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child care standards
Sam Gordon, a trained pre-K classroom observer, rates the teacher-student interactions at St. Joan of Arc School in New Orleans. All toddler and pre-K classrooms in the state that receive any public money are observed at least twice a year to determine their educational quality. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

This article is the 14th in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.

NEW ORLEANS — Sam Gordon learned quickly that he needs to buy pens with the thinnest tip possible for his part-time job as a pre-K classroom observer in New Orleans. It’s the only way he can get all his notes to fit in the small boxes of his observation booklet.

Over the last year, he’s done roughly 100 observations, dozens of them in private child care centers, as part of the state’s new system for assessing quality in early childhood settings. At 8:30 on a Thursday morning in November, he arrived at St. Joan of Arc School in Uptown to do another.

The class was lining up to go to the bathroom. Gordon trailed behind as they left the classroom, put an observation booklet on a clipboard and got out his pen. He set his iPhone timer for 20 minutes and started writing furiously.

This observation process, which will be carried out across the state in toddler and pre-K classrooms between September 2016 and May 2017 – and roughly 1,000 times in New Orleans alone – is Louisiana’s new way to measure the quality of early childhood programs. A 2012 state law prompted the overhaul of the state’s existing quality rating system and required a uniform rating system for all early childhood programs that receive any public funding, including private providers, federally funded Head Start centers and pre-K classrooms in public and private schools.

All these child care centers will be observed at least two times a year and rated based solely on the interactions a trained observer witnesses between children and their teachers. Most other states rate additional factors, such as whether a center meets health and safety standards or whether its classrooms are set up in age-appropriate arrangements. Louisiana, in contrast, wanted to create a system that accurately reflects the education young children get, without putting too much of a financial burden on child care centers.

Related: Is Mississippi’s child care system backsliding?

Louisiana, with its investment in growing the Quality Start system, stands in stark contrast to Mississippi, which is doing away with its child care quality rating program on December 31 for financial reasons. By doing so, Mississippi is defying a national trend toward improved standards and increased accountability for early childhood systems.

child care standards

Thirty-nine states, including Mississippi, for now, have some version of a quality rating and improvement system, or QRIS, intended to measure the quality of a child care center and help those centers get better. Another eight states are planning or piloting a system. The remaining three have a QRIS program in place in at least some regions or localities. At least 10 states, including Louisiana, require child care centers that receive public money to participate in the rating system, according to information compiled by the QRIS Compendium.

Experts say improving the quality of child care is important because early childhood is a critical time for brain development. A recent Hechinger Report and Clarion-Ledger investigation found that many Mississippi centers fail to meet even basic health and safety standards.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services is cutting funding to the Early Years Network, the agency that runs Mississippi’s QRIS, at the end of the year for financial reasons. The network, based at Mississippi State University, provides resources and training to child care centers and has overseen the state’s voluntary quality rating program since 2007. Once it is shuttered, free assistance to centers that need help to improve will be limited.

The rating system, which awards centers up to five stars, has been controversial since its introduction. Centers have been encouraged to participate with the promise of increased child care voucher reimbursements for each additional star they earn. The payments came from a federal grant and were awarded to low-income families to help pay for childcare.

But fewer than 40 percent of Mississippi centers ever signed up. As of October, 519 centers were enrolled in the program. Only 85 had received three or more stars — the benchmark of high quality — whereas 218 received one star, and 107 centers had not yet been rated.

Related: Child Care Crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi

Critics of Mississippi’s QRIS, including centers that declined to participate, alleged that it revealed a racial bias against black providers and that it looked at too many environmental factors, such as furniture and specific types of toys, that were too costly for many centers to afford and unrelated to children’s academic success.

At least 10 states, including Louisiana, have mandated participation in the rating system for child care centers that receive any public money.

Revisions of the rating system began earlier this year, but the Department of Human Services halted the work this summer. In September, the department alerted the Early Years Network it would terminate the network’s contract at the end of the year. The department has not announced plans for a replacement system. The Governor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the decision to end the rating system.

Debi Mathias, director of the QRIS National Learning Network at the Boston-based BUILD Initiative, acknowledged the complexities of creating, running and financing a large-scale rating and improvement program. She suggested that even without the Early Years Network, it is possible Mississippi will continue the work. Still, the decision to terminate the EYN contract leaves many unanswered questions. “How are they going to keep their eye on the prize of better outcomes for children?” she said. “How will they reconstruct the system?”

Pam Harmon, director of the Giving Tree II daycare in Corinth, said she has never participated in QRIS, even though it “has its good points,” because she can’t afford it. “As a small business owner, it’s not feasible for me money-wise,” Harmon said.

