How can policymakers help struggling schools turn around? One answer is to expand high-quality preschool programs, so that year after year, “underperforming” schools are consistently enrolling more children who are ready to learn and succeed.
What makes early learning so powerful? It “addresses a significant issue that to date no other turnaround strategy has tackled: [that] the gaps turnaround schools aim to address emerge well before kindergarten entry,” according to a recent report from the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Mass Insight Education called “Changing the Metrics of Turnaround to Encourage Early Learning Strategies.”
Too often, the report says, the strategic importance of helping children access high-quality preschool is being overlooked as education leaders scramble to meet short-term accountability deadlines for children who are already in elementary school.
The Challenge of Turnaround Schools
At September’s meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, department staff gave a presentation on the status of the four Level 5-designated schools in the commonwealth — two are located in Boston, one is in Holyoke, and one is in New Bedford.
These schools are in “the most serious category in Massachusetts’ accountability system, representing receivership. The Commissioner may place a Level 4 school in Level 5 at the expiration of its redesign plan if the school has failed to improve as required by the goals, benchmarks, or timetable of its redesign plan; or if district conditions make it unlikely that the school will make significant improvement without a Level 5 designation,” according to the department’s website.
The Level 5 status report notes that the Morgan school in Holyoke has “accelerated recruitment for its new Pre-Kindergarten program” as part of its turnaround priority activities. When state officials mentioned that the Morgan program is now fully enrolled, Board members were eager to learn more and sought additional details about the program’s capacity and any unmet preschool need throughout the larger community.
But interest in pre-k as a turnaround tool is not widespread. As the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Mass Insight report explains:
“To date, early learning has not been a major strategy for turnaround schools, in large part because of the metrics of success used to evaluate the turnaround.” Currently, the primary metric is improvement on “accountability tests administered in 3rd grade and up.”
Because these test scores are “expected to show significant improvement within the first two to three years of the turnaround,” educators are most likely to focus resources on children who are already in elementary school.
Meanwhile, “children served by early learning in the first year of a turnaround will not take accountability tests until at least the fifth year of the turnaround, and by then the turnaround’s success or failure will have already been determined.”
As a result, education leaders have “a strong incentive to focus resources on serving children who will take accountability tests in the first two or three years of the turnaround— even if the long-term best interests of the school would be better served by greater investment in early learning.”
EdCentral, the New America Foundation blog, weighs in on the report, adding that while “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 [federal School Improvement Grant] 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.”
Expanding the Metrics
One solution, the report says, is to set up “an entirely new way of measuring success in school turnaround” with expanded metrics that look at:
- “professional practice, including the quality of instruction and leadership,” and
- “child outcome metrics other than scores on accountability tests”
“Unlike high-stakes accountability tests, these metrics are suitable for use in kindergarten through grade 2. If these metrics are used, then schools that use turnaround resources to support early learning can actually see that early learning investment impacts the determination of the turnaround’s success,” the report says.
One caveat: “New spending on early learning will not always be the greatest need at turnaround schools, and in many turnaround schools better data is needed to help them determine whether early learning is the best use of resources. But at some turnaround schools early learning will be a smart long-term investment, and turnaround metrics should not discourage those schools from making that investment.”
The report concludes:
“By changing how the success of turnaround efforts are measured, turnaround leaders—at the federal, state, and district level—can change the practices used in turnaround schools to increase the percentage of children who enter kindergarten ready to succeed. Improving kindergarten readiness is a strategy with significant potential to permanently improve long-term child outcomes in turnaround schools, so creating incentives that support kindergarten readiness are a critical change to school turnaround efforts—one that could substantially boost the likelihood that once schools have been turned around once, they will remain on the right trajectory.”