QRIS and Your Program: Now What?

by Ann Hentschel

July 5, 2015



Editor’s Note: There’s a lot of movement and change happening in Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS). If you’re like many program administrators, this rapidly changing tide may seem overwhelming, leaving you wondering what you can do to get your feet wet. During the next few weeks, the McCormick Center will publish blogs that offer suggestions and resources for navigating the currents of QRIS.


You’ve gotten the emails, read the flyers, heard the whispers…QRIS is in your state. But how do you know if your program is ready to jump in and how do you ensure you’re doing more than going through the motions? My personal journey with Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) has led me to believe the programs providing early care and education need to have a strong foundation in place in order to have a meaningful experience with a QRIS initiative.

In a recent report titled, A Blueprint for Early Care and Education Quality Improvement Initiatives, the authors offer a framework for how states can support quality improvement practices. The framework suggests foundational elements including clear goals and a specific model must be in place. In other words, what is a state QRIS trying to achieve and how will they do it? I propose that this same concept of a framework is true for programs that participate in a QRIS. If your program is engaged in a QRIS, you begin by determining a clear goal and committing to it. It’s critical that all staff are sincerely invested in embarking on a process to strengthen and enhance the quality of your program.

As part of a QRIS readiness assessment process, program leaders and teachers should ask themselves:

  • What do we hope to achieve through this experience and how will we do it?
  • Are we ready to take on an in-depth approach to better understand program and classroom strengths and learn how to build on them?
  • Is our organizational climate one that fosters an openness to look at and consider making changes to strengthen quality?
  • What is our level of commitment to improving program and teaching practices?

In thinking about a program’s foundation, the concept of organizational climate comes to my mind. What is the work life like within the program? In our book, A Great Place to Work: Creating a Healthy Organizational Climate, Paula Jorde Bloom, Jill Bella, and I use the metaphor of weather to think about this question. Would you describe your program as sunny, partly cloudy, or stormy? This is important when determining whether your program is poised to take on the work of strengthening program and classroom quality.

In A Great Place to Work we characterize healthy organizational climates as having a sense of belonging, warm caring interactions, a collective sense of purpose, and upward influence. One of my favorite insights about preparing to engage in QRIS comes from a colleague. She works as a quality specialist offering consultation to programs engaging in ExceleRate™ Illinois, our state’s QRIS initiative. Her observation is that if the program leader and teaching staff do not have a high level of trust and shared values, there is little chance for lasting, meaningful quality improvements.

I believe QRIS initiatives are an opportunity for all of us in the field to move the quality of care and education for young children from good to great. QRIS is an important vehicle for us to show our capacity to improve quality practices. To do this successfully we want to assure a strong foundation is in place within the programs serving children and families. Here are three steps that in our experience help support this type of foundation building:

1. Take a deep look at your organizational climate.
In order to assess your program’s foundation—such as a high level of trust, clear goals, and a healthy work life—consider conducting an organizational climate survey.  This will provide an understanding of your team’s perceptions about their work climate. If this is of interest to you, one tool that can help you assess the organizational climate of your early childhood program is the Early Childhood Work Environment Survey (ECWES). The results will provide you with insights into staff perceptions and help you discover which components of the work environment are more likely to motivate your staff and prepare them for engagement in a QRIS.

2. Target areas for improvement within your organizational climate.
Once you have assessed the perceptions of the team regarding the organizational climate you have an opportunity to target the areas you want to strengthen. Which dimensions of organizational climate will assure your team is ready to engage in meaningful quality improvement practices? If you want to better understand your program in terms of collegiality, opportunities for professional growth, supervisor support, clarity, reward system, decision-making, goal consensus, task orientation, physical setting, and innovation and learn strategies for how to enhance organizational climate, the book A Great Place to Work is an excellent resource.

3. Build your skills as an instructional leader.
In the same way that state QRIS initiatives need a model as part of their foundation, programs need one too. An option that has been successful for programs is using Coaching with Powerful Interactions: A Guide for Partnering with Teachers. It offers simple steps that use strength-based principles to support teachers. The Powerful Interactions coaching approach describes a way of being and thinking that can stand alone or complement a coaching model you are already using. This approach begins with you, your attitude and perspective, and how you perceive and understand interactions: Your coaching stance. Powerful Interactions between adults—as with a coach and a teacher—support individuals as they build on their strengths to enrich their practice ultimately promoting children’s well-being and learning.

By investing time in assuring your program’s foundational elements are in place, you position your program and team for greater success in a QRIS initiative.

What successes and struggles have you had with building your program’s foundation? Share your stories in the section below.

If you would like to learn more, please join Judy Jablon, author of Coaching with Powerful Interactions, and I at the BUILD QRIS National Meeting. We will be presenting “Recalibrating Quality Improvement: Who is in the Driver Seat?” on Thursday, July 16 from 2:45 p.m. — 3:45 p.m. at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland.


