My wife and I have begun the unenviable process of looking at preschools for our daughter. When I began the search, I had absolutely no idea what to look for in a pre-school program, although I figured it was a bad sign if knifeplay was encouraged.

I wasn’t prepared, though, for what I actually encountered while perusing preschool websites. Most sites have special sections that illustrate their “philosophy” or “mission,” presumably to give parents an overview of what type of education their children will receive. What you often find is some semi-lucid platitudinous nonsense that would make an episode of Barney the Dinosaur sound like it was written by Bertrand Russell.

Fifteen years ago, George F. Will wrote a column where he noted the “cult of self-validating expression contributed to the debasement of education, which came to be considered of process of letting something out of students rather than putting something into them.” This seems to be the guiding principle of Madison area preschools.

Take, for example, the “Once Upon a Time” child care center in Verona. Their “Philosophy” page reads, in part (my emphasis):

Balance, harmony and quality education for your child is the philosophy of Once Upon a Time Child Care Center (“Once Upon a Time”). Providing a nurturing and safe environment is a given and will be the foundation of the center. However, we will expand on the traditional approach to child care and will focus on creating a stimulating, interactive learning center blending basic theory and environmental curriculums with holistic, stress relieving life skills…

Children will focus on developing academic skills as well as the following characteristics: kindness, compassion, caring, understanding, and a respect for others. Children will work on being polite, learn to acknowledge kindness, avoid competition, help others in need, share skills and talents, and celebrate the diversity of our planet.

\”Avoid competition?\” Do they expect kids to grow up and only work jobs for which they aren\’t required to submit a resume? Is my daughter supposed to get into college somewhere that doesn\’t accept applications? Clearly, the proprietors of this day care center reject the very foundation of American society that provides incentives for individual excellence. Instead, they would rather teach three year olds \”stress relieving life skills.\” I can honestly say I have never uttered the words \”you know, my daughter is really stressed out from all the napping, pooping, and watching \’Blue\’s Clues\’ that she does. She really needs some relief from her onerous schedule.\”

Or as my friend succinctly put it: \”The sooner my son learns that life is a painful race to the top, the better.\”

Lest you think that this is an isolated day care center, and lest you think I just wanted to use the word \”lest,\” here\’s the mission statement from the expensive Creative Learning Preschool:

We provide children with a warm, safe and nurturing environment and strive to meet each child\’s developmental needs. Our low child to staff ratios and small group sizes ensure quality, personalized care for every child. Creative Learning Preschool is a culturally diverse child care center with a preschool program based upon the High/Scope Philosophy. This philosophy is directed toward the use of a child-directed/initiated curriculum and age appropriate play activities. Teachers are experienced, well-educated early childhood professionals who genuinely care about children and understand child development.

This seems to be a common theme in area day care centers – the \”Montessori\” philosophy of \”child directed/initiated curriculum.\” (In Italian, \”Montessori\” means \”your child\’s head is unusually large.\”) Sure, there may be some genius kids who can direct their own learning, but if left to her own devices, I\’m fairly sure my daughter would specialize in \”the philosophy of pouring syrup down your pants.\”

This, of course, is in stark contrast to the philosophy I learned as a youngster, which was known as the \”school sucks, and I hate learning English, math and science, but my parents care for me so I better do what the teacher says\” method. Apparently, this outdated model has gone the way of Jim Doyle\’s hairline – extinct. Today, the words \”teaching\” and \”learning\” are pejorative terms. Now, we must let each child get in touch with their \”inner child,\” meaning \”teacher has yoga class soon, so play by yourself for the next hour and make sure your parents are on time picking you up.\”

These preschools, of course, work in a free market, so they are welcome to represent themselves to parents in any way they want. Obviously, this type of education is in demand, as waiting lists around town are prevalent. In fact, these syrupy mission statements may just be a way to lure parents in, where they nefariously switch gears and actually \”teach\” children things.

Now you may think to yourself that since the state licenses all of these day care centers, that there must be some minimum standards for each center. When you go to the state Department of Workforce Development child care website, however, it takes time to shill for higher day care worker pay.

