California’s Local Approach to Raising Quality in Early Childhood Programs


The importance of quality in early childhood programs cannot be overemphasized. Research has shown that high-quality programs yield long-lasting benefits not only for children and their families, but also for communities, employers, and the nation. A child who attends a high-quality early learning program is more likely to succeed in school, have higher earnings and better health outcomes as an adult. A recent study within California has shown that a child who enters kindergarten well-prepared is ten times more likely to reach academic standards by 3rd grade.1

But the importance of quality goes beyond benefits for individual children. Research has shown that high-quality early care experiences can help level the playing field between low-income children and their higher income peers by improving the cognitive, linguistic, and social emotional skills that are the foundations of lifelong learning. High-quality early care and education programs offer the tools to close the achievement gap, or better still, prevent it before it even appears. In short, quality in early education is about equity.

Quality has become a buzzword in the early learning field, and garnered attention from politicians to policymakers, to advocates, researchers, educators and parents. However, defining and measuring quality remain a challenge.2 One approach to systematically strengthening quality that has gained prominence and acceptance in recent years is the development of Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS). Efforts for developing and implementing a QRIS have deepened as policymakers face increasing pressure for accountability in early childhood education, especially in reducing racial, ethnic, and income-based disparities in measures of school readiness.3 Forty-nine states are currently operating, piloting, or planning a QRIS. California is one of nine states that received first-round federal funding to create and strengthen its QRIS. However, its unique approach has created important differences, both between California and other states, and within California itself.

This report is based on a literature review and interviews with local and state administrators. The aim is not a comprehensive county-by-county analysis of QRIS, but rather to highlight common themes emerging across counties. The ten counties interviewed for this report were chosen for their geographic, cultural, and economic diversity, as well as for their high numbers of children ages zero to five living below the poverty line who are potentially impacted by a quality rating system.

The goal of this report is to provide a current picture of California’s QRIS, and offer recommendations as the state expands its efforts in quality rating. It describes the common components of quality in early childhood settings, reviews California’s distinctive approach to QRIS, and discusses the resulting implications for stakeholders. Finally, we offer recommendations for future efforts to improve quality in the state.

The Components & Importance of Quality

Across the literature, researchers generally separate quality in early education into two components: structural and process quality.4 Structural quality refers to physical aspects of the child care setting. It includes the ratio of adults to children, and the size of the group; the education level of the teachers; the rate of pay and turnover among staff; and the curriculum used in the classrooms. Process quality describes what happens in those settings; the interactions between children and caregivers, and children’s participation and engagement in activities. Engaging, language-rich interactions between children and caregivers are the fundamental building blocks of children’s academic and social success. Studies show that instructive interactions can significantly improve children’s cognitive and linguistic outcomes, while emotional interactions support the development of children’s social skills and enhance learning across multiple domains.5

Process quality is recognized as most important for children’s development, while structural quality is indirectly related to child outcomes.6 Instruments to assess components of quality have been developed and are widely used (see box on Instruments to Measure Quality).

Mounting evidence indicates that there is substantial room for improving the quality of early learning programs in California. According to a study by the RAND Corporation, only 13 percent of low-income children are in high quality early learning programs.7 Just 4 percent of California’s child care centers are nationally accredited, and no family child care homes are.8 California’s standards for basic licensing of child care centers and preschool are significantly out of step with national standards for quality.9 In most states, child care sites are inspected annually, however in California they are routinely inspected once every five years.10 One national review of child care programs ranked California 50th in both its requirements for child care providers and for its oversight of those programs.11 Basic licensing inspections focus on health and safety measures, and do not assess the broader elements of quality important for children’s learning and development. Licensing inspection reports serve as the only public reporting on child care quality across all counties in the state, but they are hard for parents to access as the state does not make them readily available.12

High-quality early childhood programs have been a priority in President Obama’s education reform agenda. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Obama administration created the Race To the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). Among other things, this competitive grant offered funding to states to design and implement a QRIS.

Twenty states received RTT-ELC grants in three phases, totaling more than $1 billion in federal investments.13 California was one of nine states to win the first round of grants, and received $75 million over four years. Roughly 77 percent of California’s grant is spent at the county level, with eleven additional one-time investments being made to build state capacity, including investments in home visiting programs, developmental health screenings, and others.14

How QRIS Aims to Improve Quality

The promise of a QRIS is that it will strengthen the infrastructure of a state’s early learning system by providing training to providers, setting an aligned and standardized set of quality benchmarks, and increasing public knowledge about quality ratings that will help families choose their child care setting. But each element of a QRIS is complex, requiring the involvement of a variety of stakeholders throughout the state. While every state system is different, the essential components of a QRIS include:

Training, Coaching, and Workforce Supports: Coaches work with child care providers to identify areas for improvement and build providers’ skills and knowledge in those areas. QRIS includes professional development opportunities to improve the competency and effectiveness of educators, as well as a system of incentives to encourage providers to strive for the highest possible quality of their programs.

