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Are the 'Diaper Olympics' Closer Than We Think?

Will a new federal rating system for preschools help the underserved -- or devolve into the same troublesome "Race to the Top" that dogs K-12 education?

Photo Credit: Oksana Kuzmina via


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.