Research repeatedly reveals how important a strong educational foundation is to later success. The merits of high quality early childhood education programs are well known, but the benefits can fade quickly if the subsequent K-12 system is not up to par. This is precisely why strengthening the birth through third grade continuum has become a popular policy solution. Aligning early childhood and elementary education systems allows policymakers and educators to better meet the unique needs of young children and ensure they do not fall behind. Integrating early education into the greater K-12 system provides children with a more cohesive and coordinated educational experience.
Among the initiatives that aim to strengthen the birth through third grade continuum, accountability may not be the first that comes to mind. But last month, Elliot Regenstein and Rio Romero-Jurado of the Ounce of Prevention Fund released a report on a reimagined accountability structure, in which they propose combining early education and K-12 accountability systems at the state level. These single, statewide systems would span from birth through high school and combine best practices of existing systems.
Accountability systems have been a leading tactic among policymakers to improve our nation’s low-performing schools for some time now. According to Regenstein and Romero-Jurado, they “are supposed to measure the professional practice of schools, then help schools improve their practices” to raise student achievement. Although the success of existing accountability systems remains up for debate, the authors write under the assumption that accountability systems do change school behavior.
Unfortunately, schools don’t always implement the new changes well, or even change the right behaviors, so the systems are not always effective. And if those systems fail to measure professional practice or provide the right supports, it is no surprise that they also fail to improve student outcomes.
As the authors explain, accountability systems must have the appropriate metrics, measures, performance tiers, and supports in place for schools to change in the desired ways.
Early education accountability tends to focus on structural inputs that allegedly indicate program quality and may or may not be associated with child learning and development. States evaluate K-12 schools largely on student math and English language arts test scores, starting in third grade. Right now we rely on different metrics at the early education and K-12 levels, and the authors reason that none of these metrics sufficiently focus on professional practice. Meanwhile, we have virtually no accountability measures between kindergarten and second grade, even though we know these are important years in children’s development. Revamping accountability starts with improving the existing metrics. As depicted below, the authors say the appropriate metrics would address both professional practices and child outcomes, including developmentally appropriate measures for younger children. The test scores used at the K-12 level “are simply not an adequate proxy” for professional practice, the report says, and don’t necessarily gauge how well students are doing. In essence, while test scores are easy to measure, they aren't necessarily the right metric.
Source: The Ounce of Prevention
The authors suggest using the Chicago Consortium for School Research’s “Five Essentials for School Improvement” to identify promising professional practices that should be measured for accountability reasons. The appropriate child outcomes, on the other hand, will likely vary with age—developmental milestones may be important in the early years, while graduation rates matter in high school. Early education policymakers are already making progress in this area with the development of state Quality Rating Improvement Systems (QRIS), which attempt to determine program quality based on indicators associated with child outcomes. QRIS quality varies, but with Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge’s requirement for QRIS validation, improvement is likely.
Once the appropriate metrics are in place, policymakers must determine how to best measure them. The authors discuss the merits of school-level observations, a practice often utilized in early education that is common at the K-12 level in other countries, such as England. Inspection-based accountability involves outside observers conducting comprehensive evaluations of the entire school, posting the results publicly, and offering schools individualized feedback with suggestions for improvement. These inspections have been found to improve student outcomes and teacher quality, and may be an effective way to measure elementary and secondary schools in the US.
In many states early education programs and schools are sorted into tiers based on certain quality or performance measures. These tiers are often represented as stars in the case of QRIS for early education programs or A-F grades for schools in the 14 states that assign letter grades based on school performance. Tier placement, as the authors note, can be a useful indicator of program quality for parents, educators, and policymakers, but existing tiers don’t always reflect the quality of instruction, particularly in K-12 when tier placement may largely be determined by student test scores. Effective performance tiers should consistently measure both professional practice and child outcomes—for early education programs and K-12 programs alike.
There are some pitfalls to the tier system, of course, which policymakers should approach with caution. Although tier placement can help schools identify areas for improvement, tying certain tiers to financial or other support is not usually the best way to get schools to improve their programs. With the lost resources, they’re likely to face even more struggles, even while trying to make big changes.
And just because two schools are in the same tier does not mean they have the same needs. As the authors explain, “Instead of broad-brush supports based on wide performance tiers, support systems should be based on more precise supports reflective of a school’s specifically diagnosed need.” This isn’t necessarily possible under existing accountability systems, which don’t include much detail about why schools need what they need. But better-targeted supports might be more feasible if we were effectively measuring the right metrics.
Still, the potential for joint early education and K-12 accountability structures is huge. Creating a cohesive birth-through-high-school system helps ensure that programs meet student needs from their first year of school to their last by building a strong foundation that extends through graduation.
Implementing the authors’ reforms would be a complex endeavor, but could strengthen both the early education and K-12 accountability systems and ultimately help more kids succeed in school. Ensuring that professional practice and child outcomes are accurately measured in every single grade can allow educators and policymakers to intervene early and often so that children don’t fall too far behind too early. And it can bring the multiple measures, early childhood-based approach to the K-12 community.