratings.

As outlined in this Brookings post, a new study by Daphna Bassok, Thomas Dee and Scott Latham, “The Effects of Accountability Incentives in Early Childhood Education,” provides some of the first strong evidence that a well-designed QRIS system can do what it is intended to do – raise the quality of early education programs and give parents information to make decisions.

Using data from North Carolina, the study authors found that:

  • Early care and education programs respond to the ratings they receive through the QRIS system by improving in the areas on which they receive relatively lower scores.
  • Programs that got lower ratings saw their enrollments drop, demonstrating that North Carolina parents respond to the ratings.

This new data is an endorsement of North Carolina’s QRIS system for early education. It suggests that the system drives program quality improvement both directly – the programs raise their own standards in order to receive a higher rating – and indirectly, through parent choice. The authors did note that, not surprisingly, enrollment was impacted by QRIS ratings only in counties where parents had choices for care. This means that only in NC’s more densely-populated areas is parent choice giving program quality an extra boost.

It’s also worth noting that NC’s QRIS system measures health, safety and classroom quality—things like teacher/student ratios, whether children have access to developmentally-appropriate materials, and safety from exposure to toxic substances. While these features can improve outcomes, research demonstrates that it is the quality of the interactions between teachers and students that best predict children’s outcomes. For example, children in classrooms that are well managed and emotionally supportive demonstrate stronger social skills and fewer behavioral problems going forward, and teachers who effectively grow students’ cognition and language skills improve their achievement.

NC’s QRIS does not measure the quality of interactions between teachers and students in a comprehensive way. So the thing that matters most for high quality early childhood education doesn’t get counted when we add up those stars.