The state Department of Health and Family Services website is even more curious. On a page entitled \”Is your child care center secure?\” you would expect the tips about access to the day care center, pickup procedures, and the like. But they obviously couldn\’t help themselves, as there is a link to a PBS page entitled \”Talking to Kids about War and Violence.\” Certainly foremost on the minds of parents concerned about their kids\’ safety. Doesn\’t exactly instill confidence that state bureaucrats have any idea what they\’re doing.

It doesn\’t get any better post-pre school, either. Take the mission statement for the Elm Lawn Elementary School:

We believe that each of us in the Elm Lawn School community is responsible for helping to create a physically and emotionally safe environment where all people feel welcome, trusted and valued. We strive to openly listen to the opinions and ideas of others in order to appreciate and celebrate our differences. Our goal is to create a nurturing, non-critical environment where each person feels free to take risks and where both individuality and a feeling of community is honored.

Allow me to translate:

\”We know your kid was probably an unwanted mistake, but as long as he\’s in our school, he won\’t be made to feel inadequate in any way, regardless of his abilities. We will make sure that no child will be pushed to reach their full potential, as it may make goofball children like yours look bad. Most important is how your kids \”feel,\” not what they learn, how they\’re challenged, or that they\’ll be able to have a snowball\’s chance in the cutthroat world someday.\”

Such an educational cultural ethos leaves a parent with little confidence that their preschooler is going to get a quality education. There\’s a better chance my daughter goes to a school that teaches that conflicts must be resolved by a break dancing contest than one that actually teaches spelling and math.


Some other child care oddities:

From the Preschool of the Arts\’ \”FAQ\” section:

What kinds of fo
od or snacks do you serve the children?A special and wonderful aroma wafts out of the kitchen of Preschool of the Arts and into the hallways and around to the door. Chef Tom Morrison-Weeks is hard at work preparing some lovely homemade bread or steaming hot soup or scrumptious pasta or beautiful fresh vegetables. Trained at Madison Area Technical College, Chef Tom has been cooking at our school for over 10 years when his daughter Emily attended.

Sign #1 that you\’re paying too much for day care: Your kids are eating more five star meals than you are. I knew something was wrong when my daughter left my wife the following note:

Dearest Mom: I found your macaroni and cheese pungent, yet lacking adequate flavor. While it was served in a timely manner, it failed to challenge my palate. The side of graham crackers was an elegant touch, yet left my taste buds lonely and confused. Please kick it up a notch.
P.S. – I licked your iPod.

BAM! Your kids can\’t read!

From the Campus for Kids Learning Center:

We accept children regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, creed, political persuasion, ancestry, handicapping condition or age if an opening is available in the requested age group.

Political persuasion? Good to see my three year old daughter\’s strong opinions on the UN\’s soft stance on Hezbollah won\’t be held against her. Will she be able to watch her Baby Scalia DVDs? Will she be the only kid with a Donald Rumsfeld lunchbox?

Child Development, Inc. actually takes credit for the successes of its alumni:

A cancer research at the UW-Madison, a Boston lawyer, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate, a member of a Grammy-award winning musical group, a Denver Broncos football player, and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray. What do these people have in common? They\’re all alumni of the South Madison Child CareCenter and proud of it. Each attended this CDI preschool and credits that experience with giving them the head start needed to make their big dreams come true.

As if the things they accomplish have anything to do with the preschool they attended. Do they have a cancer research lab with bunsen burners and little mini lab coats? Is there a vigorous weight training program for three year olds who want to play in the NFL? Somewhere out there, there\’s a day care bragging that one of their alumni is a \”nationally known researcher who believes the 9/11 attacks were an inside job.\”

The Caring Center has a section where they outline the \”Childrens\’ Rights.\” These, of course, were ratified at the Preschooler Constitutional Convention in 1786. They include protection against self poop incrimination, the right to bare butts, and the controversial right to publicly pick your nose, inspect its contents, and consume your findings. This provision has been repeatedly sustained in Toddler Supreme Court rulings.