Is it quality? How to know if your preschool is any good

It’s got play dough. It’s got snacks. It’s got swings and slides. But does it have teachers who know what makes little kids tick and can handle my child when she inevitably freaks out?

There’s nothing quite like the right preschool to bring a parent peace of mind and few things more unsettling than feeling unsure about where your children spend their day. What parents hear matters is high quality, but that seems to get defined differently by different people.

That hasn’t stopped the president from talking about it, though. Last night, in his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed making “high-quality preschool available to every child.” Here’s what he said:

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool.  . . . Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children — like Georgia or Oklahoma — studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works.

But how, Mr. President? Lots of thoughtful parents don’t know if quality means something like pushing little kids to read or learn math before they’re ready. Many parents, too, may want a particular focus in early learning—the chance to be exposed to a new language or culture, say, or to spend time engaged outside or in an activity like music—that might not be as important to other families.

So how can we come to agreement about what’s quality, have it available for every child, and also find the right fit for families?

First, a quick recap about what we have now. We have licensed programs, which means places that meet basic health and safety and training standards, so the state of Texas allows them to be open for business. That doesn’t tell us much about quality, though.

Some early childhood programs say they are accredited. This means they went through an accreditation process with the National Association for the Education of Young Children and meet a certain set of standards for quality. That process, though, can be expensive and lengthy, so very few centers go through it. Many good centers skip the process.

Texas also has something called “Pre-K Centers of Excellence.” These are preschool programs that have submitted data to the state that show they prepare kids for kindergarten in at least one regard—pre-literacy. But, as the Texas Observer reported last month, reading scores tell only a fraction of the story about a preschool program’s quality. Many of the studies President Obama referred to found that a lot of quality comes down to whether a preschool helps kids socially and cognitively, with developmentally appropriate (often play-based) activities and lots of positive interaction between kids and teachers.

Looking at the total picture—the actual overall results of a program for the kids in it—would probably provide the best clues about quality. I once had a 30-year veteran preschool teacher at an early childhood center tell me, “Politicians think ‘school-ready’ means knowing letter sounds and counting. But that’s not how a young child begins to learn. Children learn by taking something like a wooden block and moving it around on the carpet, saying, ‘Vroom, vroom.’ That’s a critical process, where that child is practicing using his imagination. He’s noticing that one thing can stand in for another thing, and he makes that leap, which is the building block for learning. It’s what happens before a child can understand that letters stand in for sounds and numerals for numbers, and that those, in turn, can stand for words and equations. All of this is part of school readiness.”

Over at the Texas Capitol, there’s talk right now about making changes to the system we have, so Texans can know more about their preschools’ results in that broader sense. For that to happen, there will need to be new ways of measuring school readiness, ones that go beyond just literacy and reflect the science on how children develop and learn.

SB 172 by Senator Carona offers a step in that direction. As it so happens, the bill could use your help getting over a hurdle right now. Take a minute to call or email these senators, and ask for their support of SB 172, so Texans can know more about whether programs are delivering quality for kids in terms of social-emotional learning, teacher-student relationships, and more. (You can learn more about the idea behind the bill here and track its progress through the legislature here.)

Have you been in the “preschool search” trenches? How did you know when you found quality for your child?

Christine Sinatra is the communications director for Texans Care for Children and mom to a kindergartener. Her past experience includes working as a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and the Oakland Tribune company, being a Peace Corps volunteer for high school girls in Africa, and studying at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.