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Creating a Culture of Improvement Advancing Toward Racial Equity

15 Mar 2022 by Teachstone

A big topic of conversation currently—both in and out of the educational field—is the difference between equality and equity. When equity is not being achieved in schools, some groups of students simply don’t have the same access and opportunity to acquire quality education. And, it’s undeniable that race is a significant factor in who can access opportunities and who ends up marginalized.

Today, our hosts Marnetta Larrimer and Darlene Estes del Re are joined by Debi Mathias, the Director of Early Care and Education Quality Improvement at the BUILD Initiative, and Stephanie M. Curenton, Associate Professor at Boston University, The Center on the Ecology of Early Development. Listen in to the episode to hear them discuss what quality improvement systems look like and can do, measuring whether student experiences are improving, and implementing real-time data into classroom approaches. And most importantly, we talk in detail about how to push the field toward a more equitable system where all children have access to high-quality, meaningful interactions.

Listen to the full episode below, wherever you listen to podcasts, or read the full transcript posted on this page.


Darlene: Hello and welcome to Impacting the Classroom, the podcast that brings together policymakers, researchers, and educators to discuss the educational landscape. Today we're excited to have this conversation and I am your co-host, Darlene Estes-Del Re.

Marnetta: Hello again, Darlene. I am Marnetta Larrimer. Today, we're joined by two experts in the concept of continuous quality improvement systems or CQIs, as we will be calling it as we move forward. Debi Mathias and Stephanie Curenton-Jolly. Welcome, ladies.

Stephanie: Thank you for having me. I'm so pleased to be here today. It's very exciting.  

Debi: Me too. I'm looking forward to the conversation.  

Marnetta: Yeah, we're excited to have you.

What are CQI Systems?

Darlene: For our listeners, you are in for such a treat because these ladies have bought such rich details around continuous quality improvement. We're going to just jump right in and start talking about continuous quality improvement systems. We're going to start by talking about from a system level, what are they and how are they impacting the classroom?

Stephanie: I think that I will leave this first one up to Debi because she and her colleagues are really the experts in the field about what quality improvement systems should look like across the field.

Debi: Thanks, Stephanie. You know what, people working in states are really the experts about their own context and about what's going to work with their providers, their families, and their communities. A little bit about quality rating and improvement systems, they began as a state strategy in the late 1990s.

That was around the time when we were thinking about how we could help childcare improve settings. We were hearing about all the brain research, we were getting research about where children are spending their time is important to their early development. We had the National Association of Education for Young Children articulating components of a quality setting.

We were all also hearing about return on investment thinking. What does school readiness look like in the early years? We wanted child care to be a better partner for head start, early intervention, and state Pre-K, and really be able to support families in their child's school readiness. When Race to the Top came out, that further supported this strategy and really inculcated it into the landscape.

Each state has a different goal for its quality improvement system and a different theory of change about it. Some wanted to raise the floor of licensing, which was more related to health and safety. As you know, licensing has different regulations in each state so we're building on an uneven foundation to improve childcare. Some states really wanted their QIRS work to get to the place where they were in and had childcare as a part of the system for school readiness. Can we really use the largest child-serving system to improve school readiness for children?

Other states had an idea about using QRIS, Quality Rating Improvement Systems, to unify the early childhood system. If they could have different sectors participating from head start, early intervention, state Pre-K, and childcare, they could use it as a bridge and a way to unite those sectors together.

QIRS was an indicator-based system with many states relying on research-based observational assessment tools that covered a lot of ground and provided the support for the PD and the TA necessary to improve the practice. All along the way, insufficient financing has been a continuing barrier to successful, full scale, sustainable implementation of this system's approach to quality improvement.

What Trends Are Happening in CQIs?

Marnetta: I really appreciate the background that you shared with us and just that foundation that you laid for the conversation as we propel it forward. Both of you have been working in or studying these systems for a while now. What trends have you seen come and go from the states using CQIs?

Stephanie: What I've learned, and I've learned this mostly from my conversations with my colleagues at BUILD, is that the future CQIs will focus less on rating and more on the cycle of improvement. Originally, our quality improvement systems were very much focused on the quest to find the perfect rating tool, but we are seeing a shift away from rating tools to focus on how the system is built in a way that will reinforce a continuous cycle of quality.

