Early Childhood

Finding the Right Preschool a Matter of Public Policy, Private Enterprise

By Christina A. Samuels — July 15, 2015 3 min read
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In an era where restaurant reviews, hotel ratings, and other crowd-sourced information is available at a mouse click or finger-swipe, finding out information on local day cares or preschools is rarely that easy.

Many childcare and early education providers don’t have websites, and if they do, they might not list basic information, like price. If parents have more than one care option, they may weigh them on “feel” alone, rather than in addition to hard facts on factors such as adult-to-child ratios, caregiver qualifications, or inspection results.

The federal government, state policy makers, and even private entities want to fill that knowledge vacuum.

Why does it matter to a state or to the federal government how parents pick a preschool? One reason is a simple return on investment: The federal government, for example, has spent over a billion dollars in helping states boost their early-childhood offerings through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants. It’s a wasted effort if child care and preschool programs improve, but parents still don’t know how to find them.

Getting Preschool Information in Front of Parents

To that end, states are revamping their rating systems of early-childhood programs to make them both easier for families to find and to search on multiple devices, including mobile devices. States are also adding more general information to their websites, such as what parents should look for in a daycare or a preschool. Great Starts Delaware is just one such example.

The federal government is also encouraging widespread dissemination of early-childhood program ratings through its support of QRIS—quality-rating and improvement systems. These state-developed systems rate early-childhood care providers on a variety of factors, usually on a scale of one to five stars. QRIS programs are also intended to spur providers to aim for higher quality so that they can get more stars.

The Child Care Development Block Grant, revised in 2014, is paying for a national website to allow parents to find licensed early-child-care programs by ZIP code that accept child care-subsidies. States also have to use a portion of their block grant money for quality improvement; one quality-improvement option is to use part of that money to boost their resource and referral services.

“States are really wrestling with how do we help parents understand the quality rating part of this,” said Debi Mathias, the director of the QRIS National Learning Network. The coalition supports entities that work with rating systems. “You’re going to find states really in development on this in the next year.”

Private Website Aims to Help Parents Find Preschools

Aside from public entities, businesses have also seen an opening in this area. Noodle, created by Princeton Review founder John Katzman, allows parents to search for preschools by ZIP code.

The site is currently relying on information from state licensing agencies and organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, but plans to tap other resources to expand its listings, said Suzanne J. Podhurst, Noodle’s editor-in-chief.

The ad-supported portal lets parents post questions on a preschool’s landing page, which can be answered by the providers or by a panel of experts. Providers are also able to add their own information to the site. The site bears some similarities to Yelp or GreatSchools, but unlike those websites, does not solicit preschool reviews. [CORRECTION: (July 17): The original version of this post said that Noodle shares some information about registered users with its business partners. Noodle updated its privacy policy after this post was published and deleted a provision that would have allowed the website to share user information with business partners. A spokesman for the company says it never used that provision.]

That Q&A function is one of the ways Noodle aims to distinguish itself from other websites offering preschool directories, Podhurst said.

For example, if a parent wants to know the difference between Montessori or Waldorf, or if they want to know if a certain preschool requires that children be potty-trained before enrolling, they can post the question on the Noodle website and get an answer back within about a day.

As with the state and federal efforts, “our goal is to help people make better education decisions,” Podhurst said.

Have you used any of these portals to help find a daycare or preschool for your child? What other methods have you used? How could this experience be made easier for families? Please feel free to share in the comments.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.