New Study Explores Path To Expanded Quality Early Learning Environments In Pennsylvania

Great Learning

New Study Explores Path To Expanded Quality Early Learning Environments In Pennsylvania

Posted: Monday, November 9, 2015
Source: William Penn Foundation

The Study, Conducted by the Penn Child Research Center and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, Examines Opportunities for Improvement in Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS Rating System and Recommends Next Steps for Improved Child Outcomes

PHILADELPHIA (November 9, 2015) – The Penn Child Research Center and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education today released a new study, funded by the William Penn Foundation, to identify opportunities to improve Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS rating system. The goal of this research was to support the continued advancement of quality early learning programs state-wide to ultimately strengthen student outcomes.  In 2003, Pennsylvania implemented Keystone STARS, one of the first state-level Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) in the country, as a tool to improve access to quality early learning programs for young children.  Now, more than a decade later, improving the quality of early childhood programs remains important because high-quality early learning opportunities are strongly associated with positive developmental outcomes including enhanced communication skills, better academic abilities early in life, healthier social-emotional outcomes, and improved cognitive functioning. 

Said Philip Sirinides, Principal Investigator for this project, “Keystone STARS is at a point where evidence-based reforms are needed to help the system grow on a healthy and sustainable path. The recommendations of this inquiry will focus providers’ attention on what matters most, and also focus system resources on adequately supporting improvements.”

The study, which is the focus of a state-wide convening tomorrow hosted by the William Penn Foundation, explores three areas of the Keystone STARS program: the relationship between STARS ratings and child outcomes; the link between child outcomes and each of the 12 quality components assessed in the STARS system; and the perspectives of childcare providers and system developers.  The research findings aim to inform improvements to the Keystone STARS program in order to positively impact child outcomes.  As a well-established QRIS program, one of just eight nationwide with more than a decade of experience, Pennsylvania has a strong base on which to build in order to support positive child outcomes.

"We care deeply about Pennsylvania's youngest learners and are committed to realizing a day when all children can access high-quality care," said Elliot Weinbaum, Great Learning Program Director at the William Penn Foundation. “Our hope is that this study provides actionable information that can be used by policymakers and practitioners to build on Pennsylvania’s successes and to develop a system that ensures that all of our children are in settings where they can learn and grow and reach their fullest potential.”

The Inquiry Into Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS report found that children in STAR 3 and STAR 4 centers performed at higher levels on a measure of general developmental skills than those in STAR 1 and STAR 2 centers.  However, no differences were evident between children from STAR 1 and STAR 2 centers, or between those in STAR 3 and STAR 4 centers. In this study, the system differentiated two levels of quality in terms of children’s general developmental skills.

"Now is the right time for this discussion, as Pennsylvania continues to advance the Governor's agenda of Schools that Teach, Government that Works, and Jobs that Pay. The recommendations from this Inquiry and the public-private partnership we continue to build will act as a springboard for a more effective Keystone STARS program that can increase access to quality early education to all the children and families who need it," said Michelle Figlar, Deputy Secretary, Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning.

The report also uncovered important lessons which can inform improvements to the system. After a careful examination of the program, the report delivers three recommendations aimed at establishing a path forward for Keystone STARS:

Streamline the Keystone STARS system requirements to focus on improved child outcomes.  Evidence suggests that STARS includes requirements that do not have a clear connection to child outcomes. However, the study points out that there are some components of the system, such as the Environmental Rating and Child Observation, Curriculum, and Assessment requirements, which have direct links to child outcomes.  Researchers recommend prioritizing requirements with demonstrable links to improved child outcomes.  Such a shift would simplify the rating system, create clearer paths to providing high-quality care, and ensure resources are being allocated to areas with the greatest impact on positive child outcomes.

Redefine Keystone STARS as a path to quality.When originally conceptualized, the Keystone STARS ratings were intended to act as a road map to quality for early care programs to improve child outcomes. However, the current standards at each level  serve as a set of requirements that providers are expected to meet, rather than a guide that helps providers improve quality from one level to the next. Researchers recommend reorganizing standards to create a clear progression of expectations through which early care providers can advance in order to improve their STARS rating and provide higher quality care.

Design a model to guide system revisions.  This research provides a road map to guide revisions and system operations, and identify important points of measurement and communicate how system expectations relate to the overall goal of improving student outcomes. Such a guide will help to create a plan and next steps for positive updates to the Keystone STARS program.

This research provides guidance to Pennsylvania as it considers revisions to Keystone STARS.  The opportunities uncovered in this report provide an opportunity for Pennsylvania to lead the nation in ensuring that the next generation of QRISs better support early care programs, families, and young children.

About CPRE

Since 1985, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) has brought together renowned experts from major research universities to improve early childhood, elementary, and secondary education by bridging the gap between educational policy and student learning. CPRE researchers employ a range of rigorous and innovative research methods to investigate pressing problems in education today.  Having earned an international reputation for quality research and evaluation, CPRE researchers have extensive experience conducting experimental studies, large-scale quasi-experimental research, qualitative studies, and multi-state policy research. 

CPRE’s member institutions are the University of Pennsylvania; Teachers College Columbia University; Harvard University; Stanford University; University of Michigan; University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Northwestern University.  For more information, visit

About PCRC

The mission of the Penn Child Research Center (PCRC) is to promote the educational and psychological well-being of children through the application of scientifically informed social policy. Since it was founded in 2005, the Center has partnered with the schools, districts, and states to co-construct and implement research agendas to address some of the most pressing educational issues. These and other collaborations have produced substantial research to advance a comprehensive understanding of children as they learn and develop in the context of family, school, and community. For example, the Center has designed and validated evidenced-based assessment and intervention for all children. Through the production of high quality evidence, the PCRC aims to support the formation of effective public policies for children and their families and communities and the advancement of fundamental scientific inquiry on children’s learning and development.

About the William Penn Foundation

The William Penn Foundation, founded in 1945 by Otto and Phoebe Haas, is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Greater Philadelphia region through efforts that increase educational opportunities for children from low-income families, ensure a sustainable environment, foster creativity that enhances civic life, and advance philanthropy in the Philadelphia region. In partnership with others, the Foundation works to advance opportunity, ensure sustainability, and enable effective solutions. Since inception, the Foundation has made nearly 10,000 grants totaling over $1.6 billion. The Foundation’s assets exceed $2.3 billion as of March 31, 2015.