This means that ongoing improvement efforts are now going to be the key driver of the system. This idea really harkens back to a conversation that I actually had with Debi a few weeks ago, in which she said professional learning for our early childhood educators and leaders is now the driver of our quality improvement system.

In my work with measurement development on the rating tool, I've led the development called the Assessing Classroom Sociocultural Equity Scale, pronounced ACSES. In that work, I started early on in its development thinking about what is the professional development and coaching support that would go along with this tool. 

Debi: Stephanie, when I hear you talking about that, it makes me think of states going kind of back home with the tools that were really invented—such as the CLASS or the Environment Rating Scales—to give information to the teacher and the director about where they were in a quality continuum, and to use the tools to understand what would be next and what area can I be doing better in.  

I think as the tools migrate more to the continuous quality improvement or data for improvement idea, it's going to give us more space for tools that help really have a unique perspective or can give program's insights about how to improve for different groups of children, different families, or different areas that they're working on and really want to improve. I'm excited about this idea of using the data and the tools for improvement like you said, Stephanie. I think that's going to be a nice opportunity for programs and for states to think more carefully about this area.

Darlene: Debi and Stephanie, it just made me think about just excitement about bringing these things together. I'm just wondering if you might say a quick word about in the past as a trend that maybe those assessments you mentioned where the assessments happened and then PD happened. Maybe, correct me if I'm wrong, the two aren't always as connected as they could have been to be as impactful. Would you say more about what are your thoughts on that? 

Stephanie: Yes, I definitely will. I can say that a long, long time ago, when we first started doing QRIS and even when the field first even sort of started to work with CLASS, way back in that day, we did not have a PD component to these measurement tools. I have to honestly say, since then, the class measure and the teaching company have really risen to the occasion and they're providing PD that actually supports their tool.

The place where I come in with a unique perspective is that the tool that I created is really there to look at racial equity in the classroom and to really help push the field forward in terms of racial equity and making sure that the classroom experiences that we deem as quality, that those experiences are distributed across all of the children. This is so important because it is this perspective here about equity and quality, that's what's really going to drive the system. That's what's really going to make it better, support wider access, and more responsiveness to family and children's needs.

Debi: When you're talking there, Stephanie about equity, I think we're all learning about the difference between equality and equity. They're similar but slightly different concepts. Equality generally refers to equal opportunity, the same level of resources and support for all areas and all segments of society. Whereas equity more specifically refers to ensuring everyone has fair access to opportunities and services, while also removing barriers such as discrimination, racism, poverty, and other challenges. Equity requires offering varying levels of support depending upon the need to achieve greater fairness of outcomes.

We have to remember and there's recognition of historical and current inequities that excluded access to opportunities or services. I think this concept and definition is key in transforming the conversation about continuous quality improvement systems and how to work toward equitable systems.

We have to remember and there's recognition of historical and current inequities that excluded access to opportunities or services. I think this concept and definition is key in transforming the conversation about continuous quality improvement systems and how to work toward equitable systems. - Debi Mathias

This, of course, leads in turn to the targeted universalism strategy where we have an idea about what we want to have happen, but we really need to look at populations in terms of what populations need more support and services. This comes in, as you know Stephanie, with PD, TA, and the financing systems for all this work.  

We've been talking more and more about quality improvement systems advancing toward equity. I think that we're improving our language around these concepts with the components. This is going back up from where Stephanie was talking about the classroom experience to a system trying to impact the classroom experience. The way you're conceptualizing or incorporating the big system.

What are the mission, vision, and goals of the system that's center equity? What type of courageous leadership and governance do you employ? Some of these concepts are at each level of the system. I'm going to talk a little bit more about that in a minute because these conversations are around the classroom level, but what's going on at the other level is going to be key to the classroom opportunities as well.  

Is there equitable financing? Do we have engagement and partnership with families, providers, and partners in development and implementation of the CQIs, now quality improvement systems? Are there equitable standards in each of the big three buckets?

