Early Childhood Education: Quality and Equity

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Other states utilize Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), like Georgia’s Quality Rating System. These systems often are designed to use standardized assessments to examine, improve, and communicate the level of quality in early childhood education programs. This research summary provides an overview of the current research about how best to embed and adapt quality improvement systems and measures of quality to include equity as a key component.

Access to High-Quality Care

“Access to High-Quality Early Education and Racial Equity,” a June 2020 report by Allison Friedman-Krauss and Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, highlights the low access to early childhood education programs in the United States—particularly for black children. Even in areas where enrollment in center-based care is the same between black and white non-Hispanic children, according to the report, the rates of quality are different. On average, black children attend lower quality early childhood education programs than those of their white non-Hispanic peers.

Black children are less likely to attend high-quality early childhood education.
Allison Friedman-Krauss and Steven Barnett, 2020

Public early education programs often are higher quality than private programs, but there’s still room for improvement. According to Friedman-Krauss and Barnett, the challenges that young black children experience in educational settings frequently are related to discipline and relationships with teachers and peers rather than overall quality issues.

These challenges are evident in higher rates of suspensions, less engagement among peers, negative interactions, and higher rates of discipline for young black students. There also are inequities in staffing, black students’ classroom experiences, and how students are treated within the same classroom. Stephanie M. Curenton of Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development and colleagues identifies several studies in an Early Education and Development article, “Validity for the Assessing Classroom Sociocultural Equity Scale (ACSES) in Early Childhood Classrooms,” that highlight some key differences that impact quality and equity—and equity in assessing quality:

  • Students who see and engage with teachers who look like themselves and understand them culturally are more likely to have greater academic achievements. Black students who have just one black teacher by third grade are 13% more likely to enroll in college. However, 82% of public school teachers are white.
  • When challenging behaviors are expected among students, teachers tend to observe black children more closely, especially black boys.
  • When black students are in a classroom, even a high-quality classroom, they’re treated differently—and more often when fewer black children are in predominantly white classrooms—or when behavior challenges emerge.
  • Some black students may require interaction that is more frequent or specific in nature than their peers. This is the nature of equity in high-quality settings—responding to each child’s unique needs.

Jennifer Park of the University of Florida and colleagues in a presentation, “Creating High Quality, Equitable Experiences for Young Children,” and Curenton and Bridget Hamre in a webinar, “Equitable Interactions in Early Childhood Education,” point out that high-quality care isn’t possible without a sense of belonging for all and learning supports for diverse learners and racially marginalized learners, including black and Latinx students. There are persistent disparities and lack of access to quality care for these populations across early learning environments.

To truly address educational and achievement disparities, wrote Michael Stambler of the Yale School of Medicine, we must move from equal to equitable access and opportunities, which involves learning environments that adjust to the individual needs of children and families and recognize the specific and unique needs of all children and groups of children.

How We Assess High-Quality Care

According to Trust for Learning’s Measuring the Quality of Early Learning Environments guide, even with all the existing measures of early education quality, there is often a lack of consensus about what defines quality and how to measure it. In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic and social injustices highlighted in the media have focused the need to ensure that quality practices in early childhood education include a focus on equity.

A high-quality early childhood system must include equity of access, experiences, and opportunities to truly support equitable outcomes for all children and families. Equity must be taken into account in considering what is measured, how it’s measured, and how the information is used. This means asking questions such as:

  • Are all children given opportunities to engage with each other, teachers, and materials?
  • Are resources allocated to prioritize children and families according to their needs and strengths?
  • Are all children and families given choices around how they prefer to engage?
  • Are there discrepancies in how children are treated or microaggressions against children from certain racial or ethnic backgrounds?

Curenton, Iheoma Iruka, Shana Rochester, and Tonia Durden reveal in The Assessing Classroom Sociocultural Equity Scale (ACSES) measure that current tools don’t consider or examine differences in quality and factors that affect those differences, including teacher bias, access to resources, and peer engagement. Some researchers have been working to develop and test a new assessment designed to assess the classroom experience of historically marginalized learners in early childhood settings. ACSES is the only tool that looks at equity in the classroom from the view of racial and ethnic diversity.

The ACSES tool looks at interactions between teachers and students and among students themselves to examine equity, bias, and cultural responsiveness. The findings can provide information for improving classroom interaction, reducing bias and facilitating cultural sensitivity, and fostering cross-cultural friendships—providing a foundation for professional development based on anti-biased education. This tool is being assessed to ensure validity and reliability across times and locations. Initial studies have found high internal consistency and validity and resulted in five primary factors:

  1. Challenging Status Quo Knowledge,
  2. Equitable Learning Opportunities for racially marginalized learners (RMLs),
  3. Equitable Discipline,
  4. Connections to Home Life, and
  5. Personalized Learning Opportunities.

