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How Should We Evaluate Our Preschools?

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Imagine, for a second, that you are in charge of more than $600 million in taxpayer money. You live in a city that has made deep investments in early education, and that aspires to provide universal preschool by 2014. You have a thriving network of public charter schools, and you want to help parents make more informed choices about where they send their children.

What would you do?

Here in DC, that question is not hypothetical; it is an actual riddle for the city's Public Charter School Board (PCSB) to solve. And in case you missed it, the PCSB provided its initial answer by way of a new accountability framework that would assign between 60-80% of a charter school's overall rank to its youngest students' reading and math scores. (You can see the proposal in its entirety here.)

In previous posts, a petition, and a live radio debate, I have made my objections to this proposal clear. But because the goal is to help the PCSB get it right - not merely to throw stones from the sidelines - I want now to offer as specific a solution as possible.

To do so, I believe there are three essential design principles of a healthy accountability system - one that incentivizes educators to meet the full developmental needs of children, provides the public with useful information, and helps the PCSB identify which schools are helping children learn and why.

1. Measure the essential skills - This may seem like an obvious point, and yet almost no accountability system actually does it. Instead, we default to the two skills that have spawned their own cottage industry of tests - reading and math - and give lip service to everything else.

The PCSB can model a different path for the nation by identifying the other skills that matter most. If we assume literacy and math are still part of the equation, let's also add social and emotional skills. (According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL), the five that matter most are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.) I'd suggest adding creativity as well, since it's that set of skills (from originality to expressiveness) that are probably most valuable for today's students - all of who will graduate into a world in which the jobs they apply for do not yet even exist!

2. Default to the Highest Common Denominator
- One of the biggest problems with the PCSB's framework is that even though all schools would be held accountable to the same categories, not all schools would be using the same tools to assess their progress. Why is this a problem? As one founder of a DC charter school put it, a school that chose a less challenging assessment would be more likely to score higher than a school that chose a more challenging one. "This creates an incentive for schools to choose less challenging assessments which may provide less actionable/useful data for teachers to use in the classroom, which is what the real point of assessment is."

A central goal of any accountability system, then, should be to incentivize educators to choose the most challenging path to proficiency. PCSB is right to offer a range of assessments for charters to choose from. Now it needs to do the extra homework required to ensure that those assessments will all be relatively comparable in terms of rigor and developmental appropriateness.

3. Identify the other elements of a healthy school culture - In this regard, the PCSB is closest to the finish line. Its current proposal identifies two data points - attendance and student re-enrollment rates - that will help comprise a school's overall ranking, and it has chosen a teacher observation tool, CLASS, that includes three different components of teacher quality: instructional support, emotional support, and classroom organization. I can name a few others that provide a useful window into school climate - from faculty retention and absenteeism rates to, well, measuring school climate itself. But let's not quibble.

If we used these three design principles to craft an accountability framework for Preschool and Kindergarten - and if we built off the template PCSB has already worked for more than a year to establish - what we'd get is something like this:

assessment.jpg

I like the inclusion of a wildcard category because it lets schools choose another aspect of their work that might be very mission-specific, but still have it count toward their overall rating. I also like the fact that every category is weighted equally, which eliminates the possibility that schools will feel pressure to focus disproportionately on any one category.

Will certain categories favor one school over the other? Certainly. But because they're all weighted equally, the framework will have the effect of making sure that every school sees the big picture when it comes to holistic student learning and growth.

Is it a lot? Yes, but if we are serious about accountability systems, and we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of No Child Left Behind (whose "inflexible accountability provisions," wrote U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, "have become an obstacle to progress and have focused schools too much on a single test score"), then we need a dashboard of measures that point toward the ideal graduate - someone who knows how to read and count, who understands their personal strengths and weaknesses, and who has the capacity to apply fresh thinking to a world in desperate need of new ideas.

I think a plan like this would get us there, and as the parent of a 4-year-old in one of DC's charter schools, I'd be comfortable knowing that this was what my school was working towards.

What do you think, and what would you do instead?

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