For example, are the learning standards—what children need to know and be able to do—advancing toward equity? Are the different sets of program standards? Whether the Head Start Performance Standards, the Pre-K Standards, the licensing standards, the quality improvement standards, are they all reflecting an equitable perspective? Going back and looking at each of those three sets and the final one being the practitioner competencies or standards. Are there equitable supports for improving and maintaining quality? 

Finally, this is where we get to digging in on the continuous quality improvement theme in the accountability data feedback evaluation. Here's where I just want to talk for a minute about each level of the system, and state leaders, community leaders, and programs thinking about how the system is working and who's benefiting from the system that you've put in place. This focus on the I in the program improvement plan. The tools are used to inform the improvement setting.

I think another change I've seen is states taking a strength-based approach and looking to support all the providers and improving their quality, understanding where they are on a quality continuum, taking steps, and having support to improve their quality.

This building a culture of quality and reflective practice, ensuring the locus of control of quality improvement is at the program level. I think what happened initially in crafting these systems was it sat more at the state and implementing partner level. But when you think about quality improvement with the practitioner, within the program, within the implementing partners, and at the state level, each group has a continuous cycle of improvement at their own level. Together, those cycles impact and play off of each other.  

How are the TA and PD implementing partners thinking about their own quality improvement? What are they hearing from providers? For me, the start of all the quality improvement efforts begins with each person's own quality improvement plan. Each of us thinks about, what do I need to do better? What can I do well? What can I do better? What do I want to learn this year about doing better?

That within programs from the teacher aid to the director, within implementing partners, from the TA providers, technical assistance providers, coaches, or from the assessors using the tools, how are they each getting better? How is it rolling up to the state? Looking at their data, who are benefiting from the system, and thinking about how we can get better. All those levels.

Marnetta: I love what you just said, it literally lit me up. Depending on where you are in the system, you feel very tied down, just kind of under the things, you feel kind of helpless. It's great to look at CQIs and think it can start with me as an individual movement. What can I do better? How can I improve what I am doing and how it's interconnected with all the other work that happens?

Knowing that you have an opportunity to impact and influence what's happening in your own personal space and how that lends itself to more improved work and more improved outcomes in what you're doing, that's inspiring. As a person who just might feel very stuck to know that you have an opportunity to impact at a higher level just by starting with yourself is inspiring.

Darlene: Marnetta, I would add to that sense of agency. It feels like something is not being done to me, but that I have that locus of control that this is something I can own, I want to own, I can see my own growth, and I'm propelling it forward like what Debi was saying. That changes it from just that big R (rating) that seems like it's done to me versus something I can commit to. Knowing that everybody in my system is doing the same. I think there's that sense of community that we're all working towards a common goal of improvement. Yes, you got us all fired up, Debi. All that to say. 

Debi: I think the main result we want, and I'm going to hand it over to Stephanie here to say is, in the end, we want better programs for children and families. It's at the program level and within the classroom that we can really work together. All levels working towards supporting the teacher and provider in the classroom improve the quality of the setting. It works right into your tool there, Stephanie, to give us insights about that.

Stephanie: I agree with you and I think what fired me up about what you were saying is this idea of thinking about quality across all these different layers and thinking about our framework for quality being able to touch everyone in that system. I think I'm fortunate because I'm coming along at a time when we've just learned so much. As I thought about the ACSES tool, I was always able to think about where does this tool sit in a larger system? How can we use the ideas and the values of this tool to change the change decisions at the leadership level? How can we use it to change PD? How can we use it to change teacher practice?  

The one thing that I'm very excited about is this idea of what we're really trying to think about with ACSES is trying to figure out how we can have a technical assistance engagement framework that really is going to touch each level. 

We're just now starting to learn about that. We were lucky enough to have funding from the Gates Foundation to help us develop what we are calling these communities of practice within localities. In those communities of practice, what we're really trying to do is bring in some of the leaders in our early childhood workforce to think about strategically, how do we plan for racial equity in our system?

Just as Debi says, what's our mission, vision, and goals that center around equity, racial equity in particular? Then looking at how that then feeds up to an engagement and partnership with families, et cetera, so that we are all sort of operating from the same common values, the same common vocabulary, and you're building a system that will just travel along together as one unit.