Tools (and Data): A number of research-backed tools are used to quantify quality in childhood programs, ranging from provider self-assessments to objective external observations and reporting.

Assessments and Ratings: Programs are assessed and receive a rating based on the tools, usually from one (lowest) to five (highest). Coaches and trainers help providers improve their programs and graduate into higher levels of the system. Theoretically, a higher rating produces better outcomes for children in terms of school readiness. After engaging in quality improvement activities, programs are assessed a second time to receive a rating that is valid for a set amount of time.15

Public Outreach: Ratings are converted to an easy-to-follow format to help parents select child care providers, similar to a star rating used by consumers to select hotels or restaurants.16 Public campaigns help educate parents and community members on the importance of quality early education for healthy child development and school readiness, and how to interpret the QRIS ratings. Rating information should be easily accessible to parents and caregivers, helping them choose the highest quality program for their children, as well as the elements of quality that matter most to them.

While decades of research has shown the benefits of high quality learning experiences for young children, to date there is very limited evidence that QRIS ratings are meaningfully and reliably associated with child outcomes. Teacher-child interactions are emerging as the key predictor of children’s learning and development, while other elements of quality included in QRIS are not strongly associated with child outcomes.17 A growing body of research indicates that when ratings are combined across elements, higher rated programs are not associated with better outcomes for children.18 A study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is currently underway to establish whether or not participating in California’s QRIS, and attending a higher rated program, leads to meaningful differences in outcomes for children. The report, which is due to be released in January 2016, will be a defining moment for this work. It will evaluate whether California’s system delivers on the promise of improving children’s outcomes, and highlight the work still left to do.

Instruments to Measure Quality

The following tools are used in many state quality rating improvement systems, including California’s.

The Environment Rating Scales (ERS) are used to measure a variety of quality elements in childhood programs including: physical environment, curriculum, interactions, program structure, and parent and staff education. Objective and reliable assessors observe the classrooms and conduct the assessments. While this tool is widely used, its validity is not universally accepted.19

Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) is an observational tool that measures teacher-child interactions. Research findings in over 3,000 classrooms show that children in classrooms with higher CLASS ratings demonstrate gains in social skills, language, early literacy, and math development.20

Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) is an observation tool used by caregivers to measure a child’s development against specified domains of knowledge, skills and behaviors.21

Kindergarten Entry Assessment (KEA) is an assessment given to children shortly after arrival at kindergarten to help tailor instruction towards closing the school readiness gap.22

Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) is a screening tool used by early educators, parents and caregivers to determine a child’s progress and detect developmental delays.23

Growing evidence suggests that high scores on some instruments must be reached before significant improvements in child outcomes occur, though there is not completely consistent information about where these thresholds exist.24 Understanding these thresholds could help improve the validity of QRIS by ensuring that higher rated programs produce better outcomes for children, and help policymakers direct resources to the areas of greatest return. For example, if research shows that improvements in child outcomes are not significant beyond a certain point on a quality scale, resources should be directed to helping providers reach that point, but not necessarily surpass it.25 A more efficient use of resources may include getting low-performing providers to a certain assessment level before focusing on improving programs that already demonstrate high quality. Although California’s QRIS requires certain scores on several tools to advance to higher levels of quality, there are mixed findings about the extent to which those thresholds are meaningfully related to child outcomes.

What Sets California Apart

California’s System Is Not Statewide.

One of the requirements of RTT-ELC was that states used funding to build an aligned, integrated statewide system. Governor Brown’s administration applied for the federal funding, but declined to establish the system across the state, instead choosing to put counties in charge of developing their own systems. The Governor made three main arguments to explain his position: 1) California has a diverse population with diverse needs that cannot be appropriately addressed by a centralized system; 2) a statewide system would require investments that are not prudent or sustainable; and 3) investments in quality have already been made at the local level.26

As a result, the state pursued a system of local control and decision making. Sixteen counties, each led by a team of five local agencies, were chosen as pilot sites to join the system and receive RTT-ELC grant dollars. By joining the RTT-ELC effort, counties agreed to a common definition of quality focused on three core areas: child development and school readiness; teachers and how they interact with and teach young children; and program and classroom environment.27 While there is one general process of determining quality, counties remain free to alter some requirements and rating criteria.

