“Early Learning Needs Accountability” the title of a recent Education Week opinion piece declares.
Written by Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president for advocacy and policy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and Rio Romero-Jurado, who works on the fund’s policy team, the article asks a key question:
How can K-12 education improve if policymakers don’t know how well children are doing in early learning settings?
The article links to several policy briefs that the Ounce of Prevention Fund is using to fuel “Policy Conversations” by “publishing some innovative ideas about how we can bridge the early education and K–12 systems, improving the quality and outcomes of both.”
The Recent and Disappointing History of Accountability Efforts
The authors write that, “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.”
However it is these first years of life that “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” that go beyond “test scores.”
“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.”
“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.”
The Benefits of Using the Right Assessment Tools
Regenstein and Romero-Jurado say it’s essential to get rid of systemic barriers.
“Current accountability systems create strong disincentives for superintendents to push for early-learning investment,” they write. “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.”
“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,” they add.
Instead they 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.”
They expand on these ideas in a policy brief called, “A Framework for Rethinking State Education Accountability and Support from Birth through High School.”
“Another important shift,” they say, “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.”
The Ounce’s Policy Conversations website also features three other policy briefs:
- “Changing the Metrics of Turnaround to Encourage Early Learning Strategies,” which makes the case that “current metrics effectively eliminate the viability of early learning as a potential long-term improvement strategy.”
- “Considering a Multistate Approach to Early Learning.” This brief points to the Common Core as an example of the “potential benefits to states of working together to develop high-quality standards for K–12.” Those benefits include improved quality, increased efficiency, and higher likelihood of implementation. Similar benefits could occur in early education if political leaders and the early learning community have conversations of their own about potential common cores.
- “Early Learning at the Turbulent Dusk of the Pangloss Era.” The brief says that in the era of No Child Left Behind, “K–12 systems were judged by the number of students achieving ‘proficiency’ on state tests—with each state left to define ‘proficiency’ for themselves.” But now that national definitions of proficiency are in effect, and now that proficiency numbers are plummeting, “some states should look to early childhood education as a solution.”
Regenstein and Romero-Jurado conclude, “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.”