I guess I would say one other thing when we talk about trends because one other trend that I've seen very recently is states and programs beginning to openly and unapologetically talk about how important it is to focus on how some of the quality tools that we use in the CQI systems take into consideration the impact the system is having on low-income children and families of color.

We have to acknowledge, unfortunately, that our early care and education system is racist. It's a huge flaw in our system and it's classist as well. That's from the very nature of its design, historically.

We have to acknowledge, unfortunately, that our early care and education system is racist. It's a huge flaw in our system and it's classist as well. That's from the very nature of its design, historically. - Stephanie Curenton

The only way we can really fix these problems is by being brave enough to confront these flaws and to really talk about them. If we really want to create a system that is racially equitable, we have to start focusing on racial equity in all of these areas that we just talked about in terms of access, our quality ratings, and our workforce.

For example, in terms of access, we have to talk about the fact that [...] children, in particular, have less access to early childhood center-based care. We have to talk about how segregated our early childhood programs are. In fact, our early childhood programs are even more segregated than our K-12 system. We all know that we have some problems with our K-12 system.

Finally, just in terms of quality, we have to be honest and start talking about the fact that racially marginalized children do not have the same access to high quality care. Of course, we also have to think about this in terms of thinking about the way in which we commonly define quality, which is why my colleagues and I talk about in a paper that raises the question of the bias that we have around cultural bias that is prevalent in the way quality is defined.

I think last but not least, which is so critically important, is that we need to think about racial equity in terms of the workforce because we have some real walls to break down around this issue. Our early childhood workforce consists of an over-representation of women of color. We know from work by Marcy Whitebook and her colleagues, that there's a great pay disparity between these racial groups. It's just shameful.

We need to think of a CQI system that has to think about how all these things at the same time and it has to be built in a way that the system continuously regenerates itself each time, pushing it forward towards more equitable access towards higher quality and towards a professionally compensated workforce.

Marnetta: You just said a lot. I couldn't shake my head more fervently. As a woman of color, that's just experience, especially in this field. You're literally speaking about my experience through the work that I've done in my lifetime, so I felt that and I'm sure a lot of our listeners did as well. 

Stephanie, you were just talking about the impact on low income students and families. How do we know that these students are actually having better experiences in the classroom? Is that something we can measure?

How Do We Measure Racial Equity in the Classroom?

Stephanie: I am hoping so. I believe that we can. That is why we created the ACSES tool. That tool looks at racial equity in the classroom. It's my hope that this tool can actually be used to measure the experiences of racially marginalized children that are having. It's really the first measure of its kind to try to fuse together what we know about developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood, with also the literature on culturally responsive pedagogy and anti-racist pedagogy.

We think that the field desperately needs a measure like this because it will provide information about the education quality, specifically, as it relates to marginalized kids. Once we know this information, then we can begin to build the professional learning community that is needed to help teachers learn and grow in their practice.

I've spoken about this idea before at the national BUILD Conference last summer when I presented two talks with my colleagues about the ACSES tool. I think we're going to make those presentations available to you on the website.

We can also make a research paper about the ACSES tool available. We're just now starting to see some evidence that a teacher's access scores in the classroom are actually associated with children's math skills and their executive functioning skills. We hope that that paper will be published sometime within the upcoming year.

I'll say one last thing because I am an early childhood person at heart, the tool started in our early childhood space and in our early childhood sphere. But because of the K-12 system and the need that we have there, I've had colleagues reach out to me to say, hey, could we use this framework also in the K-12 system? So what I've done is work with some colleagues at Mathematica recently to revise the ACSES tool so that it now can also be applicable in classrooms that span from kindergarten all the way up to fifth grade.

Marnetta: That is amazing. I look forward to looking at some of those resources that are going to be provided as well.

Debi: I think that this tool, the consideration of the tool, and learning about the tool is going to heighten the awareness of everyone throughout the field about how to do better. I think that as PD instructors or coaches learn the mechanics of the tool and the concepts in the tool, it will really help them to provide better technical assistance and coaching within programs. I think that the data from the tool can also be used really at the state system level to understand how the system is advancing toward equity.

