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Preschool Parents Are Pleased, but Is the School Really Good?

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By Christina Samuels, originally posted at Early Years.

Parents, it turns out, tend to be pretty satisfied with their child's preschool—even when independent evaluators give those same preschools low marks on measures such as the quality of classroom instruction and how much children are learning, according to a working paper by researchers at the Center on Educational Policy and Workforce Development at the University of Virginia. 

The same dynamic applies to preschool characteristics that aren't necessarily measures of quality, but that can be very important to parents, such as a center's affordability, its closeness to home, its hours of operation, or whether it serves meals. The researchers hypothesized that parents might be happier with centers that offer more conveniences, but those characteristics also didn't appear to relate strongly to parents' overall satisfaction with their child's preschool. 

The findings were "striking" and appear to corrobate a long-held assumption in the early-childhood field that families have a hard time judging the quality of the programs where they enroll their children, said Daphna Bassok, an associate professor of education and public policy and the lead author on the working paper.

The working paper suggests that states and other public entities could play an important role in steering parents to higher-quality centers by putting more information in front of them about how to pick good centers, and about the child-care choices that are available to them.

"When you give parents easy information about quality, experimental studies have shown that makes a big difference not only for where parents end up enrolling their children" but for how those children perform in school later on, Bassok said. 

Focus on Preschool Families in Louisiana

The research focused on 906 parents in Louisiana whose children were enrolled in publicly-funded preschools. Parents were asked to evaluate their child's center in several different areas: opportunities to learn social skills, opportunities to learn academic skills, warmth of caregivers, affordability and convenient hours, among others.

Parents were also asked to rate the features of the program that they liked the best. This question was important, Bassok said, because it allowed parents to get past the psychological hurdle of criticizing the center where their children were enrolled.

And parents did rate some quality measures as better than others, so satisfaction was not uniform across the board. But the parents' greater satisfaction in one area over another still did not appear to correlate to objective measures—such as a preschool's score on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a tool that measures child-teacher interactions, or on child measures of literacy or math skills—or to convenience factors.

Bassok notes that there could still be a psychological component behind some of the parents' judgments. "No one wants to say, actually, I'm sending my sweet 4-year-old child to a place that strikes me as terrible," she said. 

And though this particular study focused on lower-income families, parents in other income groups also tend to overestimate their preschool's quality. A 2002 study asked parents in the United States and in Germany to use a common preschool-rating tool, the Early Childhood Ratings Scale, to rate their children's preschools. The researchers then asked trained observers to do the same, and found that parents consistently gave their children's classrooms higher quality scores than the objective evaluators.

And in 2016, a nationally-representative poll of more than 1,100 parents found that 88 percent rated their child's care as very good to excellent. This comes despite the fact that a 2010 evaluation said that 87 percent of publicly-funded preschool classrooms have levels of instructional support that are too low to promote school readiness, said the University of Virginia working paper. 

But the fact that parents will use information to enroll in higher-rated centers—when they have that information presented to them—suggests this is a dynamic that can change, Bassok said. A lot of the parents in this study, for example, visited only one center before enrolling their children. 

"There is a lot of room to help parents make more informed decisions," she said. 

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