According to “Strengthening Systems: Embedding Equity when Defining Quality,” a series on early childhood workforce produced by the Hunt Institute, comparing the ACSES tool to the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) revealed a high level of validity between the scales. ACSES looks at several key areas, including social and culturally affirming practices, challenging higher order thinking, and fair and proactive discipline. There are a growing number of tools like ACSES that broaden the way quality is defined and measured.

Trust for Learning’s Measuring the Quality of Early Learning Environments report cautions that relying too much on observational measures can minimize the family and community input into assessing quality. Obtaining family input on perceptions of respect, consistency with cultural expectations and needs, and similar issues is necessary to really know how well programs are supporting these children and families. The report also highlights some key components that are vital for quality measurement:

  • Fully incorporate equity considerations—which requires an understanding of historic and present inequities.
  • Reflect on what children need to thrive emotionally, socially, physically, and academically—in all areas.
  • Include factors from all levels of the early childhood system—teachers, children, curriculum, funding, families, etc.
  • Include in the context an overall improvement strategy.
  • Use the right quality measurement tool for the right purpose.
  • Use multiple measurement tools.
  • Produce useable and actionable information.

Quality assessments with equity at the core use both observation measures and gather perspectives and feedback from teachers, families, and staff, according to Trust for Learning’s report. A self-assessment can be a critical tool for measuring quality, planning program improvements, and developing a shared focus and goal. This also gives providers a way of continually monitoring quality and sharing that information with parents and community members, as well as regulatory agencies.

Quality Improvement vs. Quality Rating Improvement Systems

Measuring quality will not change programs or systems. According to the Hunt Institute, focusing on improvement systems rather than on rating systems can lead to greater recommendations and improvements for change. Focusing on improvement systems also will reduce the burden for care settings that often face systemic barriers to improving quality when they face additional penalties from a traditional rating system.

QRIS are heavily focused on center-based programs rather than including and adapting to family child care settings and informal settings like friend and family care. Families who want to ensure cultural and linguistic support for their children often prefer these more informal structures. These programs also are often more supportive of families who need flexible child care arrangements due to work schedules and other demands.

By adapting QRIS/Quality Improvement Systems and including components that are more appropriate to these settings and structures, we can begin to lay out recommendations to help support quality in all settings.

The Georgia QRIS—Quality Rated—was designed to ensure access to high-quality early care and education by laying a foundation of learning and school readiness to support future success for all Georgia’s children, according to the Administration of Children and Families Georgia QRIS State Profile. The system is research based and was established with input from multiple stakeholders. The Quality Rated system includes supports and engagements with family child care providers and other types of settings in addition to center-based care.  Participants benefit from technical assistance, support for quality improvements, and professional networks for continuing improvement.


These are some key recommendations for communities and child care providers regarding equity and quality for early childhood education:

  • Cultural diversity and linguistic diversity should be seen as valued assets in teachers that can strengthen classrooms and programs. Allow teachers to use their language and cultural experiences to help enrich the classroom.
  • Make professional development opportunities accessible to all staff more equitable, which includes addressing:
    • location,
    • cost,
    • topics, and
    • methods of training delivery.
  • Provide experiences and professional development opportunities to teachers and administrators to:
    • build empathy and relationships with students and each other,
    • understand culture and language as supports in the classroom,
    • measure and use assessment tools,
    • engage cultural diversity and understand bias,
    • build family engagement, and
    • utilize improvement recommendations based on quality monitoring.
  • Develop systems for collecting and measuring feedback from families and community.
  • Use assessment tools to develop recommendations for improvements—and not just for ratings and potential sanctions.
  • Collect and monitor equitable engagements in the learning environment and use the information to improve practices as part of professional development and learning.
  • Promote relationship building with all types of families.
  • Increase supports (financial, resources, training, etc.) for friend and family care and family child care.
  • Engage both families and staff in program decision-making and improvement plans.

Recommended tools from Trust for Learning for assessing various components of early childhood classroom quality:

  • Accessing Classroom Sociocultural Equity Scale (ACSES)
  • Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation—Dual Language Learners (ELLCO-DLL)
  • Inclusive Classroom Profile (ICP)
  • Brief Early Childhood Quality Inventory (BEQI)
  • Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-Being (SSTEW)
  • Classroom Coach
  • Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS)
  • Language Interaction Snapshot (LISN)
  • Quality of Caregiver-Child Interaction for Infants and Toddlers (Q-CIT)
  • Developmental Environment Rating Scale (DERS)
  • Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-3)
  • Early Childhood Essential Survey
  • Program Administration Scale
  • Supportive Environmental Quality Underlying Adult Learning (SEQUAL)

Bill Valladares
GaFCP Communications Director

Reg Griffin
DECAL Communications Director

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