Ann Hentschel is Director of Quality Assessment and oversees the implementation of quality assessments and training of technical assistance specialists for Illinois’s quality rating and improvement system. Prior to joining the McCormick Center, Ann worked for many years as a toddler and preschool teacher and as the executive director of accredited early childhood programs at Stanford University.

6 Responses to “QRIS and Your Program: Now What?”

  1. Linda says:

    For the majority of programs I have worked with, just trying to get a director on board with the QR process is a phenomenal effort. So many centers are just content to keep on keeping on; the idea of improved quality doesn’t ring with them or they want it but not the work that goes along. It’s easy a a technical consultant to get burned out. Does a QR program need to be mandated before we see programs begin to take this seriously?

  2. Ann Hentschel says:

    Hi Linda,

    You offer important insights as someone trying to offer technical assistance to programs. I have heard from coaches and technical assistants that they can tell within minutes of entering the child care center or school whether there is commitment to quality improvement. Some program director’s says, “Thank goodness you are here. If you could just go down the hall to the preschool classroom they really need your help.” Other program directors say, “I am delighted you are here. Come on into my office and let’s discuss the best approach to supporting our program with quality improvements.” Which program do you think has the best chance at making meaningful, sustainable change? As we say at the McCormick Center, “Leadership Matters!”

    I tend to believe that most of us in early childhood education want to provide quality experiences for young children. I agree that programs that believe there is always room to grow and improve tend to be better equipped to participate in a QRIS initiative.

    You pose an important question: Does a QRIS initiative need to be mandated before we see programs begin to take this seriously? This gets to the debate about whether carrots (i.e. Financial incentives) or sticks (i.e. Mandated QRIS through state licensing) is the best approach to moving programs towards higher quality. Different states are tacking different approaches.

    Hopefully, others will weigh in on whether a “carrot” or “stick” approach is best? Are there other approaches beyond the carrot or stick to consider?

  3. Vasilya says:

    Hi Ann,

    Great post! It brings up a key issue of sustaining the growth that has been made as a program prepares for rating. A key challenge seems to be maintaining the motivation of the director and staff and having them embrace the notion of continuous quality improvement as an organizational value. It’s not uncommon to see quality sites slip after data collection has taken place. So the question then becomes: how do you build director’s understanding of the importance of leadership in improving quality? The answer is complex and multifaceted, but it definitely helps if the state QRIS system places value on the program leadership.

    • Ann says:

      Hi Vasilya,

      Your question goes right to the heart of the matter. Are programs simply doing their best to comply in earning a positive QRIS rating or is there a desire to make sustainable change to improve quality?

      Did you happen to see the blog post today from Deb Mathias at BUILD? She poses a provocative question for state leaders: Are the correct supports in place for ECE program leaders to develop and lead progress toward the vision, to own and understand the change, benchmark the progress, facilitate and support teacher growth, and learn from their data and from the mistakes?

      Here is the link to the blog post:
      I personally think we need to move away from the word compliance. I am interested in how program leaders might use a strengths-based approach to support teachers on the path to continuous quality improvement.

      At the end of the day one thing is for certain… leadership matters in this process!

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for the article and the opportunity to discuss. Our program has multiple sites in various stages of engagement with QRIS. I think the consultant or coach perspective is important. However, I feel the need to offer the administrator perspective as well.. Many of us are deeply committed to program improvement but we also have a formidable set of obstacles in our way. The first that comes to mind is lack of resources. The early education field is historically under valued and under funded. We see quality initiative after initiative roll down to us, usually with inadequate funds or resources attached (the all too familiar “unfunded mandate”). It is difficult to pay for release time for training, it is difficult to pay over time or offer stipends to compensate staff for giving up their evenings or Saturdays for professional development. And even before we consider professional development–it’s challenging to be able to pay enough to attract truly qualified teachers who are committed to professional development and have the skills needed for high quality and to keep them! Sometimes I feel that there is a dis-connect between the quality improvement side of the field and the direct services side. Quality improvement and accountability systems are important. No doubt. Let’s just not assume that programs are necessarily complacent or resistant to change–they may be more than willing, but overwhelmed and severely lacking in the resources that it takes to support meaningful, sustained change. I’m appreciative that Ca has QRIS block grant funding available to help financially support program improvement and I’m always hopeful that one day programs will be adequately funded in such a way that we don’t have to depend on grants and special, supplemental funding opportunities to be the kinds of programs we want to be and to provide the services our children and families deserve. Just a little more food for thought.


    • Ann says:

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thank-you for articulating so beautifully the very real challenges program leaders face. I wholeheartedly agree that administrators are dedicated to quality improvement. And, truly appreciate your concern about a disconnect between quality improvement initiatives and direct service. What I grapple with is how to take advantage of state policymakers investment in QRIS initiatives. For the first time in history they are acknowledging the value of early childhood education. It seems important that all of us find a way to engage in the process and show our dedication to quality improvement. If we turn our backs there is a risk of losing momentum towards investment in early childhood education. At the same time, those of us in the field that are part of the quality improvement initiatives have a responsibility of not losing touch with the very real challenges being faced by those of you doing the most important work of all… as direct service providers.