According to those interviewed for this report, the RTT-ELC grant has significantly advanced the discourse on quality in the early childhood field, and has helped to build consensus on the definition of quality in childhood programs. This large federal investment provided a significant boost to bringing diverse quality initiatives together across the state.

However, the system put in place represents a set of agreements entered into by individual counties who have historically prioritized local quality initiatives, rather than the cohesive state system envisioned by the grant. Although all counties participating in RTT-ELC were required to comply with some state mandates and use a common ratings framework, the rules of the game allow for significant differences at the local level.

This flexibility has advantages, and the need for flexibility in the context of the state’s diversity cannot be overlooked. Yet county administrators uniformly expressed their desire for more state-level input on certain aspects of the system. Stakeholders particularly stated the need for more direction on the types of data that should be collected for this effort, the type of data system to be used, and guidance on coaching models. Data systems are costly and every county needs one, yet no clear guidelines or preferred platforms have been offered. Interviewees in multiple counties highlighted these as areas where efficiencies could be gained if the state provided instruction and infrastructure.

Differences emerge across the participating counties that may have significant public policy implications. For example, there is little state guidance on the different contracted or staff positions that undergird the QRIS, so individual counties are left to themselves to determine what educational background is necessary for a coach or assessor, and what rate of pay is reasonable. As a result, the costs of a classroom assessment and rating vary dramatically by county. Some counties have established a regional market rate for assessors, out of a concern that the well-paying counties will attract all of the qualified staff and leave the lower-paying counties without the personnel to conduct an assessment.

Additionally, there has been considerable flexibility afforded to the counties in the amount of cash incentives they award providers for participating or for improving their score. For example, Alameda County considers the offer of coaching the main incentive for providers to participate, but also awards participants with small cash grants to cover the costs of materials, small facilities improvements, and professional development expenses. Fresno County does not award any cash incentives for participation, citing the lack of stability of the funding for quality ratings. As RTT-ELC sunsets this year and counties transition to new forms of funding, the rules about these incentives will shift. A new block grant available to California State Preschool Programs (CSPP) encourages participating counties to incentivize providers to improve their rating.28 Kern County plans to offer cash awards between $45,000 and $50,000 for the highest achieving programs in the first year of the block grant, though the amount of those grants will reduce over time as the program expands. These wide disparities in what providers can receive for participating may lead to systemic differences in the rate of participation by county, and the availability of quality-rated providers to parents.

In response to the local-control model, some counties have elected to form regional partnerships to gain efficiencies of scale. Working together, RTT-ELC counties have found advantages that cannot be realized when working alone, such as sharing resources, knowledge, and contracts for services. One prominent example is the Bay Area Quality Rating and Improvement System Partnership (BAQRISP). San Francisco County, a member of BAQRISP, had a ten-year track record of rating its early childhood education programs before the RTT-ELC pilot began, and administrators in that county had a great deal of knowledge about how to get a system up and running. Basic tools, like information on the rating instruments and provider handbooks on quality translated into several languages, had been developed and could be shared with partner counties. Other BAQRISP counties were able to take advantage of San Francisco’s existing pool of assessors. As BAQRISP counties continue to develop their own assessors, they share the costs of the training contracts and, once qualified, the services of the assessor. Similarly, all of the BAQRISP counties share a data system contract, which allows them to minimize costs and collect comparable data elements across counties. Other counties, particularly those in more rural areas, may have fewer resources to share and find partnership more difficult.

Variation in county approaches to implementing QRIS may yield important and relevant lessons. Evaluation efforts are needed to comprehensively gather data on the efficacy of the different practices so that counties that are just beginning their QRIS or planning one for the future may benefit from the successful—and unsuccessful—strategies of others.

Counties Are Reluctant to Make Ratings Public.

Administrators in several counties expressed deep reservations about making the results of quality ratings public, as was required by the RTT-ELC grant. There were several reasons for this reticence. First, the system has not yet been linked to child outcomes; it is not yet clear that a high rating yields better school readiness or other positive child outcomes. Providers expressed concern that making ratings public before the system has been validated may pose considerable challenges down the line. Until the release of AIR’s child outcomes study in January 2016, many counties would prefer to hold back on publishing ratings. If state administrators choose to make significant changes to the rating framework as a result of the study, the ratings issued so far will be invalid, and counties will be responsible for re-rating providers.

Second, the RTT-ELC grant period was framed as a pilot, and the California Department of Education (CDE) has made periodic changes to the rating framework. These changes have caused some confusion and hassle at the local level. Providers have raised concerns about being held to a standard that changed over a short period of time.

