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NJ’s Private Preschools Struggle Against Steep Odds to Deliver Quality Care

Helping kids learn in pre-K calls for commitment, trained staff, learning aids and -- unfortunately -- more money than most centers can muster

pre-K girl doing puzzle on floor
A young girl at work in the Primary 3 classroom at Waterfront Montessori in Jersey City.

This is the third story in a continuing series about New Jersey's public and private preschools.

When Karen Westman decided it was time to put her son in preschool 13 years ago, she ran into a problem faced by countless families.

She knew that high-quality preschools provide crucial support for developing young brains and pave the way for future success. But how could she know which of the schools in Jersey City, where she lives, would best serve her child?

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“I would stand on a sidewalk waylaying parents,” Westman recalled. “Does your kid like it? Do you like it? Are they good? Do they take care of your kid? I had no idea what I was looking for. It's hard to ask parents to make a quality decision when they're not there day to day.”

pre-k Karen Westman
Credit: Martin Griff
Karen Westman is the head of the Waterfront Montessori school in Jersey City.

Westman knows much more about early education now; she helped start and now runs Waterfront Montessori, a well-regarded school for preschool through 8th grade students, and heads the state’s Montessori association.

But there is still no systematic way for families to understand the huge variety of very different pre-K programs in their communities, so Westman is a cautious supporter of Grow NJ Kids, the state’s nascent effort to improve private childcare and preschool programs and publish their quality ratings online.

“It is, in theory, a very good idea,” she said.

Other education experts also praise the initiative, a Department of Human Services program funded with state and federal dollars, which mirrors rating programs around the country. At the same time, they note its limits, like the relatively small number of childcare centers involved and the difficulty of reaching the state’s many small, low-cost homecare providers.

More broadly, the experts question how much even the best-designed school-improvement project can accomplish, given the highly variable quality of private childcare, the cost of operating high-quality programs, and the industry’s tough economics.

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Quality is taken for granted at expensive, top-flight schools, and at any rate, children from wealthy and middle-class families often do well in elementary school regardless which preschool they attended. But studies find that less-advantaged 3- and 4-year-olds need top-notch pre-K programs if they are to overcome the serious barriers to success that they face, and their parents cannot afford Montessoris or even mid-range schools. The centers and homecare settings where most of them spend their days are in many cases not up to the task.

There are many good centers with well-trained, caring teachers and even national accreditation, but research on private childcare finds that, on average, programs are mediocre and some are quite bad, with children doing little more than watching TV.

Accurately gauging the quality of individual centers is virtually impossible. For example, while the state’s big childcare chains say they use sophisticated curricula developed by child development experts, each franchise operates on its own, and there is no independently published evidence that their programs have a positive impact.

Studies of publicly funded programs, like New Jersey’s Abbott preschools, show that if they meet a set of stringent standards they can measurably improve long-term academic achievement and social outcomes for poor and disadvantaged students. Since the state program is largely limited to 35 towns, low-income kids in other communities stand to gain the most from quality improvements in private centers and home settings.

But centers that serve poor families cannot charge very much, leaving them without funds to retain well-trained teachers and to provide the social workers and other services their students need. Grow NJ Kids is providing some scholarships and classroom tools, but without much more government funding and oversight, experts say it is unclear how the quality of private early childhood education can improve across the board.

A spectrum of education quality

From the perspective of sheer resources, the Montessoris and other elite elementary schools are at the top of the state’s preschool infrastructure. Costing $25,000 a year or more when extended-daycare and summer programs are included, they offer small class sizes, a host of enrichment opportunities, and teachers with bachelors degrees or even masters degrees.

Among the features that distinguish excellent schools are their adoption of research-validated curriculum, such as one of the four recommended by the state. For example, the Chapin School, a pricey pre-K through 8th grade school in Princeton, uses Tools of the Mind, a popular system based on the educational theories of Lev Vygotsky. Westman’s school and others like it use the Montessori method, which is not on the short list; it emphasizes self-directed learning with teacher guidance.

