Education Opinion

Why We Need to Look at Learning in Preschool Programs

By Sara Mead — August 23, 2013 7 min read
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There are a lot of misperceptions flying around about the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board’s Early Childhood Performance Management Framework. As a member of the board who supports the framework, I’d like to try to clear up some of those misperceptions and explain why I support the framework.

It’s clear to me that a lot of the confusion here stems from a misunderstanding of what charter schools are and of DCPCSB’s role as a charter authorizer. Charter schools are independently operated public schools that receive increased autonomy and flexibility in exchange for accountability for the results they produce--this exchange of freedom for accountability is the heart of the charter school bargain. Authorizers, the entities that approve and oversee charter schools, are responsible for making sure that bargain is honored. In the case of DCPCSB, this means we not only carefully evaluate the potential of schools before granting a charter to open, but that after we open, we also continually monitor the extent to which our schools are living up to three primary obligations: 1) Using taxpayer funds appropriately and responsibly, 3) Honoring the “public” part of “public charter school” by maintaining access for all students, preventing discrimination, and following all laws to which they are subject, and 3)Effectively educating students.

Since 2011, DCPCSB has used our Performance Management Framework (PMF) to evaluate how well schools in our portfolio educate their elementary and secondary students. The PMF replaced the individual accountability plans that previously existed for schools, and provides a consistent way for PCSB, parents, and the public to compare performance between schools and make choices. It has been effective in supporting parents to make informed choices and in helping us to improve the overall performance of our portfolio.

This PMF did not apply to all charter schools in D.C., however. Uniquely and, I believe, invaluably, the District of Columbia allows charter schools to serve preschool students and to receive per pupil public funds for these students in the same way they do for elementary and secondary students. As a result, a large number of our charter schools serve preschoolers--including some schools that are exclusively serve early childhood. Charters that serve preschoolers are schools. They receive millions of dollars in public funding every year, and as an authorizer we have the same obligations to oversee the learning results they produce as we do for any other school in our portfolio.

When we launched the PMF in 2011, we did not include an early childhood PMF, because we realized that evaluating the performance of preschools and early elementary programs is a complex undertaking, and we wanted to take time to develop the best approach we could. Over the past nearly three years our staff has worked closely with charters that serve young children, and consulted with outside experts, to develop an early childhood performance management framework that we will use to evaluate the performance of these schools going forward. I’d like to make a few points about this PMF clear:

  1. The early childhood PMF does not require any new tests or testing of preschool or early elementary students: Instead, it is based on assessments that schools were already using to monitor children’s progress under their existing accountability plans.
  2. The early childhood PMF does not require pencil and paper tests for young children: All the approved assessments approved for school use in the PMF have been determined to be developmentally appropriate for the age groups for which they may be used. The approved assessments for preschool include authentic assessments, such as Teaching Strategies GOLD, that use teacher observations to track students’ development and progress over time.
  3. The early childhood PMF does not establish high-stakes testing for young children. Nothing in the PMF establishes consequences for children based on assessments. The Board recognizes that making high-stakes decisions about children based on assessments is developmentally inappropriate and would not support policies to do so.
  4. The early childhood PMF does not evaluate schools based solely on assessments: The preschool PMF also includes the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), an validated and reliable observation of the quality of adult-child interactions in preschool classrooms, which has been shown to predict children’s learning and development in preschool. CLASS accounts for 30% of the PMF scoring for preschool. Attendance, a leading indicator of how well schools are engaging children and families, counts for 10% of the early childhood PMF at all levels, and re-enrollment, a measure of family satisfaction, accounts for 10% of the PMF in kindergarten and elementary.
  5. The early childhood PMF recognizes the critical importance of social-emotional development: PCSB recognizes that social-emotional development is a critical component of children’s learning in the early years. That’s why the PMF includes an option for preschool programs to include an assessment of children’s social-emotional development as 10% of their PMF rating. PCSB made this component optional because we did not want to impose an additional assessment of social-emotional development on schools that were not already using one. Even if schools do not elect this option, however, that does not mean the PMF ignores their effectiveness in supporting students’ social-emotional development. The CLASS, required for all charter preschools in the PMF, includes 3 components: instructional support, emotional support, and classroom organization. The emotional support component of CLASS reflects how effectively teachers support students’ social-emotional development in preschool, meaning that the quality of adult support for children’s social-emotional development counts through CLASS for 10% of a school’s PMF rating in preschool.

In terms of social-emotional development, two additional points: I fully agree with parents and educators that it’s critically important to ensure that schools are supporting children’s social and emotional development. But recent research suggests that the available measures of social-emotional skills and behaviors at school entry are not as strong of predictors of children’s later school success as measures of their early math and early literacy skills. Thus, if we want to focus on the measures that are most predictive of children’s later school success, we need to look at math and early literacy skills. Moreover, other research on quality in preschool classrooms suggest that most preschool programs do a better job of supporting children’s social-emotional development than they do of supporting their cognitive, language/literacy, and math development.

As an early entrant into charter school authorizing, responsible for charters serving more than 40% of D.C. students, DCPCSB often finds itself on the bleeding edge of new challenges facing charter authorizers and the charter school movement. When it comes to authorizing early childhood charter schools, that’s definitely the case. I don’t think that what we’ve done is perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe that by moving forward with something pretty good now, we can learn from the results and get better over time. It’s my sincere hope that state and federal officials will increase spending on preschool in the coming years and that, as they do so, more authorizers will find themselves approving and overseeing preschool charters--and that they’ll be able to learn from what we’ve done, and ultimately help us learn and get better together.

The reality is that, as challenging as it may be, the early childhood field is going to have to move in the direction of increased information about child outcomes. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been speaking with a number of leading early childhood thinkers from across a wide ideological spectrum and was shocked by the consistency with which I heard this refrain. It’s partly a matter of practical politics: If we want public officials to invest more public funds in preschool, we’re going to need ways to show them that these funds are working. But it’s also a more nuanced issue: If we want to improve quality and outcomes in early childhood education, we need to do a better job of figuring out which early childhood programs are doing the best job of educating kids, so that we can learn from what they’re doing. And if we want to experiment with greater flexibility or new approaches, we need a consensus on how to tell if those strategies are working or not. For too long, an excessive paranoia about assessing young children has prevented us from being able to answer basic questions like, “Which Head Start programs are doing the best job of getting kids ready for school?” But in order to move the ball forward for kids, we need to be able to do that--and to do it in smart, nuanced ways that take into account how complex all of this is. This doesn’t mean (at all!) NCLB-style accountability for preschools. It does mean being able to be much more transparent about how programs are serving kids--including outcomes.

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.