Moreover, there remains some skepticism that California’s rating framework adequately includes all elements that are relevant to the measurement of quality. Family child care homes are concerned that the rated elements do not fairly represent the culturally and linguistically appropriate care they consider their strong suit. California’s rating framework does not include explicit reference to meeting the needs of dual language learners (DLLs), although many states do award points to child care centers or family child care homes that are able to provide evidence that they are making efforts to meet the needs of cultural minorities or DLLs.29 Emerging research focusing on instructional practices suggests that caregivers should help DLLs explore vocabulary, the sounds of words and letters in both languages, and create opportunities to incorporate dual language books, rhymes, songs, and activities into the day.30 While including cultural and linguistic diversity in California’s system is an area administrators consider important for the next phase of QRIS, it is not yet clear how this goal will be achieved.

Finally, county administrators noted that the system is entirely voluntary for programs. In many counties, low performing providers have little incentive to participate, calling into question the relevance of the ratings of those that do. Nothing prevents a low-quality child care provider from publicly claiming it offers high quality care, without engaging in the process or running the risk of a low public rating. A recent study conducted by RAND and AIR found that 1,272 programs were participating in QRIS across the state of California. The majority of those programs held state or federal contracts and thus already had a fairly high standard of quality.31 In essence, the voluntary nature of the system allows high performers to reap extra rewards, but may have less of an effect on raising the quality of lower performers—those who need it most—who may elect not to participate.

A few counties have embraced the idea of making ratings available to parents, including sophisticated communications and branding efforts, hoping to build interest from the public in a quality rating. Fresno led the state in its efforts to make parents aware of quality ratings by building on its “Early Stars” program. In that county, participating programs receive a public rating after six months of participation regardless of their score. The County Office of Education coordinates data systems with the local resource and referral agency, which assists parents in their search for child care. When parents search for programs on the agency’s website, they can view the quality rating of the providers they are considering. El Dorado has initiated a “Quality Child Care Matters” campaign, which includes presentations to local partners, press outreach and development of a Public Service Announcement. It also incorporates providers’ ratings on informational sheets distributed to parents through the county’s resource and referral agencies.

While a few counties are testing innovative strategies to publicize ratings, for the majority of county administrators, public ratings are not a main focus. Some are planning to post ratings at the very end of the pilot period on county websites in order to comply with RTT-ELC requirements, and some will not publish ratings. For example, Contra Costa will post a description of providers’ quality improvement activities, rather than numerical ratings, so that individual programs are not singled out.

Ratings May Not Be Consistent Across Counties.

Although counties must agree to a common framework for quality, they remain free to make local modifications to the rating structure. For example, counties can elect to add elements to be rated; make requirements for teacher qualifications more stringent; and include local adaptations to assessments and the use of measurement tools. For instance, Fresno determined that early educators would benefit from training to work with special needs populations, and so required 21 hours of professional development in that area for providers to reach the highest rating. Contra Costa adapted the ways that assessors use measurement tools to make assessments more culturally and linguistically appropriate. As a result, the bar is set differently for providers across county lines, raising questions about how to compare those ratings.

Next Steps for QRIS in California

California is at a critical juncture for quality initiatives in early learning programs. RTT-ELC funding sunsets this year, as do a number of state and First 5-funded initiatives, including CARES Plus, and Child Signature Programs 1 and 2 (See appendix). In addition to an increasing federal emphasis on raising quality in early childhood settings, First 5 California has recently unveiled a major new funding stream intended to expand QRIS to all counties in the state.

This section provides a brief overview of the new opportunities for lifting the quality of child care in California.

IMPACT Initiative: In April 2015, the First 5 California Commission approved $190 million for a new initiative, entitled IMPACT (Improve and Maximize Programs so All Children Thrive). IMPACT is a five-year grant-matching program open to all counties and providers across a range of child care settings, including license-exempt care. It aims to increase the number of high quality early learning settings, and engage families in the learning process. IMPACT will be the major funding stream available to support QRIS work in counties as federal RTT-ELC dollars recede.

IMPACT retains the rating structure and definition of quality that was established under RTT-ELC, but extends the program by requiring counties to engage in systems building as a condition of funding. Systems building activities include creating partnerships, strategic financing, and improving and aligning standards, in order to sustain strong systems over time.32 Counties enter IMPACT at one of three levels – termed “steps”. These steps set minimum requirements for what counties must be doing both to improve the quality of early childhood programs, and to build coordinated countywide systems. As counties progress into higher steps, the minimum requirement increases. Counties at the highest step, Step 3, will be required to make ratings of individual providers available to the public.

