School & District Management Commentary

Early Learning Needs Accountability, Too

By Elliot M. Regenstein & Rio Romero-Jurado — November 25, 2014 5 min read

Over the past decade, federal and state accountability policies have defined how we measure the overall progress of K-12 students. To date, accountability policies have focused on student test scores from 3rd grade onward as the primary measure of progress, ignoring what goes on before then.

These first years of life are actually the most important to a child’s development, and we need an accountability system that measures the quality of young children’s educations in those years—one that uses a broad set of metrics, including a wider range of outcome measures than just test scores and gauges of the quality of professional practice.

Of course we want children to excel at math and English/language arts. But that is not all we want for them, and our measurements should be broadened to reflect that. We should also stop using child learning outcomes as a proxy for the quality of professional practice in schools. We know that better professional practice leads to improved student outcomes, but the only way to really improve professional practice is to measure it directly.

Accountability systems that are more diagnostic and supportive rather than punitive will increase the chances that schools will actually get better.”

Research from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research has shown that successful schools are those with five “essential supports”: a coherent instructional-guidance system, professional capacity, strong parent-community-school ties, a student-centered learning climate, and the leadership to drive change. If accountability systems measure these practices, then we know that improvements in school practice will lead directly to improvements in their accountability ratings—which isn’t the case today.

We recently collaborated on a policy brief titled “A Framework for Rethinking State Education Accountability and Support From Birth Through High School.” In it, we call for new accountability systems based on both professional practice and an expanded set of learning-outcome metrics, possibly including chronic student absenteeism. Importantly, these broadened accountability systems could apply to education from birth through high school, unlike an accountability system based on standardized tests.

The balance between metrics on professional practice and educational outcomes may vary across age spans, but the basic architecture can work for the education of all children. And we see it as important to apply accountability across all ages because education quality matters at all ages and for each and every child.

Research has shown quite clearly that the first five years of life, particularly the first three years, are incredibly important to a child’s long-term development. Studies have found a strong link between kindergarten readiness and 3rd grade test scores, and increasingly states have focused on the importance of 3rd grade reading. But our test-focused accountability policies have presented a significant roadblock to improving the quality of education in the years before 3rd grade.

Another important shift is a move toward diagnosing what’s really going on in schools and tailoring supports to meet those needs. There is often a significant mismatch between a school’s actual needs and the consequences applied. Accountability systems that are more diagnostic and supportive rather than punitive will increase the chances that schools will actually get better, which should be the goal of any system.

Current accountability systems create strong disincentives for superintendents to push for early-learning investment. The average big-city superintendent has a tenure of less than four years. But children 4 years old and in preschool during a superintendent’s first year on the job wouldn’t take 3rd grade accountability tests until that superintendent’s fifth year on the job.

So even if a superintendent is able to execute a significant expansion of a preschool for 4-year-olds in his or her first year on the job (no easy task), chances are that it will be that superintendent’s replacement who sees the return on that investment. And even waiting until children are 4 years old actually misses the developmental window where the most brain development occurs.

Test-based accountability also creates the wrong incentives in the early school years. Superintendents who need to improve test scores immediately will place resources in the years that are actually tested, often at the cost of K-2 resources and quality as explained in another recent paper we co-wrote, “Changing the Metrics of Turnaround to Encourage Early Learning Strategies” (co-written with Justin Cohen and Alison Segal of Mass Insight Education).

The lack of focus on early learning and K-2 in education accountability policies means that superintendents may have no real idea how children and teachers are doing in those years, which makes it impossible to diagnose problems and solve them. A system that creates real accountability for birth through 3rd grade would give school leaders better information, and create incentives for them to act on whatever shortcomings were identified.

Given current accountability systems, it’s amazing that so many superintendents have still chosen to recognize the value of high-quality early learning. State accountability systems currently tell superintendents that what matters is student math and English/language arts test scores in 3rd grade and up, which creates incentives to narrow instructional focus and invest only in the later grades. But nationally the increased focus on 3rd grade reading—an important predictor of long-term success—has helped superintendents focus on the birth to 3rd grade years, even when their accountability metrics are pulling them to focus elsewhere.

It’s time for policymakers to stop giving superintendents disincentives to do the right thing while hoping they’ll do it anyway. If we want superintendents to focus on instructional excellence and healthy school ecosystems and to invest resources in the developmentally critical birth to 3rd grade years, then we need accountability systems that give them the incentive and support to do that.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Accountability Should Span Early Ed. Through High School


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