“Children choose their own activities. It looks like there's no one in charge, but you will see all these children engaged in their work, and really quiet,” Westman said. “We have a highly prepared environment, the teacher's job is to prepare the environment, and the children can make choices about what to do in that environment. We call it work, but it's a big playground.”

Given their cost, however, the expensive schools represent a tiny minority of early education options. The New Jersey Association of Independent Schools, for example, lists 23 members with pre-K programs, while non-public schools overall have 250,000 slots for children age up to the age of 5, according to Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ). (About 30,000 of the spaces are in federal- or state-funded schools.)

In 2013 the average cost of preschool-age care was $9,546 a year, according to the NJ Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. By comparison, the state’s per-pupil spending for private providers in the Abbott program is $14,375.

Many schools in the midrange for cost also adopt curricula and other educational practices that distinguish them from simple daycares. Lynette Galante, director of Future Generation preschool in Bloomfield and vice president of the New Jersey Child Care Association, said she uses a state-approved curriculum called HighScope and her staffers do triple the number of required training hours. Her center is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a relatively rare distinction and sign of quality.

pre-K girl washing doll
Credit: Martin Griff
A girl gives a doll a bath in the Primary 3 classroom at Waterfront Montessori.

“The private centers that put in their time, effort, and energy, or that are involved in associations such as ours, are a higher level of center than the mom-and-pop shops,” she said. “Education is like anything else. I mean, there are bad public schools out there. It's really and truly about how it’s implemented.”

Not every program is so sophisticated. Many are content just to follow the state licensing law, which applies to most programs with more than five children. It covers health and safety, student-staff ratios, age-appropriate activities, teacher qualifications, and other areas. The rules are not primarily about learning: most teachers are not required to have bachelor’s degrees; staff development requirements are minimal; and there are no curricular standards.

The Department of Children and Families is in charge of enforcing the standards but has been criticized for being understaffed and insufficiently transparent. In 2013, ACNJ said DCF had only 38 inspectors to monitor approximately 4,000 centers statewide, and Child Care Aware of America ranked the state near the bottom nationally for the quality of its oversight.

State officials disputed the validity of the rankings, defended the inspectors’ qualifications’ and said DCF had hired more inspectors to conduct unannounced inspections. Earlier this year DCF said it had 49 inspectors in childcare licensing and was hiring more with the goal of reducing their workload from 112 centers per inspector to 75 per inspector.

The agency also now posts inspection reports in an online database. ACNJ executive director Cecilia Zalkind called the new system “a good first step,” but said it should be searchable by different criteria, such as the age of the children and the type of care (day, evening, or weekend). She said DCF should provide information on how to use the reports, in order to make the information more meaningful, and should eventually link the database to the Grow NJ Kids ratings website.

“This would give parents more useful information when making one of the most important decisions for their children -- where children spend their time while parents work,” Zalkind said.

Private preschool on an industrial scale

One rapidly growing element of the preschool market is the large, multistate chain, including franchisers like Goddard School, Kindercare, and Bright Horizon. The largest is The Learning Experience or TLE, with 54 sites in New Jersey serving up to 9,308 children, according to state data. Average tuition is reportedly $860 a month nationally, and online reviews describe fees in New Jersey starting at around $1,100 for full-time preschool.

Rather than a state-recommended educational plan, the company provides its franchisees with a proprietary package of curricular materials it says was developed by early childhood and education experts. It includes such elements as sign-language instruction, phonics, foreign languages, manners and etiquette, physical fitness, and philanthropy, and makes use of large touch-screens in the classroom.

The company also provides frequent teacher training and on-site evaluations, said Jennifer Murray, the senior vice president of franchise operations in New Jersey.

“We believe in ‘learn, play, grow.’ We believe that the child is going to learn through a well-rounded curriculum in centers. So their experiences by playing are actually teaching them,” she said. “We look at ourselves as an early childhood development academy where we’re preparing our children for the next chapter of their lives.”

pre-K aide with puzzle
Credit: Martin Griff
Teacher Esha Goyanka works with children in the Primary 1 classroom at Waterfront Montessori.

