States Move Toward Closer Scrutiny of Preschools

By Linda Jacobson — September 10, 2007 4 min read
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While most policymakers still agree that preschoolers are too young to be graded for their academic work, some states are moving ahead with efforts to certify early-childhood programs according to how well children who go through those programs perform in kindergarten.

Among the latest is Texas, which last month released a Web-accessible list of 451 preschool classrooms that are the first group to be certified as “school ready” under a new system based in part on the reading and social-skills scores given by children’s kindergarten teachers. Work is also under way to include a math assessment.

Developed by the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the certification program was created under a state law passed in 2005 as a way to build on work Texas was already doing to train preschool teachers, particularly in teaching early literacy skills. The state requires preschool teachers in programs receiving public funding to have at least a bachelor’s degree.

While participation is voluntary, organizers of the program expect thousands more providers to sign up over the next year. The state has one of the largest publicly funded preschool programs in the country, serving more than 180,000 children ages 3 and 4.

“Our role here is to help our parents have some guide” in choosing a preschool, said Susan Gunnewig, the associate director of the center, who expressed surprise at the wide acceptance the idea has received.

Some experts in early-childhood assessment, however, still argue that there is so much variability in children’s experiences before they attend kindergarten that it’s unfair to expect preschool teachers to eliminate those gaps in one or two years.

“It’s a very naive theory of learning,” said Samuel J. Meisels, the president of the Chicagobased Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development. “It’s one that says children have no history. They come to us simply as blank slates.”

Accountability Sought

Child-care and preschool rating systems have been spreading across the country for years, as a way both to inform parents about the level of program quality they can expect and to encourage centers to strive for higher standards. At least 16 states already have some form of rating program.

In most cases, participation by providers is voluntary and is separate from a state’s licensing requirements, although North Carolina integrates the rating into its licensing system. Separately, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington, D.C., accredits preschool programs.

Top ratings can also bring financial rewards, such as higher reimbursements from a state for families that qualify for child-care subsidies. (“More Governors Want to Rate Early-Childhood Programs,” Feb. 9, 2005.)

Texas’ “school ready” program— in which preschools and Head Start centers will receive a seal to display in their facilities— is part of a new strategy by some states to consider the performance of children after they leave preschool.

Preschool Scorecard

The Web-based School Readiness Certification System in Texas includes information on:

• The type and amount of instruction pupils receive and monthly attendance data on those who will be going to kindergarten.

• Staff, curriculum, and professional development.

• Teaching practices, based on reports completed by each teacher who has pupils moving on to kindergarten.

• Reading and social-behavior scores on all kindergarten children who attended a preschool that submitted an application.

• The number of classrooms in a preschool that have met the certification criteria.

SOURCE: Children’s Learning Institute, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

Florida instituted a kindergarten test last year to gauge how well that state’s pre-K program, which enrolls 105,000 children, is preparing youngsters for academic work. Providers and advocates, however, contend that the test is unfair.

“The overall response among providers has been poor because it’s not testing how well the program has moved the child from the beginning [of preschool],” said Amanda Ostrander, a spokeswoman for Children’s Campaign Inc., an advocacy group based in Tallahassee, Fla. “There is a big push from the field to change the assessment piece.”

Under the Florida system, pre-K programs whose “kindergartenreadiness rate” falls in the bottom 15 percent of all providers are considered “low-performing providers,” which means they have to submit an improvement plan. If the programs don’t improve after three years, they could lose their state pre-K funding.

Ms. Ostrander added that the “high-stakes test” is not a good match for a state pre-K program that does not require teachers to have even a two-year college degree.

Getting Along

While Florida’s kindergarten test is still primarily based on literacy scores, the Texas program includes a component that many experts in early-childhood education have been asking for: some attention to children’s social development.

Surveys typically show that kindergarten teachers value a child’s ability to follow directions and to share with classmates as much as—if not more than— math and language skills.

“We’re developmental psychologists. For us it would be malpractice not to consider [social skills],” Ms. Gunnewig said, noting that early literacy skills and good behavior are closely linked. “You can’t be very social if you have low language [skills].”

But Ms. Gunnewig added that the certification program is still in its pioneer phase and isn’t perfect. Currently, for example, some classrooms in a particular center may be certified while others are not. That might happen because not enough follow-up data were found for the children from that classroom, or the application was incomplete.

In the future, the goal is to have all classrooms certified in order for a center to earn the “school ready” distinction.

“We want to build up classrooms for the whole building,” Ms. Gunnewig said. “We don’t like seeing teachers being pitted against each other.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week as States Move Toward Closer Scrutiny of Preschools

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