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February 3, 2014

Early Education: Ups and Downs Since the Great Recession

Recent years have shown an increased interest in early learning for children in the birth-through-eight age span. However, this increased interest coincided with the Great Recession in the United States, and the funding levels for programs for children in pre-K and the early elementary grades have fluctuated wildly since the start of the recession.  New America’s Education Policy Program recently released “Subprime Learning”, a report summarizing the triumphs and trials of early education in the last five years.

One of the largest areas of improvement in the last five years has been in the development of new systems and programs to support birth-to-eight learning. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included close to $11.2 billion for early education (including K-3) and $6.3 billion for birth-to-five programs. Infrastructure is improving across the board with the introduction of competitive programs like Race to the Top that encourage improving data and evaluation systems. The creation of the Common Core Standards means that states are more on the same page than ever before with regard to early education standards, and have been working to create infrastructure that should encourage more collaboration and sharing of information between birth-to-five programs and elementary schools.

There has also been some progress in pre-K access.  Although funding has been cut in many states, universal programs such as those in Oklahoma and Georgia have increased access and Mississippi started a small pre-K program in 2013. Approximately 42% of four-year-olds in the United States are enrolled in some type of public preschool (either pre-K, Head Start, or a special education preschool program), which is up from 40% of four-year-olds in 2009.

Although there is no national testing of children before the age of eight, there are improvements being seen when students are tested at the end of this age spectrum.  Fourth-grade math and reading scores have improved on the NAEP over the last five years, but there still exists enormous achievement gaps between low-income and non-low-income students. This is especially concerning since there are increasing numbers of American children living in poverty: the percentage of children living in poverty increased by five percentage points in the last five years.  Furthermore, little progress has been made with regard to dual language learners and special education students, as their achievement scores have remained stagnant over the last five years.  These are some of the students who would benefit most from early interventions and extra support in the early years of their education, so it is of the utmost importance that our schools make these students a priority moving forward.

Another hurdle for early education is that school improvement programs such as the federal School Improvement Grant program do not require improvements to pre-K-3rd grade, and limited data makes it difficult to determine if there has been any true impact on children in early elementary grades as a result of school improvement programs. Additionally, implementing standards for teachers in early grades where students are not tested has proved difficult.  Since teachers educating children up to age eight are teaching grades and subjects that are not covered by standardized tests, schools have been seeking alternative ways to show student progress in the early grades, but in many states observational tools have not been validated for use in the early grades either.

While there have certainly been some things to celebrate in early education in the last five years, such as improved test scores for fourth-graders, some disconcerting trends came out of this report as well. Just because students are not tested in the younger grades doesn’t mean that early elementary grades should be neglected when it comes to school improvement and teacher quality, as learning and building upon the fundamentals in pre-K-3rd is an extremely important period for a child’s emotional and intellectual development. Furthermore, the lack of progress for special education students and dual language learners is disheartening. While these are two populations facing some of the biggest challenges to learning, they would also benefit the most from increased support in the early years. I certainly hope that as the economy continues to recover, schools and districts will be able to dedicate the funding and resources necessary to help these students achieve.

Check out CPE’s research on pre-K and kindergarten, English language learners, and special education for more information.

-Patricia Campbell

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,CPE,English Language Learners,preschool,Public education — Patricia Campbell @ 7:00 am





January 31, 2014

Are elementary school parents more demanding than high school parents?

demanding parentIn a recent Op-Ed Thomas Friedman asks are we falling behind* as a country in education because:

“…too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to excel?”

Friedman asks this question in response to a recent speech in which Secretary Duncan stated ”…I wished our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools” after telling a story in which South Korean President Lee told President Obama his country’s biggest education problem was that parents were too demanding. Secretary Duncan went on to quote Amanda Ripley author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got There stating:

“too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put the work needed today to really excel.”

Quite the bold argument but are there any actual facts to back up these claims? To argue that U.S. parents and students are lazy or at the very least complacent there must be some compelling data to back up these claims. So what ‘evidence’ does Friedman provide to back up his hypothesis? Letters from two, count them, two veteran high school teachers who obviously had become disenfranchised because they believed their students were being asked to do less and in fact were doing less. As heartfelt and compelling as these letters are they are still just the experience of two teachers. Not exactly a representative sample of teachers nationwide.

So the question must be asked: Are students doing less now and if so, is it because less is expected of them?  Of course, the answers to these questions are quite subjective. However, the teachers Friedman highlighted backed up their claims by noting that it is harder to get students to do homework now than every before—so in essence they were using homework completion as a proxy for student effort. And if you look at homework data that was collected along with the Long-term NAEP assessment for both 13 and 17 year-olds it does appear students are doing less homework on-average than they were a couple decades ago–although parents of high school children taking 4 Advanced Placement classes may find this hard to believe.

