Interview – Early Achievers with WA Child Care Aware CEO, Robin Lester


Robin Lester, CEO, Child Care Aware of Washington

Educa would like to thank Robin Lester, CEO of Child Care Aware of WA. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on the past, present and future of the Early Achievers rating program.

What Is the Early Achievers Story So Far?

Early Achievers started when the WA Department of Early Learning, after winning a Race to the Top federal grant in December, 2011. It is part of the Quality Rating Improvement System  movement that now exists in 40+ states.

Child Care Aware of Washington (CCA) was brought in to work on the quality improvement aspect, the “I” of QRIS. Through a system of 6 regional offices that contract with network office, CCA provides coaching and technical assistance to providers enrolled in EA. The University of Washington oversees the rating assessment process.

The two organizations are independent, to maintain the fidelity of the program.

EA is accessible to centers and home-based family childcare. There are approximately 3,600 providers with an Early Achievers rating serving over 74,000 children – about 1,200 centers and 2,400 home-based family providers. 71% of licensed childcare providers in WA are enrolled in Early Achievers.

Why Should Providers Want an Early Achievers Rating?

For providers, improved quality leads to better ratings, which is good for business.

Because quality is important. The goal is to have 90% of children ready for Kindergarten statewide by 2020. To make sure a child is ready for Kindergarten, he or she needs to be receiving quality child care as soon as possible.

Decades of research show that if children get quality education early on, they are more likely to succeed not only school, but in life. The keyword here is quality. Incarceration rates go down, college attendance rates go up – the statistics bear that out.

For providers, improved quality leads to better ratings, which is good for business. Early childhood education is an important, rewarding profession, but it’s also a business. As ratings get more entrenched, parents who are looking for quality child care will want to know whether a provider is rated level 2 or 5. What they will learn over time is that a provider’s rating corresponds to the degree to which:

  • they are using the latest approaches in early childhood development,
  • giving children the materials they need, and
  • providing the activities children need to really stimulate learning growth.

And so for providers, there is likely a strong correlation between a higher rating and a healthy business.

What’s Involved in an Early Achievers Rating?

It’s a multi-year process to get a rating. You need a license to enroll, which sets you at Level 1. Once you are enrolled, CCA technical assistants will work with you to acquire baseline knowledge about early learning through six trainings. Here are the guidelines to complete Level 2 on the Early Achievers rating scale. Once a provider completes their Level 2 activities, they work with a CCA coach over time to prepare their facility for rating.

[Educa note: The Early Achievers rating is assessed via inspection, running through a checklist in five categories, adding up to 100 points:

  1. Curriculum and Staff Supports (15 points)
  2. Child Outcomes (10 points)
  3. Professional Development and Training (10 points)
  4. Classroom/Family Childcare Home Environment (55 points)
  5. Family Engagement and Partnership (10 points)

The more points, the higher the rating.This kind of rating approach, a process audit, is used in lieu of student assessment results in many overseas education systems to measure institutional effectiveness. The idea is to audit the delivery building blocks of high quality early education and then assume good outcomes will follow.]

Re-Rating Every Three Years

If a provider doesn’t make a quality threshold in these standards, they remain a Level 2 program. If you get rated and think you can do better, you can request a re-rating immediately. After that, you are re-rated on 3-year cycle. During that period, you can receive free coaching throughout the year to continuously improve your child care quality.

As long as you can keep to a rating improvement timeline and get to a 3 rating by December, 2019, your center will eligible for certain subsidies related to the Working Connections Child Care program.

The whole process is fluid, from the amount of technical training you need to get started, all the way through to the amount of ongoing staff coaching you need. It’s flexible rather than a canned process, because not every provider needs the same supports.

Right now, there are only a few providers who have attained a 5 rating. However, a number of centers are coming up on their 3-year re-rating assessment, and we anticipate an increase in rated 5 programs. Statewide, of the rated providers, 83% are level 3-5.

Our long-term goal is that Early Achievers will raise the level of early learning service quality to the point where the quality and importance of the sector are valued by parents as much as the K-12 system.

How Does Continuous Improvement Work?

Central to the QRIS philosophy is the “I,” improvement. We hope that once you get a license and get enrolled, your business will participate in a process of continuous improvement. This includes free coaching and professional development for your staff by CCA so that they are better equipped to teach the children in your care.

This investment in staff is one the main points of separation between a low rating and a high rating service. Across the state, Early Childhood Education is among the lowest paid professions, and that’s why we are excited to be a part of workforce development to improve the professionalism and compensation of this sector.

How Has Early Achievers Been Received So Far?

EA is healthy. We are still not at the level we’d like though. Parents who are interested can learn what child care quality means by looking at the EA Impact videos we have done, where providers talk about being a part of Early Achievers. When providers say “oh my gosh, this has really worked for my center,” we know we’re on the right track.

Click here to see sample provider videos.

There are some things going on now that have providers unsettled – particularly changes to the Washington Administrative Code. The Department of Early Learning is working to streamline and align some regulations. This sometimes can result in a period of confusion. CCA is working with providers to understand what the changes mean to them, and to bring their concerns to the forefront of the conversation.

How Important is Parent Awareness of the Value of ECE Quality?

Getting parents to truly value early education requires constant reinforcement and education, and while we are making inroads, it’s still a work in progress.

Getting parents to truly value early education requires constant reinforcement and education, and while we are making inroads, it’s still a work in progress.

With more people working and needing child care, and as parents become more aware of the research out there about early learning and what your child can know and do at age 3, they are going to want to know that their child is receiving quality child care.

So it’s the parent, it’s the provider, it’s the system as a whole that is developing an increasing awareness of why quality matters – and that awareness will continue to drive demand for quality.

What Is Your Participation Target?

At CCA, we want child care providers to provide quality care, and we also want them to be successful. So we are helping providers understand the business aspects of the industry. Many child care providers enter the workforce understanding how to care for children, but with little knowledge about how to run a business. Our Eastern region has developed a training program called “The Business of Childcare.” As we help providers develop a good, profit-making business, even if it’s low margin, profit will help drive them to quality.

And so, I hope we can lift EA from 71% of the licensed provider participation to the 85% level in the next five years. Part of the challenge is that we do lose providers from time to time. For example, the recent state minimum wage increase is putting a strain on many child care providers. This is because the are having to pay more to compensate their staff without a comparable subsidy rate increase from the state.

[Educa note: At some point soon, you would have to imagine Early Achievers rating awareness will hit an inflection point, where ratings become the norm, expected by parents. At that time, a center not having a rating will be problematic.]

Investing In Your Staff

There are also staff retention issues. We have to make it profitable for the centers and the family child care. This will help them stay in business and they can pay their employees and pay themselves a decent wage.

In the first few years of development, there were a lot of changes in the EA process. However, it is more stable and accessible now. Once the new Washington Administrative Code comes out and people see what is involved, that should help make the whole process around an Early Achievers rating easier. That should also bring the value proposition of EA into focus.

Thank you again Robin, for your time and insights!