Final grant awards are scheduled to be announced in February 2015. First 5 California expects participation from all 58 counties either in Step 2 or 3, with approximately 4,600 sites participating annually.33 In addition to funding county-level QRIS efforts, a portion of IMPACT funds will also go towards building state capacity in the following areas:

  • $18 million for 11 regional training hubs designed to help coordinate efforts, leverage resources, provide technical assistance and promote cross-county communication. Counties with sufficient capacity will be chosen to act as regional hubs.
  • $28 million for statewide training services designed to offer guidance to counties in specific areas including uniform data collection, inter-rater reliability training, educating the workforce and public outreach.
  • $24 million to support research and evaluation projects.

California State Preschool Program (CSPP) QRIS Block Grant: The 2014-15 California State Budget established a $50 million annual grant from Proposition 98 funds designed to support existing local QRIS to increase the number of high needs children in high quality programs. The grant, which is now chaptered into state law, provides funds to support CSPP and Family Child Care Networks participating in their county’s QRIS. It does not provide funds for individual Family Child Care Homes or centers that participated in QRIS under RTT-ELC. Because this block grant is capped at $50 million, as additional counties apply for funds, the amount available per county will decrease.

Infant and Toddler Child Care Quality Block Grant: The May revision of Governor Brown’s 2015-16 Budget includes a one-time $24.2 million General Fund grant to QRIS consortia members to improve the quality of programs serving infants and toddlers through training, technical assistance and resources.34

Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG): The reauthorization of this federal block grant in November of 2014 includes a provision for “quality set asides,” which refers to a percentage of each state’s funds that must be spent on improving the quality of child care and development programs. To meet the requirements of CCDBG, and to secure funding, California must increase spending on quality initiatives from 4 percent to 9 percent by 2020. Beginning in 2017, California must also dedicate an additional 3 percent each year specifically for quality initiatives for infants and toddlers.35 Counties are allowed, but not required, to use the CCDBG to fund QRIS efforts.

Intersecting with Equity

The developmental and academic gaps between children of different ethnic, racial, and socio-economic statuses have been detected as early as nine months old, and persist through high school.36 High-quality early education has been shown to help close these gaps through gains in cognitive, linguistic and social-emotional skills that improve low-income children’s standing relative to their middle class peers. Long-term advantages accumulate, too, through increased success in school and later lifetime earnings. The research is clear: high-quality early education can provide life-changing benefits to those children who have access.

California should be commended for taking action to increase the numbers of children enrolled in high-quality programs through QRIS, and to help level the playing field for vulnerable children. But the state’s approach to implementation has important implications for equity, too. While a local approach can help counties address the needs of their specific populations, it can create inequities across county lines in terms of funding available, services offered, and access to those services. As education plays a progressively more important role in social stratification, the quality—and equality—of early childhood education is an increasingly urgent concern.

Policy Recommendations

The funding and rules that flowed from RTT-ELC advanced the field’s focus—and consensus—on quality in California. First 5 California’s IMPACT program and the Department of Education’s block grants will continue that momentum.

The benefits of a system that is uniform across the state include consistent and fair incentives for providers; clear definition of roles, responsibilities and compensation of assessors and coaches; increased clarity with which administrators can market and articulate the system to parents; and increased consistency in the definition of a rating, leading to greater consumer confidence by parents who use the system to choose a child care setting. All of these necessary components of a QRIS are compromised in California, and will continue to be compromised until QRIS is validated, and supported across all of its 58 counties.

California has made great gains over the past years moving towards a statewide QRIS. Policymakers cannot and should not devalue the considerable efforts that stakeholders at all levels have made to construct the system we have today. Rather, incremental steps should be taken to move the system gradually towards one that is more uniform across the state. The following policy recommendations offer suggestions to that end.

