Accountability comes to Head Start

Head Start, Meet Accountability, writes Sophie Quinton in The Atlantic. After years of debate about Head Start’s value — are there any lasting benefits? — federal lawmakers want proof the program prepares children for kindergarten. For the first time, providers will have to meet quality and effectiveness measures to retain funding.

Many Head Start and state-run prekindergarten programs aren’t high quality, writes Quinton.

National studies of public pre-K programs have found that children spend most of their time playing, eating, and waiting around, and that instructional quality is generally low. A federal impact study, released in 2012, found that while Head Start children experience initial gains in health, language, and reading skills, those gains usually disappear by third grade. House Republicans use that study to argue that Head Start is a failure and not worth the $8.6 billion taxpayers will spend on the program this year.

Head Start providers that perform poorly on federal audits will have to compete for funding against other preschool providers.

“Providers must abide by some 2,400 federal standards that dictate everything from how toilets are cleaned to the size of facilities,” writes Quinton. But few programs have lost funding, no matter how poorly they perform.

In the future Head Start providers will have to set goals for preparing children for kindergarten and show they’re taking steps to achieve them.

. . . Programs(must) meet minimum thresholds on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a privately developed tool that assesses how teachers and staff interact with children. CLASS doesn’t measure learning outcomes, per se, but high scores are correlated with better learning.

. . . Monitors use the CLASS tool to rate emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Teachers get high scores for instruction if they seize on teachable moments all day long: asking children questions, responding with more than one-word answers, and introducing new vocabulary words even in casual conversation.

Evaluating preschool quality isn’t easy, reports Education Week. A commonly used preschool evaluation tool doesn’t correlate with better outcomes, according to a study published in the spring 2014 edition of  Education Finance and Quality. The Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale-Revised, which is used by many states to evaluate quality has little connection to the academic, language, and social functioning of children evaluated at age 5, researchers found.

How to measure preschool quality

Advocates for preschool always say they want “high-quality” preschool. Preschool quality can be measured, but not the way states are trying to do it, writes Daniel Willingham. Most have adopted Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRISs) that measure inputs, such as class size and teachers’ education, rather than looking at what children are learning.

QRIS scores don’t predict student learning, concludes a new study published in Science.

It takes a trained observer in the classroom to evaluate quality, writes Willingham. That costs a lot more than counting inputs. The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which evaluates interactions between teacher and child, is a good — but not cheap — measure of quality, he writes. (It’s labeled “interactions” in this graph.)


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Sara Mead has more on the problems with QRIS and the need to observe what’s actually going on in preschool classrooms.

Washington D.C. charter preschools and pre-K programs will be evaluated on reading and math scores, writes Sam Chaltain.

Just to clarify: we’re talking about three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Being Tested. In Reading and Math. With High Stakes attached for the schools that care for them.

Universal preschool is nearly a reality in D.C., where 88 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children are enrolled in preschool programs and at an expense of nearly $15,000 per child.

Math and reading will count for 60 to 80 percent of a school’s rating. If schools “opt-in” to adding a measure of social and emotional growth, it will count for 15 percent of the score for preschool and pre-K and 10 percent for kindergarten.

Charters already are using these assessments, responds Scott Pearson, who chairs the D.C. Public Charters School Board. “Many school leaders are reluctant to have significant portions of an evaluation of their school be based on an assessment of their students’ social and emotional development” because valid measures haven’t been well-established, he writes.

Early childhood programs routinely assess children without them realizing it’s a “test,” Chaltain writes. But these assessments have high stakes attached. Charters need a high ranking to raise money, acquire facilities and recruit families. They’ll be pressured to concentrate on raising reading and math scores.

Online ed means low-cost, high-quality college

Online technology “promises historic improvements in the quality of and access to higher education,” predict John Chubb and Terry Moe in the Wall Street Journal. Elite universities are putting classes — if not degrees — online.

One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.

And lectures just scratch the surface of what is possible. Online technology lets course content be presented in many engaging formats, including simulations, video and games. It lets students move through material at their own pace, day or night. It permits continuing assessment, individual tutoring online, customized reteaching of unlearned material, and the systematic collection of data on each student’s progress. In many ways, technology extends an elite-caliber education to the masses who would not otherwise have access to anything close.

College won’t be 100 percent online, Chubb and Moe predict. Students will “go to school and have face-to-face interactions within a community of scholars, but also do a portion of their work online.”

The “college experience” is very expensive.

College credits without college classes

As more adults try to earn college degrees, less-selective colleges are giving credits for “prior learning.”

The “completion agenda” – the push to get more students to a college degree — can’t ignore quality, say academics. Does the degree signify real knowledge and skills?

Billions for college, but we don’t know grad rates

What’s the college graduation rate? Nobody knows because federal data leaves out or miscounts so many students. It’s time to track individual students’ progress, including transfers, part-timers and second-time-around students, an analyst argues.

Also on Community College Spotlight: A college’s quality isn’t measured by the completion rate.

Secondary teachers are smarter

While would-be elementary teachers have below-average SAT and GRE scores, aspiring secondary subject-matter teachers compare well to other students, writes Education Realist.

The Richwine-Biggs study (pdf), which concludes teachers have lower cognitive skills than workers with similar education levels, combines elementary and secondary teachers, Realist complains.

Secondary teachers specializing in a subject — English, history, math, science — have “much stronger academic histories” than elementary, special education and phys ed teachers, ETS reports (pdf).

 

New York Times vs. virtual schools

Online Schools Score Better on Wall Street Than in Classrooms, writes the New York Times, singling out K12, a for-profit that started by providing curriculum to homeschoolers and now runs charter schools (and works with school districts).

