Opinion
Education Opinion

Why NIEER is Far From Right About D.C. Charter Schools

By Sara Mead — May 02, 2013 4 min read

I have a post up at the Quick and the Ed today arguing that the District of Columbia, where I live and serve on the Board overseeing D.C. charter schools, is perhaps the best place in the country for 3- and 4-year-old pre-k. Astute readers of that post may be asking themselves, “If D.C. is doing such a good job on preschool, why did NIEER’s State Preschool Yearbook rate D.C.'s charter preschool programs as meeting only 2 out of 10 NIEER standards? How can these programs be good if they meet only 20% of quality standards?”

Excellent question. The answer here is simple: NIEER’s preschool quality standards do not actually assess the quality of a state’s preschool offerings. Rather they are policy standards that assess the extent to which a state has regulatory requirements mandating that state-funded preschools have specific elements NIEER deems desirable. Charter schools, however, are typically exempt from most state regulatory requirements, and are instead held accountable to an authorizer under a charter contract. This increased autonomy for increased accountability bargain is at the heart of the charter school movement.

But that doesn’t mean that D.C Charter Schools don’t have the pre-k quality features highlighted in NIEER’s report. D.C. Charter School preschool programs employ teachers with Bachelor’s degrees, typically offer them far more than 15 hours a year of professional development, and typically have class sizes and adult:child ratios that meet or are better than NIEER’s standards. They do this not because of a regulatory requirement to offer these specific features, but because they are committed to operating quality preschool programs--and are accountable to their authorizer to do so.

The District of Columbia Charter School Board (PCSB), on which I serve, is deeply committed to ensuring the quality of preschool programs in charters we oversee. We do this through our authorizing practice, however, and not by imposing specific requirements on schools. An applicant seeking to operate a charter school that includes pre-k must provide a clear and detailed explanation of how they will provide quality education programs for pre-k and the other grades they will serve, including curriculum, staffing, staff recruitment and professional development, and supports for children with disabilities and English language learners. Once charter schools are approved, PCSB conducts a Qualitative Site Review in the school’s first year that, for preschool programs, includes CLASS observations that address quality of instruction and adult-child child interactions in preschool programs. (Established schools also receive regular Qualitative Site Reviews whose frequency depends, in part, on school performance.) All charter schools serving children in grades pre-k through 2 must also develop accountability plans that specify how the school will measure its impact on children’s learning and developmental outcomes, as well as the level of performance the school’s students will achieve on such measures. PCSB is also in the process of developing an early childhood performance Performance Management Framework that will establish a more consistent approach to assessing the quality of schools serving children in grades preK-2 and inform decisions about school expansion, renewal, sanctions, and closure.

All of this adds up to a much higher level of attention to actual instructional and classroom quality in pre-k programs than is executed by the vast majority of states receiving high scores on NIEER’s rating. DCPCSB has repeatedly reached out to NIEER to explain to them why their current rating grossly mischaracterizes the quality of pre-k offered by D.C. charter schools, to no effect.

The NIEER rating is a real injustice to the many D.C. charter schools that offer exemplary pre-k programs. But it also reflects a fundamental flaw in NIEER’s own approach to rating state pre-k quality based solely on regulatory requirements. Ultimately, NIEER’s emphasis on specific regulatory standards and requirements reflects an approach to preschool quality that is much more aligned with and appropriate to a child care licensure approach than with quality control, oversight, and accountability as practiced in public education. This is deeply problematic, because ensuring access to quality preschool for all children requires persuading policymakers and the public that quality pre-k is about education, not just child care, and that pre-k must become a core component of our public education system (albeit one premised on diverse delivery), with the same importance and level of public commitment as 3rd grade or 8th grade. NIEER’s Yearbook plays an incredibly important role in tracking data and providing information about pre-k programs and policies across the states, but to the extent its standards are out of step with trends in K-12 education reform over the past decade, they unfortunately serve to undermine NIEER’s ultimate goal.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.