So it appears there is evidence to support the teachers’ contention that students are doing less homework now than in previous years but such evidence does not provide the complete story. As Secretary Duncan was claiming indirectly that students in other countries– like South Korea– are out working our students at least in part because their parents demand more. If we once again use homework as a proxy for student effort it is the South Korean parents who are less demanding. According to data from the 2011 Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS) 15 percent of U.S. 8th graders spent 3 or more hours per week doing homework compared to just 2 percent of 8th graders in South Korea. South Korea is not an outlier either. In Japan and Finland–both high performing countries– the percentage is about the same as South Korea. The other extreme is true as well where 78 percent of South Korean 8th graders spent less than 45 minutes per week doing homework compared to just 43 percent of U.S. 8th graders.

Unfortunately, there isn’t as much information on homework in high school but South Korea is known for how much time their high school students spend on homework. So even if we take that as a given does that mean that South Korean parents suddenly demand more once they children hit high school? Do U.S. parents push their children through elementary school then suddenly stop demanding such hard work when they enter high school? I don’t think so.

While there is evidence that students are spending less time on homework and it probably true U.S. high school students on-average spend less time on homework than high school students in other countries, it doesn’t necessarily mean students are not working as hard or less is expected of them. In fact, the assumption our students are expected to do less is wrong. When you actually look at the data you see today’s students are taking much more rigorous courses. For example, according to data from Long-Term NEAP in 1986 just 79 percent of 17 year-olds had taken Algebra compared to 96 percent of students in 2012. Furthermore, 76 percent of 17 year olds took Algebra II in 2012 compared to just 44 percent in 1986. The percent of student taking Calculus has also dramatically increased from just 7 percent in 1986 to 24 percent in 2012. Such increases in rigorous courses were not relegated to math courses either. Similar increases were also made in science as well with many more students taking chemistry and physics now than in the 1980s.

While students may be spending less time on homework, they are taking more challenging courses. So to claim our students aren’t working as hard or not expected to do as much is not supported by actual evidence. In fact, our students are expected to do more and are in fact doing more than ever before. Can we expect more? We sure can but just because parents make education the end-all be-all of human existence in a couple high performing countries doesn’t mean that’s how parents should act here. Parents should set high expectation from their children and their local schools that will educate them but they should also let their children be children as well. – Jim Hull

*I’ll take on the inaccurate assumption the U.S. is falling behind other countries next week. 






January 21, 2014

Expanding school choice: An education revolution or diversion?

House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) was speaking recently at the release of the Brookings Institution’s latest report on Education Choice and Competition. Calling these policies “an education revolution,” the House leader baldly stated, “school choice is the surest way to break [the] vicious cycle of poverty.”

Not “a solid education.”  School choice.

The Brookings’ report ranks 100 large districts on their school choice policies. Their report came out in advance of National School Choice Week whose organizers boast 5,500 scheduled events across the country beginning January 26, 2014. Both share a goal to drum up more support for funneling tax dollars into educational options — whether they be charters, magnets, private, or virtual schools.  The rationale is that a free marketplace will force schools to innovate in order to compete for students. Popular schools will equate with “good schools” and unpopular ones will close. And thus, in Brookings words, we will raise “the quality of the product.”

Unfortunately, that’s one mighty big assumption.

Most choice advocates defend their position by pointing to successful charter schools in New York City and elsewhere. Others extol the promise of virtual learning. What they all provide, for the most part, is anecdote, intuition and belief. When they do cite data, it basically shows that choice policies work in some places with some students some of the time.  Truth is, the evidence is much spottier than the champions for choice would have us believe.

Charter schools, for example, are the most studied “choice” reform.  Charter schools are public schools that have certain requirements waived so they can try out new ideas.  There is much to commend successful charters and what they are learning about effective practices. But according to a 2013 study from Stanford researchers, these are the exception. Only one in four charter schools outperforms its traditional public school counterpart in reading. About one in five performs significantly worse. In math, it’s nearly one in three.

The quality of research on voucher programs is notoriously uneven and often contradictory. Nonetheless, there seems to be general agreement that vouchers may have had a modest impact on some low-income and minority youth in some urban districts. But the findings are inconclusive as to their effect overall.  And the general efficacy of virtual schools is a big unknown, largely because districts lack the infrastructure to sufficiently track student performance in online environments.

Ironically, the Brookings report card itself illustrates the disconnect between choice policies on one hand and student performance on the other.  One does not necessarily follow the other.

Only three districts earned A’s on Brookings choice and competition rankings:  Louisiana’s Recovery District, Orleans Parish and New York City. Along with its Brookings “A,” Orleans Parish earned an “A” on Louisiana’s report card for district performance.  Yet the state gave the Recovery District an F. New York City’s A- from Brookings bears little relation to its math scores on NAEP, a national assessment. The city’s scores were at the average for large cities, and below average in terms of gains over the last decade.

Then there’s the low end of the rankings. Atlanta was given an “F” by Brookings. Yet the city boasts fourth-graders who perform above the national “large city” average in reading and posted more than twice the gains their peers made nationwide.  Charlotte, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas, are among the highest performing urban districts in both math and reading. Brookings gave them a C and D respectively.

see full data tables

 

So what does this tell us? That high-achieving, high-gaining districts can have “choice and competition” or not. Either way, it shows it’s a mistake to claim, as Rep. Cantor does, that choice is “the surest way to break the cycle of poverty.”