Despite lower operating costs, the online companies collect nearly as much taxpayer money in some states as brick-and-mortar charter schools. In Pennsylvania, about 30,000 students are enrolled in online schools at an average cost of about $10,000 per student. The state auditor general, Jack Wagner, said that is double or more what it costs the companies to educate those children online.

K12 recruiters “fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students, company staffers tell the Times.

If a charter screened out high-risk students, surely the Times would be indignant.

Only a third of K12′s schools achieve “adequate yearly progress,” according to a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center, the story adds.

Well, they do take high-risk students.

The story is part of “a series of hit pieces” targeting innovative private companies, charges Tom Vander Ark. Meanwhile, as the Times “maliciously savages sector leaders like K12 and Carnegie Learning, they are out marketing their own ‘state of the art learning management system’ called Epsilen,” he writes.

Vander Ark goes on to detail what’s wrong with the story.

Reporting on for-profit education often generates “more hysteria than analysis,”writes Rick Hess, who calls the Times story a “selectively sourced attack.”

Sure, there are valid and sensible concerns about the role of for-profits in schooling. But aggressively recruiting clients and cutting corners to make a buck is the flip side of the things that for-profits are uniquely positioned to do well–which is to squeeze cost structures, find new efficiencies, and rapidly scale.

We need performance pay for online learning companies, writes Mike Petrillii, who sees a biased story that “landed a punch” on the issue of perverse incentives.

Clearly K12, and its well-paid CEO, Ron Packard, face strong incentives to boost enrollment at their schools. Unfortunately, states haven’t figured out a way to create similar incentives around quality. And that needs to change.

Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning includes Rick Hess on quality control, Paul Hill on funding and Bryan and Emily Hassel on teachers.  An upcoming analysis will examine “what high-quality fulltime online learning really costs.”

Virtual schooling is new and there are plenty of bugs to be worked out, including how much funding is fair, how to measure quality, how many students an online teacher-coach can handle and so forth.

 

Jerry Brown: Data is useless

School performance data is a “siren song for school reform,”  (pdf) wrote California Gov. Jerry Brown in vetoing a bill to add “multiple indicators,” such as graduation rates, to the state’s Academic Performance Index.

This bill requires a new collection of indices called the “Education Quality Index” (EQI), consisting of “multiple indicators,”many of which are ill-defined and some impossible to design. These “multiple indicators” are to change over time, causing measurement instability and muddling the picture of how schools perform.

SB547 would also add significant costs and confusion to the implementation of the newly-adopted Common Core standards which must be in place by 2014. This bill would require us to introduce a whole new system of accountability at the same time we are required to carry out extensive revisions to school curriculum, teaching materials and tests. That doesn’t make sense.

Finally, while SB547 attempts to improve the API, it relies on the same quantitative and standardized paradigm at the heart of the current system. The criticism of the API is that it has led schools to focus too narrowly on tested subjects and ignore other subjects and matters that are vital to a well-rounded education. SB547 certainly would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.

Over the last 50 years, academic “experts” have subjected California to unceasing pedagogical change and experimentation. The current fashion is to collect endless quantitative data to populate ever-changing indicators of performance to distinguish the educational “good” from the education “bad.”

. . . SB547 nowhere mentions good character or love of learning. It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill’s turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity.

There are other ways to improve our schools — to indeed focus on quality. What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students, and examine student work? Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number, but it could improve the quality of our schools.

Actually, I doubt it.  Maybe a state school inspector could evaluate school quality without student performance data by looking for signs of good character and love of learning.  Maybe not. A local committee would be easy to snow.

The vetoed bill, SB 547, had broad support, notes John Fensterwald of Educated Guess. The proposed Education Quality Index could have included “dropout rates, the need for remediation in college, success with career technical education programs, and graduation rates.” Standardized test scores would have counted for no more than 40 percent of the score in high school. While critics “questioned whether the EPI would be too squishy,” Brown complained “it would have demanded more of the same, hard data.”

 

Digital learning: Quality is critical

Digital Learning Now, led by two former governors, Republican Jeb Bush of Florida and Democrat Bob Wise of West Virginia, has come out with 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning (pdf).  Recommendations in the “road map” include “abolishing seat-time requirements, linking teacher pay to student success, and overhauling public school funding models,” reports Education Week.

Last month, the International Society for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, released a paper suggesting a move away from seat-time requirements to competency-based pathways that let students advance at their own pace after mastering concepts. Meanwhile, seizing on the budget challenges facing almost all districts in the current climate, the theme for the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference this upcoming March is “Mastering the Moment,” referring to the opportunity for technology-driven reform fueled by the need to cut costs.

Will digital learning increase “high-quality education” choices? On The Quick and the Ed,  Bill Tucker warns that innovation can go astray.

They suggest, for example, that states evaluate “the quality of content and courses predominately based on student learning data,” yet provide few details on how to accomplish this difficult task. Likewise, recommendations for “Quality Providers” focus heavily on the removal of barriers to competition, but offer little discussion of how to enact the recommendation for “a strong system of oversight and quality control.” Too often, the recommendations assume that quality will naturally result from regulatory relief.

Virtual education is in a time of rapid growth as school districts, for-profit providers, and nonprofit start-ups all move into the online learning world. But without rigorous oversight, a thousand flowers blooming will also yield a lot of weeds.

The report recommends terminating contracts with providers and programs that don’t perform well. Easier said than done, writes Tucker.

Learning from Olive Garden

Can academia learn from Olive Garden to balance cost and quality?