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Goodbye Sochi, Hello Diaper Olympics

02/28/2014 04:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2014
Fuse via Getty Images

I'm neither a policy wonk nor a competitive person, so here's the thing: Will ExceleRate Illinois -- a new grant from the federal government to create a system for improving quality and rating all early learning and development programs statewide -- help low income children and close the achievement gap in our schools? Or will it devolve into The Diaper Olympics? When daycares and preschools go for the gold, will some of the well-documented problems associated with Race to the Top (RTTT) emerge?

ExceleRate Illinois, the preschool version of RTTT, encourages programs to compete to move up through licensed (off the podium), Bronze, Silver and Gold "Circles of Quality," with every early childhood program entering the games at the Department of Children and Family Services licensing level, the minimum standard currently required by the State. Grants have been awarded to 15 states thus far, so these are the games of the future, it seems.

I know a thing or two about early childhood education and how the under-five set best learns. I'm the founder of Cherry Preschool, an innovative developmental preschool that celebrates all children, including a significant population with special needs. I've worked for over 30 years in the profession. So I'm worried when policy makers think it's a good idea to want very young children to "excel" in their early learning, supposedly to ensure success in school. And I'm even more worried about young children being "rated" in their skill development.

The potential pitfalls of this nevertheless well-intentioned program are many. First, the ExceleRate YouTube video and website talk about toddlers learning more, doing better and improving their developmental skills. Anyone who knows anything about preschoolers understands that their development is not linear and is all over the map. Some walk at nine months, and others at 18; some toilet train by age two, and others at age four; some talk when they are one, and others are not intelligible until they are almost three. Ask any parent who has worked hard to accelerate any of these developmental milestones and he or she will tell you that it happens when the child is ready, rather than when the parent thinks it should.

Second, accurately screening young children upon entry into an early childhood setting is not easy. Rating two-year-olds' ability to follow directions, stack seven blocks, copy a line, pretend play or use pronouns, without regard for the quality of what they do or the context in which the behavior is observed, can result in some capable kids not passing the screening, and others with serious issues being missed. We've already seen this in start-of-kindergarten screenings, and now we are talking preschoolers.

Third, the standardizing principle behind the testing doesn't seem to apply. ExceleRate provides training for program administrators and teachers in how to assess children through Illinois Gateways, but it's hard to find much about the credentials of the trainers. In addition, Gateways is currently reviewing screening tools to develop a "pre-approved" list, but will also be allowing programs to propose the use of a tool that is not on the pre-approved list. This concerns me because, if the results of this testing matter, there must be some assurance that they are valid and correctly administered. In a recent article in the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers concluded, "...The choice of screening instrument may affect which children are likely to be identified for additional evaluation."

Fourth, assuming the assessments are accurate, which is a huge leap of faith for me, what happens to the children who "fail" the screenings? Their panicked parents will want services to help their children, but that job will fall to the already overworked early intervention system for birth to three, and school districts for the three to five year olds. Based on past experience, I know it takes a while to schedule evaluations. I'm also concerned that some children may be labeled as having special needs who don't really have them. In the past, this has led to capable children with behavioral issues languishing in special education programs.

Fifth, there's no one-size-fits-all for preschool itself. Early education comes in a wide variety of packages from full day corporate care to church sponsored programs to private not-for-profits, to small in-home childcare. How can such a wide variety of programming fit into the same formula? Part-day preschools often have two-year-olds attending as infrequently as four hours per week. To screen an entire class would take from September through December. By the time the teacher finished, the children she screened first would likely have changed quite a bit, requiring a re-screening to be accurate.

I'm not alone, of course, in my concerns. Directors of programs accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) rightfully wonder how ExceleRate will do anything useful for their highly regarded programs, the ones already doing a great job. NAEYC accreditation, a voluntary and rigorous self-study followed by a validation visit, is already the gold standard for early childhood programs that focus on creative teaching, developing social/emotional skills, and building confidence in children. Aligning an already good curriculum with state standards would take a considerable amount of the teachers' unpaid planning time, and to what end? Just putting the correct standard code next to an activity will not ensure good teaching.

I accept that standards are a valuable tool. Understanding what typically happens at a given stage of development is useful to inform teachers' curriculum planning and to watch for children who do not meet developmental milestones. From personal experience writing community standards for early education, however, I witnessed the misguided implementation of these standards. Educators who did not understand that young children still learn best through play and hands-on experience were incentivized to "teach to the test." I worry that how the standards are implemented under ExceleRate will not be any more developmentally appropriate than in the past. This is an unintended consequence I fear.

Parents and educators need to stay vigilant and keep a close watch on where ExceleRate is headed. If this program follows the model of what's happening in our public schools, it could also mean punishments and closings for "failing" programs, evaluation of early childhood educators based on children's assessment scores, and curricula driven by teaching only things that will be measured. The validity of this approach with older children is doubtful. To push it down to our most vulnerable children and those who nurture and teach them makes even less sense.

A few signs give me hope. If people like Gail Nelson, an educator from the Illinois Governor's Office of Early Childhood Education, administer ExceleRate, it may help to direct much needed resources to improving the quality of weak programs. But if the program is taken over by bureaucrats in the educational-industrial complex, I worry. I'd hate to see much of the grant money go to companies that make screening and testing materials, for example.

Here's what we need to see happen in order for ExceleRate to work. Programs receiving federal or state funding to work with children in poverty need to receive more funding to improve quality of care and education. I'd much rather see ALL of the ExceleRate money go to these programs and children rather than wasting energy where it is not needed, on programs that are well resourced and where children are already doing well.

We don't all need to race to the top. Those of us blessed with so much don't need silver or gold circles of quality to make our families feel better about the early childhood programs their children attend. Rather, we need to step aside so that the $52.5 million grant can be used to ensure educational opportunities for children who really need them. Now, for that, I would give ExceleRate a gold star.