How to measure preschool quality

Advocates for preschool always say they want “high-quality” preschool. Preschool quality can be measured, but not the way states are trying to do it, writes Daniel Willingham. Most have adopted Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRISs) that measure inputs, such as class size and teachers’ education, rather than looking at what children are learning.

QRIS scores don’t predict student learning, concludes a new study published in Science.

It takes a trained observer in the classroom to evaluate quality, writes Willingham. That costs a lot more than counting inputs. The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which evaluates interactions between teacher and child, is a good — but not cheap — measure of quality, he writes. (It’s labeled “interactions” in this graph.)


Sara Mead has more on the problems with QRIS and the need to observe what’s actually going on in preschool classrooms.

Washington D.C. charter preschools and pre-K programs will be evaluated on reading and math scores, writes Sam Chaltain.

Just to clarify: we’re talking about three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Being Tested. In Reading and Math. With High Stakes attached for the schools that care for them.

Universal preschool is nearly a reality in D.C., where 88 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children are enrolled in preschool programs and at an expense of nearly $15,000 per child.

Math and reading will count for 60 to 80 percent of a school’s rating. If schools “opt-in” to adding a measure of social and emotional growth, it will count for 15 percent of the score for preschool and pre-K and 10 percent for kindergarten.

Charters already are using these assessments, responds Scott Pearson, who chairs the D.C. Public Charters School Board. “Many school leaders are reluctant to have significant portions of an evaluation of their school be based on an assessment of their students’ social and emotional development” because valid measures haven’t been well-established, he writes.

Early childhood programs routinely assess children without them realizing it’s a “test,” Chaltain writes. But these assessments have high stakes attached. Charters need a high ranking to raise money, acquire facilities and recruit families. They’ll be pressured to concentrate on raising reading and math scores.

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  1. I think it’s ridiculous to test preschoolers on reading. Not every kid is ready to read as a pre-schooler. My kids don’t get into the groove until 1st grade, but then a switch flips somewhere, and they go from non-reader to advanced in less than a month.

    Why? Because starting phonics young is actually not as helpful as interesting read alouds. If a kid has a good listening vocabulary and tons of background knowledge, the jump from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ takes very little time, since phonics aren’t that complicated once they click.

    If you push kids too soon, they develop space-monkey decoding strategies that actually hold them back later on.

    A high quality pre-school should give urban kids what the children of educated parents get at home– books, TV shows and experiences full of interesting, exciting CONTENT. (I’m including TV shows because Wild Kratts is truly magnificent in terms of science and nature knowledge,)

  2. $15K per kid for preschool? I guarantee you that average parents who teach their 3-4 year-old the basics at home rather than send them off to preschool do not spend anywhere near that amount (even if they do take them to museums and participate in other enriching activities) and somehow manage to get their tykes ready for kindergarten/1st grade. Why should it take $15K to teach a 3-4 year-old?

    Something smells fishy ~

    • Lee, Lee. You’re forgetting lost wages. Why, that mom staying home to teach her tot COULD be hauling in a million dollars a year as a CEO! (/sarc)

      It’s almost like the ‘stable parent who cares’ may be more important than the other stuff…

  3. I can see issues with both arguments. First, way back when I was in preschool (in the late 70s at a church), they helped us with our ABCs…every so often they’d sit with one of us while the class played and see if we knew our letters, which were on little squares of paper in a pringles can. They wrote down how many we missed so that we could practice them. Cheap, accurate, and low stress – we loved the 1 on 1 time!

    Second, there are a lot of us out here who don’t really care how our preschool rates academically. I know it’s heresy, but I send/sent my kids to preschool because its easier than organizing playdates all the time. They learn things, which I’m happy about, but I teach them at home. I know that, for some parents, preschool academics are important…that’s fine, but I’d hate for it to be the standard by which all preschools are judged.

  4. Inputs are the tool of choice in public education. Teachers are judged with so little thought that worthless ed degrees (a relative actually took 2 grad beanbag classes – and I think she was a better than average ES teacher, and one solid in math/sci) equate to “highly qualified” and real-world content degrees do not. A relative with a master’s in EE from a top engineering school and decades of experience at a top-level tech firm isn’t considered qualified to teach HS math/physics, a local pharmacist isn’t qualified to teach chem, a French major who spent HS in France in a regular French HS isn’t qualified to teach French, a relative with a master’s in math from a top university isn’t qualified to teach math etc – credentialism rules the public schools. Private schools don’t play that game; I know some who won’t consider an ed major for anything.