Jul 27 2022

Preschool Quality and Child Development: How Are Learning Gains Related to Program Ratings?

Early learning has the potential to support children’s learning and development prior to kindergarten entry, particularly for children from families with low incomes and children who are multilingual learners. However, studies have shown that only programs that are of high quality are likely to close gaps in children’s learning and development.

California has several publicly funded early learning programs to support young children. To provide all families with information about program quality and to support program improvement, the state has developed Quality Counts California (QCC), a system that provides ratings on seven dimensions: (1) child observation, (2) developmental and health screenings, (3) lead teacher qualifications, (4) teacher-child interactions, (5) teacher-child ratios and group size, (6) program environment rating scales, and (7) director qualifications. Ratings are assigned by trained assessors based on program documentation and classroom observations.

However, questions have emerged about the degree to which the current rating system generates accurate and useful information about program quality and the elements that most support equitable learning and development. Do children in higher-rated programs exhibit greater learning and development than children in lower-rated programs? If so, does this pattern hold for children who are multilingual learners, children with disabilities, and children from different racial/ethnic groups?

This study investigates the relationships between preschool quality based on the QCC system and children’s learning and development. Analysis was conducted of child- and program-level data from approximately 70,000 children who were 4.5 to 5.5 years old in 1,700 QCC-rated public preschool programs, the majority of which were center-based California State Preschool Programs. Learning and development were assessed using children’s fall and spring scores on three domains of the Desired Results Developmental Profile, a developmental assessment administered by children’s classroom teachers. We used multiple regression models to estimate the additional months of learning and development associated with attending a QCC higher-rated program (Tier 4 or Tier 5) above and beyond the months of learning and development projected for a child attending a program rated Tier 3 on the QCC scale. The relatively small number of programs rated Tiers 1 and 2 were excluded from the analysis.

Key findings include the following:

  • Children in higher-tier programs showed more learning and development than those in lower-tier programs. From fall to spring of the given study year, compared to children in Tier 3 programs, children in Tier 4 programs gained an additional 1.2–1.7 months of learning and development, and those in Tier 5 programs gained an additional 2.2–2.5 months.
  • Multilingual learners, children with disabilities, and children from all racial/ethnic groups exhibited more learning and development in higher-tier programs. Multilingual learners in Tier 5 programs gained an additional 2.6–2.8 months of learning and development compared to their peers in Tier 3 programs. The benefits associated with attending a higher-tier program were larger for multilingual learners than non-multilingual learners in each area of development. Children with disabilities in Tier 5 programs were projected to show 2.9–3.2 more months of learning and development than their peers in Tier 3 programs. Children with disabilities benefited more from attending a higher-quality program than children without disabilities in each area of development. Children from all racial/ethnic groups were projected to experience greater learning and development when attending Tier 4 and 5 programs, compared to Tier 3, although most differences were not statistically significant.
  • Preschool children who are Black, Multiracial, or Latino/a were underrepresented in higher-quality programs. These children were more likely to attend lower-tier programs (Tier 3) and less likely to attend higher-tier programs (Tier 4 and Tier 5) than children who are Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American, or White. Indeed, children who are Black were more likely to be in lower-quality (Tier 3) programs and less likely to be in highest-quality (Tier 5) programs than children from any other racial/ethnic group. The systematic underrepresentation of certain children of color in higher-quality programs is a significant equity concern.
Multilingual learners, children with disabilities, and children from all racial/ethnic groups exhibited more learning and development in higher-tier programs.

Future research should explore the extent to which all children have access to high-quality programs, based on where they live, their family income, and their need for a full day of care, to understand the degree to which some children have systematically less access to high-quality programs. A similar study could examine these questions for early learning programs serving younger children (birth through age 3) and those in home-based settings. Researchers should also conduct more detailed studies about how classroom or program practices relate to children’s learning and development, and how they may vary in different types of programs for different groups of children.

This study provides new information about the association between QCC preschool quality ratings and children’s learning and development. It suggests that children in higher-quality-rated programs showed more learning and development compared to children in lower tier programs. These differences were educationally meaningful and extended to most demographic groups of children, including multilingual learners, children with disabilities, and children from most racial/ethnic groups. The results imply that attending higher-quality programs could be associated with more equitable outcomes for children who are multilingual learners and children with disabilities, and that differences between groups may narrow when all children are in high-quality programs.


Preschool quality and child development: How are learning gains related to program ratings? by Joshua Sussman, Hanna Melnick, Emily Newton, Kerry Kriener-Althen, Karen Draney, Peter Mangione, and Perman Gochyyev is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

WestEd and the BEAR Center conducted this study under contract with the California Department of Education (CN 20-0190) and the California Department of Social Services (CN 21-7013). The Learning Policy Institute’s contribution was supported through its core operating support provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett. We are grateful to these funders for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.