High-Quality Early Learning Necessary for All


Last week, I met with the manager of operations and the communications coordinator for the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children (RIAEYC). If you’ve ever seen a sign at an early childhood center proclaiming that they are BrightStars rated, then you have seen some of the work that the RIAEYC does.

BrightStars is Rhode Island’s Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System (TQRIS), the system used in the United States to assess, improve, and communicate the level of care provided in early childhood and school-age care settings. In addition to recognizing program quality, BrightStars also helps early learning and school-age programs learn about best practices and apply them for continuous improvement.

RIAEYC is the state affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the world’s largest organization advocating for young children. Their mission is to promote high-quality early learning for all children (0-8) by connecting practice, policy, and research. They support a diverse, dynamic early childhood profession, providing resources for those who care for, educate, and work on behalf of young children.

Forty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico all have state affiliates; the only states that do not are Arkansas and Mississippi. Here in Rhode Island, the RIAEYC is the managing agency for BrightStars. BrightStars was designed and implemented through a partnership with the RI Department of Human Services, the RI Department of Education, the RI Department for Children, Youth & Families, RI Kids Count, and the United Way of RI.

All of these governmental departments and organizations came together through their commitment to high-quality early learning opportunities for all children. BrightStars was piloted in 2008 and launched in 2009. This public-private partnership is supported by RI General Law 42-12-23, which authorizes and endorses BrightStars as well as requiring cooperation and information-sharing.

As of January 2015, there were 669 licensed early care and education (ECCE) programs with an active BrightStars quality rating, more than three times the number from 2014. Twenty-one RI public schools serving preschoolers also have a BrightStars rating. This increase may be due to the fact that, as of October 2014, all programs serving children participating in the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) are required to have a BrightStars rating.

Parents of young children can contact BrightStars through their website or by calling their toll-free number to find a quality child care, early learning or school-age program in their area. In addition to the rating system for early childhood learning and school-age programs, BrightStars also provides resources and connections to local agencies for families with young children, as well as professional development opportunities for early childhood learning specialists.

There is a wealth of research stressing the importance of high quality ECCE programs. Brain research has demonstrated that 75% of brain growth and 85% of intellect, personality, and social skills develop before age five. Children who attend high quality ECCE programs tend to have better language skills, score higher on cognitive tests, and show fewer problem behaviors as teenagers.

All high quality programs share certain characteristics: small class sizes and low adult-child ratios; a developmentally appropriate and language-rich curriculum; well-trained staff; a safe environment with secure, nurturing relationships; and strong communication between the teachers and the family. All programs with a BrightStars rating undergo continuous evaluation and professional development to ensure that they maintain or improve their rating each year.

President Barack Obama recognized the significant impact quality early childhood education programs can have on our country: "If we make high-quality preschool available to every child, not only will we give our kids a safe place to learn and grow while their parents go to work; we'll give them the start that they need to succeed in school, and earn higher wages, and form more stable families of their own.”

Even so, the United States lags behind other developed countries in the number of children enrolled in ECCE programs. In America, only 69% of all four-year-olds and 51% of all three-year-olds attend preschool programs (we don’t even have data for children under age three). In thirteen other OECD countries, including Australia, Japan, and most of Europe, almost all young children attend preschool programs.

Ensuring that all children have access to quality ECCE programs is going to require a significant investment. As mentioned in a previous column, for every dollar spent in early childhood, there is a return on investment of $8.59. Unfortunately, we may not see that ROI for several years – longer than a reelection cycle. BrightStars is one piece of the puzzle, providing a rating scale and a system of improvement for ECCE providers in Rhode Island, and helping parents find quality programs for their children.

The next step is for our state, and our country, to commit funding to ensure that all parents can afford to send their children to quality ECCE programs, whether that means subsidizing costs or extending our public education system to include preschool. Having high-quality ECCE programs won’t have a measurable impact unless all kids have access to them.

This post also appeared on GoLocalProv.

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