Improving Quality in Early Education

This year's state budget provides a major increase in funding for QUALITYstarsNY, a quality rating and improvement program for early education providers.

Historically, the quality of New York City’s early childhood education programs has varied widely, ranging from nationally recognized preschools to day cares where babies and toddlers may spend large chunks of the day in front of a TV. Parents have had few tools to help distinguish between high quality and low.

QUALITYstarsNY aims to establish consistent sets of standards for early education programs, measuring areas such as learning environment, family engagement and staff qualifications and experience. 

Providers (who work with the program voluntarily) receive an initial rating of one to five stars based on how well they meet the standards, then work intensively with quality specialists to improve on any weaknesses. For example, if a program rates poorly on teacher qualifications, QUALITYstarsNY might pay for teachers to take more coursework. If it needs help creating an optimal learning environment, QUALITYstarsNY might bring in puzzles or culturally appropriate books. 

Providers continue to work with the program even when they have achieved a 5-star rating. Program ratings are not yet made available to the public, though providers are free to share their ratings with parents and others if they choose. The hope is that ratings will eventually be widely available.

Across the country, 39 states have already implemented some form of quality rating system for early education programs, according to a new report by Child Trends (a national, nonprofit research center). Many are much further developed than New York’s. For example, 4,300 providers are enrolled in Wisconsin’s state-led quality improvement programs—a number that represents 80 percent of regulated early education providers in the state. 

New York State, however, has not previously allocated stable funding to such efforts. In Fiscal Years 2012-15, QUALITYstarsNY received a portion of the funds allocated to the state through a federal “Race to the Top” grant, as well as a $500,000 yearly grant directly from the state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). Altogether, yearly program funding totaled about $1.5 million.

This year, the state budget allocated $3 million to the program through the State Education Department. Together with continued OCFS funding, a four-year federal Preschool Expansion Grant of $260,000 and undisclosed private funding, the program’s budget will rise to $4 million for Fiscal Year 2016.

Program coordinators plan to use the increased funding to expand to new providers and to deepen services at existing sites. QUALITYstarsNY currently works with more than 330 early education programs, one-third of which are located in New York City. Approximately 120 of the current providers serve children aged 0-3.

The program is not exclusively aimed at promoting social and emotional learning, but many of the standards—particularly those around teacher training and effective family engagement—support healthy development in early education classrooms, says Ariel Davis, the project's coordinator.

Coordinators say that it’s difficult to estimate how many new programs will be added in the coming year, since providers vary widely in size and need.

The first public evaluation of QUALITYstarsNY will be released in fall 2015, according to Sherry Cleary, executive director of the NYC Early Childhood Professional Development Institute, which administers the program.  

Find more information about QUALITYstarsNY here