There's going to be learning here for state leaders too about cultural differences, nuances, and how to support children. I think that we're even finding in classrooms more and more, teachers are going to have a number of children in the rooms who speak a different language, for example, and how well prepared, supported, and equipped are they to really provide good teaching and learning with children from diverse backgrounds who speak other languages. I think it's just going to become more and more important for our early childhood workforce to have a good support system to do this work.

Darlene: I love that. In early childhood, we're always trying to push up great practices. Another great example of pushing up what's something great happening in the early childhood space that can continue on through the K-12 space. Because so often, we see things that are good and working well drop off somehow in their experiences that continue onward. I'm super excited to watch that progress as well, Stephanie, so, go, go. I'll be watching and cheering from the sidelines for that.

Debi: We think another piece of this too, Stephanie, weigh in here, is I don't think we've done a good enough job helping directors and teachers think about creating a culture of improvement within the program or center about the container for learning how to do better of that continuing to investigate and think about your practice and improve your practice. But I don't think we've done enough with data use. What is the CLASS data, the ERS data, or the ACSES data?

How, as a teacher, do I look at that data and understand what it means to what I should be doing differently or better? I think at the program level, the director thinks about, what are the results and what we're seeing across all the rooms mean about the TA and PD that the staff would benefit from? And then the implementing partners say, gosh, I see from looking across the results of the tools we're using that we could use more culturally sensitive training for staff members, and that rolls up and we all begin to look together throughout the system up and down about what is the data. So it's not just collecting the data, it's using the data to inform your action, actionable data. 

Darlene: Right. Real-time data makes that possible. I think about so many teachers who say, I know they collected this data and it seems like they just waited for an annual report to surface versus making like, how does that data change the way I'm going to teach tomorrow or next week, or how am I going to interact with families? So getting everyone to think like that.

Marnetta: And it's lack of access too because a lot of times when these assessments are done or whatever, teachers don't have access to that data until it's presented to them, whether it's TA or those annual reports that you have. How can they inform their practices if they only get it four times a year or twice a year when somebody checks in with them about it? Making that data accessible to them so that they can implement the change and start to change is also a key to it as well. 

Darlene: Right. Speaking of data—

Debi: Wait, I have one more thing I want to say about this. Stephanie, I was waiting for you to chime in on this one too. I think that states and programs are beginning to think about how do we look at our child assessment data too, formative assessment. The observations we're doing, we know it can guide or influence our implementation of the curriculum, but what does it mean about our CQI efforts, the training that I need to do?

Boy, I have noticed that my kids' pre-math skills aren't as strong as I wish they were, or what does that mean to me about the opportunities I should be giving within the day-to-day routines of the classroom to support math skills, literacy skills, or whatever? An assessment is another great source of data that I think we can really tap to and form continuous improvement efforts within a program or within our own classroom. How does that play into your tool, Stephanie? Are you looking at those things together or what do you think about that? 

Stephanie: I was actually going to say this too, but I didn't. For one, I would say that I think that we have to have more formative assessments in our field. We actually don't have enough. Most of our assessments are summative. We need more of those high quality formative assessments that give teachers information in real-time about how to change their practice. 

One of the things that we're trying to do very much so with the ACSES tool around the PD and coaching is that teachers will get their scores, and then the coaching is directly related to the things that we know and the areas where we know teachers need to learn and grow. I think that that's one area of a type of formative assessment to think about cultural responsiveness and racial equity.

I also have some work that I've done around language development and conversations in the classroom. I just really believe that classroom conversations and oral language development, in general, is really the key to children's higher-order thinking and problem-solving. Sometimes, what happens in our classrooms is that we don't have these really deep, engaging conversations with children.

I had developed, a couple of years ago, a professional development strategy called the Conversation Compass that really provides oral language like PD and conversational PD to our early childhood workforce. But the way that this gets back to what Debi was saying about formative assessment is as I was developing that, there were tools again that began to be developed as part of that professional learning that could be used as formative assessments or that were intended to be used as formative assessments. 

One is what's called the Conversation Compass Communication Screener. That tool in and of itself is a tool that a teacher can use to observe and track a child's class conversations that they're having in the classroom with their peers, et cetera. It's a tool that really forces the teachers to watch a child interact and engage orally with their peers and in that space, and to jot that down so that then the teacher can go directly back and say, hey, I know that with this child, they have not been engaging in a lot of conversations with peers. I need to be more systematic about how I set this child up with peers for circle time or group playtime, et cetera. 