  1. Create a path from current decentralization to a more unified system by shifting responsibility for quality assessments and ratings to the state. Many counties expressed concern about the cost of assessments, particularly for ERS and CLASS tools, which can range from $250 to $1,300, and from $180 to more than $1,000 per observation depending on location.37 Building local capacity for assessments through training assessors, anchors, and certifying their reliability every year are heavy burdens at the county level. Shifting the responsibility of ratings and assessment to the state would help counties stretch limited resources more efficiently. California Department of Education and Department of Social Services personnel currently conduct assessments of child care settings across the state, using some of the same tools that county assessors use for the QRIS.
  2. CDE and First 5 California must commit to a unified approach to making changes to the rating framework. With the introduction of IMPACT and the block grants, there now two large entities governing the rules of quality rating. First 5 California and the Department of Education have been collaborating with each other and with the group of participating counties on policy discussions about the future of the system. Their continued collaboration is vital to ensure that the system includes clear, consistent benchmarks for quality and accountability standards across these funding streams. A clear governance structure will also help ensure better, more efficient service to children and their families by removing duplicate policies and resolving competing ones.38 As more and more counties join QRIS, balancing the needs of each county and two state entities will be increasingly challenging, and critical.
  3. Parents need more information about quality. California’s system of rating the quality of early learning settings will continue to evolve. Its voluntary nature allows those providers least likely to see the benefits of the system to participate. The tipping point will come about when parents begin demanding more quality from available providers. Equipping parents with information about importance of rich interactions between children and adults, of building curiosity, of stable schedules and hygienic and stimulating environments is a critical ingredient to expanding the system. All stakeholders involved at the state and county level should join forces behind that effort.


As the state heads into a new wave of funding and program rules governing quality improvement, and as legislators consider new priorities for the next legislative session, now is an important moment to take stock of the lessons learned about QRIS in California over the past several years.

The four-year RTT-ELC pilot proved to be an important experiment for the state, which has helped advance a cultural shift towards quality improvement in early learning programs. The Department of Education and local First 5 commissions have worked together directly on implementing a set of commonly-identified goals, yet much work remains to be done to solidify the system. The work required to build strong, equitable systems for the state’s young learners and their families—one that drives continuous quality improvement at all levels—is a complex and wide-reaching endeavor that will require years of concerted effort.

As the system evolves, it must be responsive to new findings and realities. AIR’s child outcomes study will be an important moment for local and state administrators to take stock of existing efforts and plan future improvements necessary to meet the goal of improving school readiness for California’s children. At the same time, counties and state-level administrators must continue to find ways to coordinate their efforts so that families have equal access to high quality early learning programs, regardless of which county they live in. The research and evaluation portion of the IMPACT grant has the potential to aid counties in their collaboration and add value to the body of research about QRIS, particularly with respect to coaching models, quality measurement tools, incentive systems, and other variables decided at the local level.

Finally, the system also faces the considerable challenge of reaching as many children as possible, so that vulnerable children across the state experience high-quality early learning. License-exempt child care providers, which are not inspected by the state or included in QRIS in any county to date, care for 40 percent of children ages zero to five, and roughly 80 percent of children ages zero to two.39 First 5 California’s IMPACT grant will offer new opportunities to explore how best to engage these providers, and provide further insight on how to raise awareness about the importance of high-quality care among parents and caregivers of vulnerable children.

Appendix A: Previous California Quality Initiatives

Assembly Bill 212 (Aroner) Child Development Staff Retention Program, 1999. This bill aimed to improve the retention of childhood program staff working in state-contracted Title 5 programs through training, coaching, financial support, and stipends for higher education. The bill required local planning councils—working with the Department of Education—to develop county plans for the expenditure of funds. As of 2013, roughly 8,000 people in fifty-five counties participated in the program.44

Power of Preschool (PoP): First 5 California approved a $100 million grant in 2003 awarded to counties over five to seven years. The initiative was designed to provide access to universal, free high-quality preschool to all low-income four-year-olds in selected communities across the state.40 The PoP Bridge program provided additional funds to expand services to infants and toddlers. Eight counties participated, led by their local First 5 commissions who matched state funds.41 PoP developed quality standards, provided program support and assessments, and gave ratings to determine reimbursement and incentives for providers.42 PoP was a predecessor program to CSP 1, and expired in 2012.

Senate Bill 1629 (Steinberg) Early Learning Quality Improvement System Act, 2008. This bill created a 13 member Advisory Committee to develop the policy and implementation plan for California’s QRIS.48 The Advisory Committee made recommendations about technical assistance, professional development, family engagement, data systems, and funding for QRIS. It also recommended rating five elements of quality in a block rating structure.49 California’s system differs somewhat from these recommendations; California rates seven quality elements, does not explicitly include a family engagement component, and uses a modified rating structure.50

CARES Plus is a First 5 California statewide professional development program that launched in 2010.45 With up to $14 million in annual grants over three years, CARES Plus focuses on improving the quality of early learning programs for children ages zero to five through matching funds to support a strong, qualified early learning workforce at the county level.46 The “Plus” represents an improvement—in outcomes and accountability—on the original CARES program that was established in 2000. This year, 35 counties—and a projected 5,000 individuals—will enroll the CARES Plus program.47 CARES Plus is set to expire in June 2016.

