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Report Finds Limited Support for Early Ed in School Turnarounds

The federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, overhauled by the Obama administration in 2009, has had its ups and downs of controversy. The program provides federal money for extensive school turnaround efforts in low-performing schools, but early data results have been, at best, inconclusive. A new report from the Ounce of Prevention Fund and its partners at Mass Insight Education, Changing the Metrics of Turnaround to Encourage Early Learning Strategies, finds a fundamental flaw with the program that might be hindering its impact: disincentives to include and improve early education as part of the solution.

Many children enter elementary school already years behind in development, which makes it tough to catch up. SIG, the largest concerted school turnaround effort in the country, has so far been at best uneven—and at worst, static—in closing the drift between early childhood and the upper elementary grades.

Although new regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Education added new models for turnaround schools—including one centered on extending early education—to date, most SIG schools haven’t had the luxury of using pre-K and other early education efforts to help keep students on track up through elementary school. According to the Ounce of Prevention report, that’s because the short-term nature of the program means it wasn’t designed at the outset to facilitate early learning efforts.

The new Department of Education-proposed regulations for SIG could help resolve some of these issues by building in incentives to consider early education alongside other SIG efforts. For example, SIG would now include three new model options for school turnaround, one of which—the Early Learning Initiative—requires districts to provide full-day kindergarten, high-quality pre-K, and joint planning across grades. The report finds that this would be an important support for early learning.

Without changing the metrics against which turnaround schools are judged, though, school leaders would have little incentive to lean towards the model, argue the report’s authors. In most states, the metrics of success rely largely on scores on accountability tests administered annually beginning in the third grade. That means pre-K and other early childhood investments aren’t likely to pay off on a three-year, or even the newly proposed five-year, timeline for improving students’ test scores. Four-year-olds whose pre-K classroom is funded by the first year of the grant still won’t take any standardized tests until the fifth year of the turnaround project, when they enter the third grade. As a result, school administrators may be wary of directing too much focus on the early years when they know they’ll be judged primarily on metrics from third grade and above.

Yet in many cases, children are already performing months or even years below grade level by the time they enter kindergarten, let alone third grade—and by then, catching up academically is an even greater challenge than it would have been.

The federal government, the report suggests, should be more active in creating guidelines, policies, and goals for states and school districts to meet, particularly in the early years and the early grades of elementary school. Furthermore, since states have the choice to define metrics themselves or require each turnaround school to define the metric itself, the report makes valuable suggestions towards a more comprehensive picture of  accountability. Rather than simply using standardized test scores, states could include school climate measures and child outcomes like absenteeism rates, as well as kindergarten readiness assessments, to create a longer-term, inclusive improvement strategy. No doubt, there are other measures of early childhood learning that could provide a more comprehensive picture of programs’ success, but the field will likely require more research to find valid and reliable metrics that provide incentive for early learning investment.

Still, simply investing in early learning programs before students reach kindergarten is not enough. Children experience a dramatic change in environment and interactions when they enter elementary school, but better alignment throughout preschool and the early elementary grades can smooth those transitions and ensure students, parents, and teachers are all on the same page. To encourage PreK-3rd grade approaches to school improvement, the federal government should view spending on early learning as a strategy, rather than a goal; for example, the report suggests, the program could dedicate a SIG funding set-aside solely to fund early learning. If schools were required to consider early learning a part of the strategy, they might be better able to invest the money in holistic school improvement efforts.

The gaps that turnaround schools aim to address emerge well before kindergarten entry and persist throughout the elementary years. Changing the metrics within turnaround schools could reorient low-performing schools to focus on and promote access to early education, kindergarten readiness, and alignment within the PreK-3rd grades.

The changes proposed by the Department of Education to the SIG program would be a significant improvement and could be better suited to improving low-performing schools. (And the Education Department has opened up a comment period for its proposed regulations on School Improvement Grants until early October. Weigh in here.) But without an even stronger focus on early learning, long term success in turnaround schools could be a far reach.