There's another formative assessment observation tool that is in that book as well that is really focused just on observation. It's really just the teacher sitting back and she really just watches and listens to children talk to each other. Where the teacher can take notes so that she's understanding what are the language skills that children have at this point in time, and then she's able to be responsive to it. Those are just examples from language.

I talked about one for culture, we also need them in terms of math and in terms of other areas because those are the tools that really, I think, drive our CQI because if our CQI is about continuous improvement, we need the information and the data to feedback into the classroom practices and even at the leadership level so that people can make changes. We really can't any longer stand by and watch the data be collected, then sent up to the state, and then we just wait for it for a year or so to get the report back. 

We really can't any longer stand by and watch the data be collected, then sent up to the state, and then we just wait for it for a year or so to get the report back. - Stephanie Curenton

We need to be using this kind of information on a regular basis. I think that we can do that when we start to design our formative assessments, if we design them in a teacher-friendly way, and if we also start out by designing our professional learning and coaching in a very teacher-friendly and programmatic-friendly kind of way.

Darlene: I love that. There's so much in there to think about. I'm going to move us along. I know our listeners are out there like, oh, I want to know more about that, I want to know about this. There might have to be a sequel to this, you never know. Debi, I do want to ask you to tell us more so our listeners know how they can get a better understanding of the quality improvement systems in place in their states. They've been hearing all of us talk, but they're like, how do I get a hold of this? 

Debi: There's the Quality Compendium, and I think you'll put the website up with this session. It serves as a resource for up-to-date information about 45 quality improvement systems across the country. It's operating now. Gosh, I guess the first one came out in paper in 2010, but this is an online system now. I remember I had a copy of that on my desk. 

I had to page through it, but this is an easy online system to use. It's capturing the shifts in the field over time, and it helps us—whether at the community, program, or state level—identify promising practices. It serves as a resource for researchers, programs, community, and for policy and advocacy leaders as well.

We collect data every other year from states about their quality improvement systems. We just collected data this past fall. You'll be delighted to know, it was just put up in January. We have some new data there at the end of the COVID Conversation Compass period of time. It's interesting to see some of the changes.

We focused on some new areas, and you'll recognize these as they relate to what Stephanie and I were talking about, changes that we're seeing in continuous improvement. We got more data about recruitment and engagement with providers including which populations the state quality improvement is targeting and recruitment strategies they're using to engage providers. We collected some information about upcoming revisions to the state systems like looking ahead. What were state leaders thinking were areas they were going to change.

We have some information in this edition of Quality Compendium that talks about what is the array of quality initiatives operating within the state, but outside of or [...] with a quality improvement system. Many states see their quality improvement efforts as knitting together a series of initiatives like the Pyramid Model, the Mind in the Making, or Strengthening Families. How are these types of more national initiatives deployed within the quality improvement work?

We asked specifically about the state or areas equity, racial equity approach to recruitment, participation, quality improvement, rating, and any other specific approaches that they were really thinking on or focused on.

We talked about what's the eligibility criteria to receive an accessibility to financial incentives as well as technical assistance. A lot of new data is there for us to mind, look at, and see how this source of data and source of evidence can improve the state's work to make the system work better for families, children, and providers. What can we learn from this data about improving?

We're looking forward to, in fact, next week, we have a session about the Compendium and the new data sources. We're looking forward to releasing that information to folks. You can go to the website and you'll find that archive there after we do it next week and more information about the Quality Compendium. 

Marnetta: I agree with Darlene. We might have to do a sequel to this. There's a lot of information that was covered during our time together, a lot for us to think about and to digest. I also appreciate and I'm sure the audience appreciates the resources and the data. You've given us, if we didn't have it at this wonderful start, some data to look at to help guide us to improve our systems.

I want to thank you guys, both so much for joining us today. We love having you on the podcast. Listeners, you can find today's episode and transcript on our website, teachstone.com/impacting.

Darlene: As always, behind great leading and teaching are powerful interactions, so let's build that culture together. We'll see you next time.

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