Child Signature Program 1 (CSP 1): Established in 2012 as a three-year initiative to help build on program quality in the PoP counties through additional quality enhancement services and activities. These included teacher trainings sessions and support from a group of expert staff working to increase quality in the areas of instructional strategies and child interactions, social-emotional development, and parent involvement. Overall, evaluation results were mixed; CSP classrooms increased teacher qualifications compared to non-CSP classrooms, which saw a reduction in teacher qualifications over the same period.43 CSP classrooms reported higher ratings across some measures of child development, but lower scores on environment rating than non-CSP classrooms. Funding for CSP 1 expired in June 2015.

Child Signature Program 2 (CSP 2): Established in 2012, this program was open to early learning programs in all counties serving high-risk children birth through five. Unlike CSP 1, CSP 2 did not require matching funds from counties. CSP 2 focused on providing quality improvement support through training and technical assistance to local centers from expert staff. Participating sites took a Readiness Assessment to determine areas for improvement upon which trainings were developed. Funding expired in June 2015.

Appendix B: Counties Interviewed for This Report

  • Alameda
  • Contra Costa
  • Los Angeles (LAUP and County Office of Child Care)
  • Fresno
  • Merced
  • El Dorado
  • Tulare
  • Kern
  • Riverside
  • San Bernardino