A recent survey of 162 providers conducted by the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, a nonprofit that aims to make quality child care for low-income families more attainable and which has been a vocal critic of the rating system, found that 78 percent wanted QRIS to end. Survey results were presented at the September meeting of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council.

Related: Who should fix problems with Mississippi’s early childhood system?

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, is sympathetic to the arguments of the child care workers surveyed about QRIS. He’s been critical of the complexity of many QRIS systems and done research that suggests measurements of the environment aren’t a useful gauge for the educational experience a center is providing. But he says repealing the system altogether would be a mistake.

“If you buy the idea that the concept has some validity — monitoring the places where kids are spending time — then it’s our obligation as professionals … to try to improve whatever it is we’re doing,” he said. “I would not recommend throwing it out.”

In theory, the system Louisiana has set up would satisfy many of the criticisms of Mississippi’s program. Like Mississippi and most other states, Louisiana previously assessed centers using a rating tool that included classroom interactions in addition to other factors, like communication with parents, a teacher’s educational attainment, and the physical characteristics of the classroom.

Louisiana’s new tool, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS, developed by Pianta and others at the University of Virginia, focuses only on teacher-student interactions. The system requires trained observers to sit through four 20-minute periods in a classroom, looking for evidence of productivity, teacher sensitivity, and regard for student perspectives. At least 13 other states include CLASS in their quality rating systems, according to the QRIS compendium, which gathers information about programs by state.

“We’re focused on what kids get day in and day out,” said Jenna Conway, assistant superintendent of early childhood at the Louisiana Department of Education.

For his part, Pianta says that while the thought behind Louisiana’s strategy has merit — focusing in on factors that drive student learning — his measure may not encompass everything a rating system might want to look at. For instance, it doesn’t consider evidence of a curriculum.

Related: Who should fix problems with Mississippi’s early childhood system?

Bridget Rey, CLASS coordinator for Agenda for Children, the New Orleans non-profit that serves as the lead agency for the New Orleans Early Education Network and is responsible for conducting the twice-annual observations, said that some child care providers were initially resistant to changes in the system, in part because they’d spent so much time and energy complying with the previous one. But she tries to tell them it can be easier to succeed using CLASS. “You can control [interactions],” she said. “You don’t need to buy anything.”

Back at St. Joan of Arc School, Gordon carefully watched the students and teachers, writing almost constantly. “What I’m looking for is the experience of the average student,” he said.

As a teacher helped a little boy roll up his pants and returned hugs from a group of girls, Gordon wrote a note in a box on his form labeled “teacher sensitivity.” When the students got a little too loud and the teacher reminded them “We have neighbors upstairs,” Gordon put a note in the “behavior management” box. Back inside the classroom, as the students colored in turkeys for a Thanksgiving “placemat” and the assistant teacher asked students how they knew hearts are red, Gordon jotted something down for “quality of feedback.”

When his phone timer went off, Gordon pulled out a scoring manual, pushed up the sleeves of his blue sweater and set to work determining the score for the classroom on a scale of 1 to 7 in each category.

Gordon set the clock three more times, observing as the class finished their placemats, spent nearly an hour doing activities at different centers set up around the room, including library, writing and discovery, and lined up for the bathroom again.

Related: How to make improvements to Mississippi child care

On a whole, the teacher received high scores on positive climate and teacher sensitivity — above average, Gordon said — but fared worse in categories dealing with instruction. This is typical both in Louisiana and across the nation.

The notes from the observations, to which all center directors have access through an online service, can be used to help decide what kinds of training staff need to improve. The state offers a myriad of professional development classes for free.

Getting that message out has not been easy. Rey says they have repeatedly told center directors they can log in to access specific notes, but not everyone remembers that fact. Agenda for Children hopes to increase the number of centers taking advantage of the information, Rey said.

Angela Lee, director of Krescent City Kids Learning Academy, said the overall feedback she got from the first year of observations of her toddler and pre-K classrooms was somewhat helpful, but a chance to review the observer’s notes would be even more so.

She also would like to add back in some of the elements taken out of the old program, such as ratings for classroom environment. “It needs to be across the board,” she said. “If you’re just looking at a teacher’s performance you have to keep in mind she’s not at her best because there’s a stranger in the room.”

Directors of some Mississippi centers — particularly those who have come to rely on the additional money they get for each child care reimbursement as a reward for improving quality — say they’re upset QRIS is ending abruptly after they invested in all the different categories, including changing their classrooms.

“We’ve worked very hard to bring our center up to a quality four-star center,” said Margrete Chapman owner of Agape Educational Center in Canton. “We don’t know what’s coming up next.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Next week this series will look at the results of child care center inspections during 2016.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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