Standards Driven Education and Testing Reach Preschool

Now I’m really angry! Cherry Preschool, which I founded and directed, received an email just before winter vacation from ExceleRate Illinois (could they have selected a more obnoxious name for this program?), which invited our highly rated and nationally accredited developmental preschool to participate in a new “quality rating and improvement system.”  Don't be fooled by the fancy website and YouTube video. This preschool version of Race to the Top encourages programs to compete to move up through Licensed, Bronze, Silver, and Gold “Circles of Quality.” Kind of reminds me of the old terror alert system following 9/11.

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

The “invitation” to join ExceleRate Illinois is by no means free, voluntary, or needed. Cherry Preschool’s participation would give the preschool the opportunity to “validate your achievements,” “adopt a common set of quality standards,” and jump through numerous time consuming and meaningless hoops.

As a program accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), Cherry Preschool could skip lots of steps if it would only align its curriculum to the State Gold Circle of Quality Standards and agree to do a developmental screening for every child upon entry into the preschool.  Doing this would of course be at the preschool’s cost. And passing the first circle of ExceleRate requirements will eventually be required by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in order to be licensed.

You have got to be kidding! It’s hard for me to know where to begin in expressing my dismay about this program. Maybe I should start with the name, which is a mashup of “excel” and “rate.” Defining “excel” as meeting standards, learning more, and doing better, as this program does, is so inappropriate for young children. As a participant in the creation of early learning standards for my community, I saw how difficult it was to define what every three-year-old should know. There is so much variance in development at that age, all of which is “normal.”

In my post Why I am Mad at Arne Duncan, I discussed my greatest fears about adopting standards for early childhood, which have proved to be true: the loss of play as teachers drill children to pass tests, and the developmentally inappropriate manner in which some programs teach the curriculum. Standards do not make programs excel. Good teachers who understand development and how young children learn do that.

Now to address the “rate” part of the program’s name, what are we rating? Is this the push down of judging schools and teachers based on test scores? In earlier posts (Too Much Standardized Testing, No Child Behind or Leave No Child Behind – A Big Difference, Is There a Fair Way to Evaluate Teachers), I shared my concerns about the consequences of our standards-driven, cookie-cutter approach to education for the past dozen years. Why would this approach benefit even younger children who are playful and creative learners by nature (A Preschooler’s Developmentally Appropriate Response to Academic Readiness).

Even worse, the “rate” also refers to rating children by requiring a developmental screening for every child entering an early childhood program. ExceleRate is currently reviewing screening tools to develop a "pre-approved" list, but will also be developing a process by which programs can propose the use of a tool that is not on the pre-approved list.  What proven reliability will any given tool have? Who will conduct these screenings? ExceleRate implies preschool teachers will be trained. (If trained professionals do not do the screenings, they are even more worthless.) What accommodations will be made for children who are just too scared to “show their stuff” to a stranger upon entering a program? How will the screening separate kids who have potential special needs from kids who just don’t know as much as others due to their home environments? More importantly, if there is a concern, who will help the child and who will pay for that help?

Most early childhood programs are not federally subsidized. How will programs pay staff to align curriculum? How will they cover the cost of screening every child? Full time teachers in most early childhood programs, including summer work, do not earn a living wage. There is often no health benefit. As explained in its State of the School Report, at Cherry Preschool tuition alone does not cover operating costs. Because the preschool has extensive inclusion (12% of the school population) and scholarship ($100,000 in awards) programs, unfunded mandates like these will mean more fundraising and fewer spaces for scholarships and children with special needs.

A one-size-fits-all approach to early childhood education is ludicrous. Programs vary from small, church-housed part time preschools to full day corporate daycares. Yes, early childhood education is especially important for children living in poverty and stressed family situations. If programs receive state or federal subsidies, it makes sense to make sure the children are receiving the best possible educational start. But why force every program to be the same? And why not consider that developmentally appropriate and play-based learning is best for every child?

The Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, the Department of Human Services (DHS), and the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (INCCRRA) sponsor ExceleRate. Please consider contacting these agencies to express your opinion of this approach to educating our youngest and most vulnerable children.

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