As with other private preschools, there is no independent verification available of the quality of TLE centers, its teachers’ qualifications, or the program’s educational benefits.

The company said an annual study it conducts found that, at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, 97 percent of its preschoolers entered kindergarten reading, but it did not provide a copy of the study or explain its methodology. The company also said it “benchmark(s) the effectiveness of the curriculum and enrichment programs … and our children’s progress through a series of ongoing assessments,” but again, provided no details.

Online reviews by parents, while not representative of customers overall, include both high praise and sharp criticism, suggesting at least that the quality of TLE centers varies from franchise to franchise.

“People are buying the name, but it's all about how the franchisee operates it,” Galante said. While some centers are run by experienced teachers, she said others are opened by entrepreneurs with no education experience. “Going to The Learning Experience is like going to Disneyland: you walk in there and, like, the flowers sing. But what's the child getting, and what curriculum are they using?”

The Goddard School, another multistate franchiser with a proprietary curriculum and internal teacher-training program, provides somewhat more detail on its students’ academic performance.

Using a computerized tool developed at Columbia University, it tested thousands of its preschoolers in recent years and found that they scored higher in several categories -- listening, writing, reading, numeracy, among others -- than students who didn’t attend Goddard, the company said. A separate survey of some 10,000 former students found that years later, they were continuing to outperform their peers in literacy and mathematics, Goddard said.

“The Goddard School’s comprehensive play-based curriculum is developed with early childhood education experts to provide the best childhood preparation for social and academic success,” the company said in an email. “Our program focuses on academic, social, creative and child-centered development to provide a well-rounded experience and ensure children become confident, joyful and fully prepared students.”

The computerized tool, the Children's Progress Academic Assessment, has been used to test young children of various ages at different schools and represents a commercial approach to evaluating student academic progress. However, Goddard does not publicly release results for individual schools; the research has not been independently published; and the tool is not in general use by other preschools, limiting its usefulness for parents seeking to compare schools.

School-quality data -- sparse and bleak

Notwithstanding the trickle of data provided by some centers, there is essentially no useful information available on the quality of private, non-publicly funded pre-K. Most academic research focuses on public schools, and what few good studies there are of private programs are either old or do not identify them, making them useless to parents.

Those rare studies do, however, paint a decidedly bleak picture of private childcare quality, and they are equivocal on the impact of accreditation.

“National studies have consistently rated the overall quality of child care in the United States as mediocre in its ability to meet the developmental needs of young children,” begins a 1997 paper by the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force. “Only one in seven child care centers or family child care homes is rated as high in quality … Approximately two-fifths of center-based teaching staff and half of home-based providers leave their jobs each year, largely in response to poor compensation and few opportunities for advancement.”

The paper looked at the effect of NAEYC standards on a number of California centers, finding that those that achieved national accreditation improved in certain ways compared with those that failed to win accreditation. However, nearly 40 percent were still mediocre even after accreditation and staff turnover remained very high. Predictors of high quality included nonprofit status, higher teacher wages, and the retention of skilled teachers.

pre-K boy at table
Credit: Martin Griff
Teacher Ramona Fine at work in the toddler classroom at Waterfront Montessori.

The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers studied hundreds of New Jersey childcare centers from 2011 to 2013, focusing on infants and toddlers rather than preschoolers. It found that, on average, quality was “less than good, but better than minimal.” The centers scored reasonably well on discipline, supervision, and interactions among children, but did poorly on a broad category that includes fine-motor skills, art, music, and playing with blocks.

NIEER also surveyed family care homes in Essex County and found even worse conditions. The providers averaged just 3.23 on a 7-point scale, with scarce reading materials, little opportunity for active play or access to outdoor space, an overreliance on television, and little attention to nature and science education.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey called the findings “troubling” and the quality problems “detrimental to young children’s development.”

A plan to raise the bar in early education

Given the variability and opacity of private preschool quality, Grow NJ Kids represents a potential sea change for the industry.

