Many preschools score low on state rating scale

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Some 80 percent of preschools evaluated by the state didn’t get a minimally acceptable score on a rating of personal care routines, such as making sure students wash their hands every time they cough, sneeze or blow their noses.

In addition to personal care routines, the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale gauges factors such as space and furnishings, personal care and safety, the use of language and reasoning in the preschool, and its organization. Children in higher-scoring settings are typically better prepared for school, have better attitudes toward teachers and caregivers, and have better social skills.

Overall, about four-fifths of programs did not meet the benchmark set for high-quality programs, with average scores lower than 5 on a 7-point scale. However, most had solid scores in the area of language and reasoning activities.

(A table of average ratings for each school district that had at least three classrooms rated is below.)

The information covers about 700 state-funded preschool classrooms during the 2009-10 school year, representing just a fraction of the state’s preschool slots. (State-funded preschool programs served more than 87,000 students that year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.)

Catalyst Chicago obtained the preschool ratings from the Illinois State Board of Education. They do not include Chicago, because the city is responsible for evaluating its own programs, currently with the CLASS tool.)

Preschool space, furnishings also a challenge

Ratings like this may become more common next year, after Illinois expands its Quality Counts rating system to include preschools rather than only child care providers. Starting in July 2012, city-funded child care and preschool programs will have to participate in a quality rating initiative that aligns with the revamped state program.

The scale’s strict hand washing requirements were the main reason for the low scores in the personal care routines section. Other factors taken into account include: greeting and departure routines, sanitizing surfaces, scheduling naptimes, proper bathroom routines and safety practices, such as having emergency supplies on hand.

Space and furnishings also proved a challenge. Classrooms may have been docked points for splintered chair legs, wobbly tables, or a lack of soft toys or private spaces.

Debra Pacchiano, director of continuous quality improvement at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, notes that the lack of high-quality materials can raise broader questions about teachers’ working conditions and what organizational supports they get.

“Preschool teachers and infant-toddler teachers often have the least access to supports that help them teach effectively,” she says. These supports include instructional leadership from principals and professional interactions with other teachers.

And, Pacchiano notes, the preschool ratings are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to early-childhood quality.

“The lowest-quality environments in the country are for infants and toddlers,” she says. “Sixty percent of brain development occurs before the age of 3.”

State offers help to programs with low scores

The ratings are used to help programs improve, and the state aims to visit each program every three years.  Based on a program’s scores, staff members receive extra training — including online and in-person trainings, and sometimes on-site help, as well.

“All states are low in the Personal Care Routines section.  It is the nature of early childhood. These children are young and they’re not able to show consistency in routines,” state spokeswoman Mary Fergus wrote in an email.

State-funded preschool programs, which often have higher student-teacher ratios than private programs, may have extra trouble meeting the requirements.

“Staffing patterns in most early childhood programs are not conducive to following the regulations for sanitizing classroom equipment properly without having the educational component suffer,” Fergus noted.

However, the state is trying to make teachers and program administrators – as well as children  –  more aware of the issue. Teachers can place visual cue cards above the sink to remind children of how to wash their hands properly, and the activity can be reinforced in lesson plans and group time and at parent events.