Preschool teacher Rachael Lavelle shows a group of students "Where the Wild Things Are" at Grossmont College's Child Development Center.
Walk into the preschool on the Grossmont College campus and you might see toddlers gamboling around a cushy couch, playing hide-and-seek and shrieking. You might nearly stumble over the pigtailed girl in a blue cape piecing together a puzzle on the carpet. And you might smile when assistant teacher Christina Risch kneels down on the floor with the caped girl to sing a song about pizza.
But when Kathryn Ingrum walks into a preschool like this one, she sees things you might have missed. She calculates the ratio of building blocks to toddlers. She scrutinizes whether the teacher asks provoking questions. She checks whether children wash their hands long enough and often enough. She even checks whether there are enough books in Spanish or about children with disabilities.
Ingrum heads up a team of evaluators who are judging preschools on a dizzying list of criteria. It isn’t just an exercise: Her ratings decide how much money each preschool in a small experiment run by the San Diego County Office of Education gets from a California tobacco tax. Proponents hope the cash can persuade less-than-stellar preschools to change their ways and help good ones get even better.
More than two dozen local preschools from Vista to San Ysidro have been put through the wringer over the past four years. It’s a pilot program meant to test whether preschools can be rated, much like public health departments rate restaurants. A middling classroom gets $3,650 per child; an excellent one gets $4,400. Teachers can also get up to $3,500 annually extra for having a college degree and running a class well.
Advocates say it’s working: 80 percent of preschool classes improved their rating last school year, according to the County Office of Education and First 5 San Diego, a local group funded by a tobacco tax that California voters approved to help school readiness. More than 200 teachers also sought a college degree or extra training in early childhood education with the extra money as a carrot.
Preschool ratings are proliferating across the country as states try to find a way to hold preschools to a higher standard and ensure kids are prepared for kindergarten. Twenty states now have some kind of preschool rating system and more are in the works, including one for California.
The idea also stems from mounting research that while preschool can help brain development and prepare children, bad preschools do little. So states are trying to figure out which preschools are good preschools and reward them for it. And if parents can find test scores to judge public schools and consumer reviews for everything from restaurants to electronics, the logic goes, why can’t they get the same thing for preschools?
“You can decide if a Volvo is worth $15,000 more than a Chevrolet because you have all this data on its safety and reliability and gas mileage,” said Gerrit Westervelt, executive director of the BUILD Initiative, which funds early childhood reforms across the country. “But for childcare, you don’t have that evidence. So instead, parents usually base decisions on cost and convenience.”
But here and across California, nagging questions haven’t been answered, from how to fairly judge preschools to how to pay for ratings. Nobody is sure whether ratings will change how harried parents choose preschools. And so far, the San Diego program has been largely unknown to parents, an attempt to avoid scaring off preschools that might be nervous about airing their ratings.
Here’s how it works in San Diego: Evaluators like Ingrum visit a preschool, toting two different rating systems. One system zeroes in how a classroom is equipped and scheduled. It gets down to a stunning level of detail, measuring everything from the depth of the sand under the jungle gym to the exact number of minutes children freely choose their play activities.
The second system delves even deeper into how teachers and children interact. For instance, Ingrum would gauge how a preschool teacher speaks to his tots and how advanced his language is.
David Sheppard, who runs a preschool program in the South Bay Union School District, said the ratings spurred him to add more class time for children to freely page through books and make hand-washing more frequent.
“I was a little hesitant at first, but I’ve come to be a big fan,” Sheppard said. It didn’t hurt that the added $700,000 allowed his district to open its doors to 160 more preschoolers, expanding their enrollment to roughly 1,800 tots. “I don’t think we would have seen these things otherwise.”
Evaluators also check how well educated the teachers and classroom assistants are. Compared to teachers for kindergartners and older children, preschool teachers need less formal education to get a job, said Scott Moore, a senior policy advisor for Preschool California.
Some take just a few classes on child development, less than they’d need to get a community college degree. When preschool teachers do get their college degrees, they often switch to elementary schools, causing a brain drain.
“We can’t compete on salaries,” said Doug Regin, assistant director of MAAC Project Head Start, a North County preschool system. “We help them get their degree and as soon as there’s an opening in a school system, they’re gone.”
The County Office of Education’s whole program cost $30 million for five years and a new grant will shell out $75 million to extend the program for another five years.
For publicly funded preschools, the money adds to other funds they get from the federal or state government. For private preschools, it bolsters fees and fundraising.
While state preschools have to be evaluated and all preschools must be licensed, the San Diego County rating system is far more nuanced. Preschools rarely lose funding for poor quality under the existing systems, Moore said. The new experiment is meant to measure not only whether a preschool is adequate, but how good it is. Other states publicly air ratings so parents can choose more wisely.
But if parents want to find out how their preschools are rated here in San Diego, they won’t find a letter grade in the window like they would for a restaurant.
Claire Norwood, who coordinates the program, said they haven’t publicized the ratings, but wouldn’t withhold them if a parent wanted them.
“We didn’t think [preschools] would have participated if we’d said, ‘We’re going to come in and rate you and put your rating in the window,’” Norwood said.
That could change as the San Diego County program gets more funding and as the state explores a its own rating system. A California committee is studying how to gauge preschools and is supposed to report back to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by the end of the calendar year. San Diego is operating one of the scattering of programs across California that could serve as a model.
Making the data public for parents is one big selling point for California legislators. But which preschools will be rated and how is unknown. California seems unlikely to force private preschools to do it, though advocates hope the preschools might do it anyhow to market themselves.
Another sticking point could be the cost. Norwood estimated the San Diego system costs roughly $600 for each classroom each year, not including the bonuses and extra pay that preschools get for better ratings. It would cost nearly $1 million to evaluate every local classroom if every 4-year-old in the county got access to preschool, according to County Office of Education estimates.
RAND Corporation researcher Gail Zellman said California should study which criteria are truly important and which aren’t, to cut down the time and money needed to judge each classroom.
“We don’t really know enough,” Zellman said. “Maybe you don’t need to sit there for two hours.”
Value investigative reporting? Support it. Donate Now.