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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Early Childhood Opinion

What K-12 Can Learn from Pre-K

An early-childhood education advocate’s take
By Rick Hess — January 31, 2023 5 min read
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Part of the problem with school “reform” is that it so often leans more on wishcasting and white papers than on practical experience. In fact, that’s a theme of my forthcoming book, The Great School Rethink (out later this spring from Harvard Education Press). What I especially like about Elliot Regenstein’s thinking is that he goes another way. His deep familiarity with pre-K gives him a practical but distinctive way to think about some of the challenges facing K-12. In his recent book, Education Restated, he offers a bunch of ideas for system change that are well worth contemplating. For readers who don’t know him, Elliot is a partner at Foresight Law + Policy and has served on Illinois’ Early Learning Council and helped craft the state’s Preschool for All program.
- Rick

Dear Rick,

As someone who works on both K-12 and early-childhood education, it’s been fascinating to see how the pandemic has shaped K-12’s conversations about some of its most fundamental policy questions: How does a particular child end up in a particular classroom? How do we get good teachers in the classrooms with children who need them the most? And how can we tell if what’s happening in the classroom is going well or not? All of these questions have been in the news, particularly in articles about the impact of the pandemic on school choice and potential teacher shortages.

These questions are also important in state early-childhood systems, which have approached them very differently. That’s out of necessity, because early-childhood systems are much less developed and structured than K-12. But sometimes that flexibility is an advantage. So as I’ve been thinking about some of the blind spots in K-12 policy, I’ve tried to identify places where the experiences of early-childhood systems might be helpful—both to improve K-12 policy in its own right and to improve continuity between the two systems.

K-12 efforts to analyze what’s happening in the classroom have focused primarily on outcomes: test scores and graduation rates. Those outcomes are important and should be measured. But the focus on outcomes means that our conversation about what’s happening in classrooms focuses on the later years because those are the years for which standardized tests provide us with abundant data. One of the most compelling pieces of data produced by all of our testing is this: If a cohort of children is a year behind after 2nd grade, only 15 percent of school districts in the country can get that cohort caught up by the end of high school. It’s problematic that our entire accountability system focuses on the second half of K-12 education, when it’s too late to catch kids up if they’ve fallen behind. (The data about the ability of schools to catch up kids who are behind is particularly sobering in light of the most recent NAEP results.)

Efforts to get good teachers into classrooms with the children who need them the most are hampered by the fact that schools are one of the only places where the employer can’t really tie salaries to roles. As teachers gain seniority, they not only get paid more, they also gain the ability to choose where they work; understandably, many of them would prefer to work in stable settings with children who come from wealthier families. We can’t expect teachers to take on more difficult assignments—the assignments that might actually close the outcomes gap—if we don’t pay them accordingly. This has been a huge issue for the early-childhood field, where teachers are paid substantially less than public school teachers.

Finding the right school for a child is a matchmaking process, and parents should have multiple options. Efforts to offer more options have frequently focused on charter schools and vouchers—which have emerged as workarounds primarily because district boundaries are too restrictive on parent choice. In densely populated areas, district boundaries and intradistrict attendance boundaries are frequently used to segment public schools by residence and family income: Treating those political lines as sacrosanct limits the ability of families to find the best school for their children. For many early-childhood programs, though, those lines are essentially meaningless.

There are no easy solutions or obvious quick fixes to these problems. But my recent book, Education Restated, proposes some ways that states might address them:

Use direct observation in accountability. Accountability systems tend to measure outcomes at the end of a process—but they can also measure the quality of the process itself at any stage. Accountability based on direct observation of teacher-student interactions is the norm in some countries and is already being used at scale in early-childhood programs in the U.S. To date, proponents of this type of accountability have focused on the fact that it provides actionable feedback for schools in a way that standardized tests do not. But it’s also important that this accountability model would allow systems to address the entire birth-through-secondary educational continuum, not just the second half.

Structure teacher pay based on their roles. Paying teachers based on their role rather than their characteristics would make the harder teaching jobs more appealing. If we want to stabilize struggling schools or fill long-standing special education vacancies, our best available tool is money. Teachers understandably want a predictable pay scheme that isn’t based on student test scores. But states and school districts—like other employers—should have the ability to define the teaching roles that they think are most impactful and then offer base salaries for those teaching roles that may be higher than the salaries of teachers in easier-to-fill positions.

Expand options available to families of all income levels. Intra- and interdistrict choice programs are already emerging as a way of giving families more flexibility in choosing schools. But the financial-incentive structures of those programs haven’t been powerful enough to really open up new possibilities for lower-income families. If states make interdistrict choice an appealing option for middle-class or wealthy districts, local choices could lead to more economically diverse schools—and more options for parents.

Ultimately, our country will be much better off if even the families with the most limited financial resources can choose a great school for their child, see their child taught by a well-compensated teacher, and know that the school’s work will be evaluated fairly. Education Restated offers one set of ideas for how that might happen. As policymakers consider the important issues of accountability, teacher pay, and school choice, hopefully these ideas will help advance the conversation.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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