How useful are the Parent Aware ratings?

Starting today, you might begin to notice ads promoting the state’s ratings system for pre-school and childcare programs.

The efforts are part of a new marketing push, funded by businesses and nonprofits, to steer parents of young children to the Parent Aware website. The state-operated online tool strives to be Minnesota’s Consumer Reports for “quality” early-education options.

But even the nonprofit promoting the system acknowledges that the ratings don’t provide useful comparisons.

One reason is that 90 percent of the 529 rated providers have received four stars, the highest possible score.

“A meaningful distribution of programs across star levels is one of our big goals for Parent Aware,” says Ericca Maas, executive director of Parent Aware for School Readiness. “We aren’t there yet, but are working in that direction.”

Why are the ratings so skewed to favor the participating providers? Most of Parent Aware’s early adopters were already demonstrating their level of quality through another process, such as accreditation, Head Start performance standards, or affiliation with a public school, Maas says.

As the system begins to expand toward its target goal of 1,500 rated programs by the end of the year, Maas expects that most of the new programs will not be four-star.

“By the end of 2013 we expect the mix to be roughly like 50% 4-star, 25% 3-star, and 25% 1- and 2-star,” she said in an email.

Parent Aware is getting more attention these days because it’s intended to provide standards of accountability as the state considers increasing its investment in early-childhood education. The Legislature is debating whether to expand the number of early-learning scholarships available to low-income children. The scholarships would be available only to Parent Aware-rated programs.

Minnesota issues the star ratings based on whether the providers are implementing best practices, such as teacher training and assessments to track child development.

Yet there’s no explanation on the website as to why an individual provider received the rating it got. That can be frustrating for web-savvy consumers accustomed to scouring in-depth reviews while shopping for everything from electronics to cookware.

But the hope is that if more parents know about Parent Aware, they’ll pressure providers to follow best practices and encourage them to become rated, Maas said. She says that can help transform the marketplace in a way that will prepare more Minnesota kids for kindergarten.

You can hear a one-minute radio ad promoting Parent Aware here:

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