Contrary to popular perception, public schools have been steadily improving over the last twenty years. Math performance and graduation rates, in particular, are at all-time highs. Neither are public schools the monolithic creature some of the choice advocates make them out to be. Many districts across the country already offer alternatives in the form of charter and magnet schools, and continue to diversify instructional programs in traditional neighborhood schools, too. But parents and students need assurance that the choices they are offered are good ones, something choice for choice’s sake has not done, as the research shows.

In addition, it’s one thing to offer alternatives. It’s quite another to encourage public schools to compete with each other for students which could send the wrong messages. We need only look to our colleges and universities who, in their race to attract students, build football teams and state-of-the-art facilities at the expense of investments in teaching.  I really doubt that’s the kind of marketplace we want to create for public schools.

Far from an education revolution, the political attention given choice and competition is diverting us from the hard work of making sure public schools prepare every child for their next steps after graduation.  This means continuing to invest in those things that an abundance of evidence shows consistently work  – access to high-quality pre-kindergarten, effective teachers, rigorous curriculum and individualized instruction for students. It also means learning from successful schools — including schools of choice — about what works with different students in which situations, and bringing those practices to scale.  When we get that right, districts will earn the grades that really matter.

 






January 20, 2014

What makes a high quality preschool?

prekAccess to preschool has been a hot topic in the education world in recent years, as is evidenced by Congress’ recent introduction of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which focuses on funding important early learning opportunities for children ages five and under. While access is important in making sure that all children have the opportunity to learn, the quality of early childhood programs is also becoming increasingly relevant.

Early childhood education experts from the American Institutes of Research recently released a list of factors that parents, policymakers, and the public should be looking for when evaluating the quality of preschools and discussed why the following five factors are important in judging the quality of preschool programs.

First, look for teachers with a background in child development and experience working with very young children. The ability to relate well to 3- and 4-year-olds is indicative of a high quality preschool environment, no matter what the education level of the teacher.

Curriculum is also important in determining quality. Look for a curriculum that incorporates all Five Domains of School Readiness: physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, approaches toward learning, language development, and cognition and general knowledge. Covering all five domains fosters positive development of the whole child.

Pay close attention to the teacher-child and child-child interactions taking place in the classroom.  A high quality preschool will encourage prosocial, respectful interactions between children, which studies show can lead to positive academic and social outcomes in the future. Teachers who interact with children by encouraging them to talk and explain their thinking and feelings are strong predictors of higher social competence for their students later in life.

It is also important to look for assessments being used in productive, age-appropriate ways, such as screening for special needs so that interventions can be provided at an early age, or formative assessments to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a child and help teachers tailor their lessons to the learning needs of the child.

Finally, look for programs that encourage participation from parents and other family members. A high quality preschool should recognize the important role that parents play in the education of their very young children and provide resources to encourage parents to engage in their children’s early learning.

It is important to consider all of these factors when assessing the quality of early childhood programs.  As the movement toward increasing access to preschool continues to gain momentum, parents and policymakers alike must remember that while increased access is important, it will only be effective when coupled with high quality programming for very young children.

For more information about the impact high quality prekindergarten can have on students check out CPE’s Pre-K research here.

-Patricia Campbell

Filed under: CPE,preschool — Patricia Campbell @ 8:10 am





January 16, 2014

Are our schools passing or failing?

report cardStudents around the country are nearing the midpoint of the school year and will be receiving report cards documenting their achievement to date. But students aren’t the only ones receiving report cards this time of year. States and districts have been receiving A through F grades based as well. January has brought a flurry of report cards with Education Week, The Brookings Institute, and StudentsFirst all releasing report cards on our public schools with dramatically different results.

If you live in Massachusetts you’re schools would receive the honor of valedictorian according to Education Week’s report card by earning a B in student achievement. On the other hand, StudentsFirst’s report card indicates that your schools are in need of remediation by earning a D-plus. Conversely, Louisiana would take valedictorian honors according to StudentsFirst’s report card while Education Week’s report card shows Louisiana school barely passing by earning a D-minus.

So if you live in Massachusetts or Louisiana are your schools honors or remedial schools? It depends. Each of these report cards grades states on very different sets of criteria. These criteria are based on the priorities and opinions of the organizations that developed the report cards. Meaning, the report cards are an evaluation of how well states and districts have met the standards that each organization advocates, not an evaluation of the actual effectiveness of their schools, which is like receiving a grade on a test based on how you studied instead of how well you actually performed.

Keep this in mind when other report cards are released. Knowing what is actually being graded can go a long way to more accurately evaluate the quality of the schools in your state or district. For example Education Week grades states based on their student achievement but doesn’t fully account for differences in student demographics. StudentsFirst grades states based solely on policies that organization advocates and doesn’t include measures of student outcomes. The Brookings Institute grades large districts in a similar manner by grading the districts primarily on policies they believe increases school choice and competition but does include a measure of student outcomes.

Of course, these are not the only report cards that grade our public schools but they represent the fact that the grades are based on whether schools are doing what the organization wants our schools to do and not on the actually effectiveness of our schools which a report card should really represent. –Jim Hull

Filed under: Public education — Tags: , , , , — Jim Hull @ 3:46 pm





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