Grown NJ Kids is a program created and run by the state Department of Human Services in partnership with the departments of Education, Children and Families, and Health. The state launched a small pilot version in 2013 and last year received a 4-year, $44 million federal Department of Education grant that allowed it to expand statewide. The initiative aims to improve the schools and create transparency by giving teachers training, curricula and other resources, and by publishing ratings of participating providers.

Forty states have similar quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS), according to Natasha Johnson, director of the Division of Family Development within New Jersey’s Department of Human Services. The first QRIS was created in 1998 in Oklahoma, which has voluntary universal preschool for 4-year-olds. The state QRIS programs have different features but they all allow private providers to participate.

“Improving quality in our early learning centers, starting with infants and toddlers and moving through preschool, gives very positive benefits for children in preparing them to go to school. That means well-trained teachers and high-quality environments,” Johnson said in an interview. “We want those environments for all our children, whether they're low-income, middle-income, high-income -- it doesn't matter.”

So far 550 preschool programs are participating, including 45 familycare providers, and the state has a goal of signing up 1,790 voluntary participants by 2018. The state’s grant application to the federal government envisioned enrolling all publicly funded early education programs by 2022, but Johnson said there is currently no timeline for doing so.

While Grow NJ Kids will continue after the grant ends, Johnson said providers should join up now, while there are additional funds to get them the resources they need to improve. The resources serve as incentives to encourage participation. Providers will be assessed and helped based on what will allow them to achieve the criteria on the Grow NJ Kids rating scale.

“It could be that they need an evidence-based curriculum. It may be that their teachers need scholarships to enhance their education. It could be that there's classroom materials or educational toys or whatever it is they need specifically for their centers. It could be general training and coaching for their employees,” she said. “Everybody's needs are a little bit different, and we're very open to how they can request incentives because we know it's very individualized.”

The Grow NJ Kids website says rating will begin next year; no programs have gone through the process yet. Once providers are ready, observers from William Paterson University will visit and grade them on a number of quality scales, Johnson said. The observations will contribute to a rating of up to five stars that will appear online.

pre-K girl in rocker
Credit: Martin Griff
The toddler classroom at Waterfront Montessori.

When the federal grant was announced, the state said it would be used to create a “Consumer Reports-like rating system” of preschools for parents. But Johnson said that if the rating system works, it will improve all preschools and parents won’t need to use it.

“We're looking to have the opportunity for parents (not to) have to shop around for childcare or early-childhood programs. They should be able to walk in and have a high-quality program regardless of where they live and when they need to get childcare,” she said.

Fears of unfair treatment

The sharpest criticism of Grow NJ Kids has come from some of the licensed childcare centers it is supposed to help. They say the rating system is unfairly stacked against them and could drive them out of business.

On one side, the centers feel competitive pressure from small, unlicensed home care providers. Those providers do not even have to follow licensing rules, much less educational guidelines, and they are much less expensive. So far few of them are participating in Grow NJ Kids.

On the other side, the centers have long-standing worries about the publicly funded Abbott preschools.

District preschools are seen as a particular threat, because they are free to parents, their teachers are relatively well-paid union members, and they are not part of Grow NJ Kids. In addition, though the public schools are subject to the Abbott standards and other educational regulations, they do not have to meet certain health and safety requirements in the childcare licensing laws.

The New Jersey Child Care Association (NJCCA), which represents childcare centers, has also raised concerns about the private Abbott providers, some of whom do participate in Grow NJ Kids. The group worries that those providers, which are funded and closely supervised by the state, could have an advantage in a government-run rating system. If non-state-funded providers end up with lower ratings, they could lose more business to their state-funded counterparts, they say.

“If the state fully implements the rating system under discussion, applying it to all private facilities, whether or not the center receives state funding, non-funded facilities may be caught at a disadvantage, based upon how the scale is implemented and a tiered grading system that is being proposed,” NJCCA Executive Director Curt Macysyn wrote last year, before the federal grant was announced. He urged his members to publicize “what would happen in your community if you were forced to close your doors.”

NJCCA president Kathleen Feigley, who runs Kangaroo Kids preschool in Branchburg, says the different types of early childhood care settings -- public schools, state-funded licensed preschools, other licensed centers, and unlicensed home providers -- are regulated differently, but only the licensed centers are being asked to join a rating system.

