a scientifically based framework for defining quality in early education settings
Expansion of early childhood programming is a global interest, given the strong return on investment of providing preschool and child-care experiences to young children. Early childhood programming is most beneficial when these experiences are high quality, and high-quality experiences are associated with numerous long-term benefits to children.
To provide policy makers, administrators, educators, and parents a mechanism to examine the quality of early childhood programming, the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy created SPROUT, a scientifically based framework for identifying high-quality early education settings.
Research in neuroscience and developmental psychology consistently shows that the earliest years of life are crucial for providing a sturdy foundation for building strong brains and bodies. High-quality early education experiences have short-term benefits, such as improved language, literacy, and social-emotional skills, as well as long-term benefits across the lifespan, such as higher earnings and better health as adults.
Nationally and in Ohio, leaders are increasingly focused on enhancing young children’s access to early education programming, and there is a broad consensus that investing early in children is preferable to the alternative – paying to rectify or mitigate problems later.
In Ohio alone, more than $1 billion is spent annually on child care and preschool programs. Rightly so, state leaders emphasize the importance of ensuring that more babies and children are enrolled in high-quality programs so that this sizable investment yields the greatest impact.
In 2019, the newly elected Governor Mike DeWine declared early childhood among just a handful of his administration’s top priorities. His first budget proposed funding dedicated to improving quality of early childhood programming before expanding eligibility – and therefore access – for families.
With early childhood programming fully in the spotlight, and questions about quality occupying more time and attention perhaps than ever before, the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy created a framework for identifying and describing high-quality early education settings. The framework identifies six features of early education environments that enhance children’s learning and well-being, as reflected in the acronym S.P.R.O.U.T.
SPROUT is not a measurement tool. Rather, SPROUT is a framework that can be used to identify those factors characteristic of high-quality early education programming. As a framework, SPROUT complements but not supplants other approaches to improving and measuring quality, including Quality Rating Improvement Systems (QRISs). QRISs are one of many ways to measure quality, but these systems vary dramatically across the nation. Each QRIS is unique, with different standards, different ways of operationalizing these standards, and different rating-levels (e.g., 3 stars as the highest compared to 5 stars) used to score programs. Importantly, center-based providers often have different standards to meet compared to family-based providers. In some states the systems are mandatory; in others they are voluntary. Even within the states that have QRISs in place, participation rates are generally low.
Trying to define, identify, and improve the quality of children’s early education experiences requires us to speak the same language; otherwise, it’s like trying to measure height but using a different measurement each time. At the end of the day, to reach something on the top shelf (or to define quality), we need a common vernacular. QRISs are a good start to standardizing the conversation about quality but still fall short. SPROUT can help bridge this gap.