  1. Lynne Mobilio, “Understanding & Improving School Readiness in Silicon Valley,” PowerPoint presentation, September 25, 2009.
  2. “Examining the Definition and Measurement of Quality in Early Childhood Education: A Review of Studies Using the ECERS-R from 2003 to 2010,” available at (last accessed October 2015).
  3. Kimberly Boller and others, “Impacts of a child care quality rating and improvement system on child care quality,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 30 (B) (2015): 306–315.
  4. Deborah Vandell and Barbara Wolfe, “Child care quality: does it matter and does it need to be improved?” (Madison: Institute for Research on Poverty, 2000).
  5. Andrew J. Mashburn and others, “Measures of classroom quality in prekindergarten and children’s development of academic, language, and social skills,” Child Development 79 (3) (2008): 732–749.
  6. Sandra Soliday Hong and Terri J. Sabol, “QRIS Ratings and Outcomes: Psychometric Issues and Validation,” PowerPoint presentation, February 23, 2009.
  7. Susan Muenchow and others, “Local Quality Improvement Efforts and Outcomes Descriptive Study” (San Mateo: American Institutes for Research, 2013).
  8. Child Care Aware of America, “Child Care in America: 2015 State Fact Sheets” (2015).
  9. The National Institute for Early Education Research, “The State of Preschool 2012” (2012). See also, The National Institute for Early Education Research, “The State of Preschool 2014” (2014).
  10. The 2015-16 Budget Act increased the frequency of inspections of licensed child care facilities to once every three years, beginning January 2017. Governor Brown recently vetoed a bill that would have required annual inspections of all licensed facilities, beginning January 2019.
  11. Child Care Aware of America, “We Can Do Better: Child Care Aware’s Ranking of State Child Care Center Regulations and Oversight” (2013).
  12. Lynn A. Karoly, “Preschool Adequacy and Efficiency in California” (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2009).
  13. “Awards, Abstracts, Scopes of Work and Amendments,” available at (last accessed September 2015).
  14. Office of the Governor, State of California, “Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge 2014 Annual Performance Report” (2015).
  15. California’s ratings are valid for two years.
  16. Kimberly Boller and others, “Impacts of a child care quality rating and improvement system on child care quality,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 30 (B) (2015): 306–315.
  17. Elements with limited association with child outcomes include family engagement, director qualifications, and others. For more information, refer to T. J. Sabol and others, “Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children’s Learning?” Science 341 (6148) (2013): 845—846.
  18. T. J. Sabol and others, “Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children’s Learning?” Science 341 (6148) (2013): 845 – 846; Christina Weiland and others, “Associations between classroom quality and children’s vocabulary and executive function skills in an urban public prekindergarten program,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 28 (2) (2013): 199—209; Sandra L. Soliday Hong and others, “Quality Rating and Improvement Systems: Validation of a local implementation in LA County and children’s school-readiness,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 30 (B) (2015): 227—240.
  19. Rachel A. Gordon and others, “An assessment of the validity of the ECERS-R with implications for measures of child care quality and relations to child development,” Developmental Psychology 49 (1) (2013): 146-160.
  20. The National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning, “Improving Teacher–Child Interactions: Using the CLASS in Head Start Preschool Programs” (2013).
  21. “Introduction to Desired Results,” available at (last accessed October 2015).
  22. California and Illinois have collaborated to adapt California’s state-developed tool, Desired Results Developmental Profile—School Readiness (DRDP-SR). For more information, refer to “Kindergarten Entry Assessments in RTT-ELC Grantee States,” available at (last accessed October 2015).
  23. “Who uses ASQ?” available at (last accessed October 2015).
  24. Martha Zaslow and others, “Quality Dosage, Thresholds, and Features in Early Childhood Settings: A Review of the Literature” (Washington: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, 2010); Margaret Burchinal and others, “Quarterly Thresholds in the association between child care quality and child outcomes in rural preschool children,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 29 (1) (2014): 41 – 51; Vi-Nhuan Le, Diana Schaack, and Claude Messan Setodji, “Identifying baseline and ceiling thresholds within the Qualistar Early Learning Quality Rating and Improvement System,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 30 (B) (2015): 215—226
  25. Martha Zaslow and others, “Quality Dosage, Thresholds, and Features in Early Childhood Settings: A Review of the Literature” (Washington: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, 2010).
  26. Letter from Edmund G, Brown to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary Arne Duncan, October 19, 2011; Letter from Susan K. Burr to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary Arne Duncan, July 11, 2011.
  27. Within these core areas, California rates seven elements of quality including teacher and director qualifications, effective teacher-child interactions, ratios and group size, ERS, child observation, and developmental and health screenings.
  28. To be eligible for block grant funding, counties must form a local QRIS consortium.
  29. “QRIS Compendium,” available at (last accessed October 2015).
  30. Debra J. Ackerman and others, “Enhancing Young Hispanic Dual Language Learners’ Achievement,” Educational Testing Service 2015 (1) (2015): 1-39.
  31. Laura Hawkinson and others, “Independent Evaluation of California’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Quality Rating and Improvement System: Half-Term Report” (San Mateo: American Institutes for Research, 2015).
  32. First 5 California, “First 5 IMPACT (Improve and Maximize Programs so All Children Thrive) Request for Application” (2015).
  33. Projections indicate 30 counties entering IMPACT at Step 3, 28 counties entering at Step 2, and no counties entering at Step 1. For more information, refer to First 5 California, “First 5 IMPACT (Improve and Maximize Programs so All Children Thrive) Request for Application” (2015).
  34. Department of Finance, California State Budget 2015-16: May Revision (2015).
  35. National Women’s Law Center and Clasp, “Implementing the Child Care and Development Block Grant Reauthorization in California Requires Policy Changes and New Resources” (2015).
  36. Tamara Halle and others, “Disparities in Early Learning and Development: Lessons from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort (ECLS-B)” (Washington: Child Trends, 2009).
  37. Laura Hawkinson and others, “Independent Evaluation of California’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Quality Rating and Improvement System: Half-Term Report” (San Mateo: American Institutes for Research, 2015).
  38. “Rising to the Challenge: Building Effective Systems for Young Children and Families,” available at (last accessed October 2015).
  39. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, “Informal Child Care in California: Current Arrangements and Future Needs” (2015).
  40. Susan Muenchow and others, “Local Quality Improvement Efforts and Outcomes Descriptive Study” (San Mateo: American Institutes for Research, 2013).
  41. The program was expanded to include infants and toddlers for FY 2010-11.
  42. Counties included Los Angeles, Merced, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, Santa Clara, Ventura, Yolo.
  43. Susan Muenchow and others, “Local Quality Improvement Efforts and Outcomes Descriptive Study” (San Mateo: American Institutes for Research, 2013).
  44. For more information on SB 1629, see
  45. California Early Learning Quality Improvement System Advisory Committee, “Dream Big for Our Youngest Children” (2010).
  46. Family engagement is a subscale of ERS, but is not currently a rated element in California’s QRIS.
  47. CARES stands for Comprehensive Approaches to Raising Educational Standards.
  48. “Teacher Signature Program Comprehensive Approaches to Raising Educational Standards (CARES) Plus,” available at (last accessed September 2015).
  49. “CARES Plus Round 2 Overview,” available at (last accessed September 2015).
  50. The period is between 2012-13 and 2013-14. CSP quality enhanced classrooms were compared to non-enhanced classrooms that had taken part in PoP, but not in CSP. The number of teachers with ECE or child development (CD) related degrees increased by 15 percent, and the number of teaching staff with a BA increased by 13 percent in CSP classrooms. The number of teachers with ECE or CD degrees in non-CSP classrooms included in the study reduced by 6 percent over the same period. For more information, refer to First 5 California, “Evaluation of the Child Signature Program: 2013–14 School Year” (2015).