“They want everyone to be involved, but there's no regulation that says anyone has to be involved at this point,” she said. “The question is, if it becomes a regulation, will everyone have to be involved and under the same standards? We can compete under the same standards, but if the standards are different it makes it very difficult to compete.”

Hindered by a lack of cash

Underlying these worries is the assumption that, as Macysyn suggested, all private preschools will eventually be required to join Grow NJ Kids, which is currently voluntary.

State and local governments have been increasingly taking over early childhood education, making the possibility of tighter regulation credible. Public kindergartens became the norm in New Jersey in the 1980s and 1990s, drastically shrinking the private kindergarten market. The state just expanded a mini-version of the Abbott program into 17 communities, and advocates are calling for universal preschool in 90 more districts. President Obama has proposed creating free preschools for moderate-income children and providing subsidies to middle-income families.

“I think the whole QRIS, the fact that the standards are being implemented nationally, is a prelude to universal pre-K,” Westman said. “We build a system of quality preschools in the private sector, we rate them and then we say, ‘If it's three stars and above, we will give you a voucher that allows you to attend.’ I think that's the long-run plan.”

Alternately, as the schools improve, they could simply become state-funded preschools, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, whose lawsuits led to creation of the Abbott funding program.

“A lot of these providers that are outside of the Abbott program are likely candidates for being asked to participate and deliver the Abbott program when it expands out to their communities. In the sense that anything we can do to improve quality in those programs can be helpful,” he said.

On the other hand, there is no sign that Grow NJ Kids will lead to such major and widespread change any time soon.

Nationally, private provider participation in QRIS is generally voluntary. Johnson said New Jersey has no timeline for including all licensed centers, and it is unclear what the state’s program will even look like after the federal grant runs out. As for subsidies, the state’s current voucher system for childcare is currently limited to a subset of the population of very low-income families and is criticized for its very low reimbursement rates. The Abbott expansion, though popular among Democratic legislators, has been on hold for seven years.

Far from promising to engulf all private childcare providers, Grow NJ Kids’ bigger problem may be reaching enough of them to make a difference, and overcoming the structural barriers to their improvement.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey notes that the state’s initial proposal calls for participation by just 180 registered, home-based child care providers, or less than 9 percent of those providers. The plan focuses primarily on Abbott and Head Start preschools, which “are already required to meet high standards,” with less emphasis on enrolling the many non-government-funded licensed centers that serve poor children, ACNJ says.

“These are precisely the centers that need the most assistance,” the organization wrote in a report last year. “These providers struggle with inadequate funding and supports to improve the quality of care they deliver to young children and their families.”

As Johnson noted, the state is providing classroom improvement grants, and it plans to spend $12 million on 1,500 scholarships to allow teachers and childcare workers to take college courses.

But the plan does not include money to boost the state’s childcare subsidies or reward providers that do well in the rating system. Providers who serve poor families -- and who are thus unable to charge more for their services -- will receive little in the way of ongoing financial assistance to achieve and sustain the improvements Grow NJ Kids is meant to encourage.

In an ACNJ survey of providers, “lack of resources was identified as the primary barrier to improving quality,” the organization reported. “Providers said they struggle to maintain a stable workforce because of the inability to provide decent salaries to their teachers and aides. Teacher turnover lowers quality, which, in turn, affects young children’s learning. They also cited an inability to afford improvements to their facilities.”

Quality, it seems, costs money. A lot of money.

“I've certainly talked to people in the business who say, ‘I ran a child care center for eight years and I finally got out of the business because I can't keep compete at the prices people are willing to pay, and deliver the quality that I think children ought to have’,” NIEER executive director Steven Barnett said. “It's a very difficult thing to do.”

The state has asked Barnett to evaluate Grow NJ Kids and identify its most effective aspects. But having studied the Abbott preschools and other public initiatives around the country for decades, he said early education programs cannot be improved cheaply.

“Personally,” he said, “I'm a skeptic of all of these things that don't put a lot of money in.”

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