Five Reasons Education Reformers Should Care About Head Start

On Wednesday, Bellwether and Results for America are going to publish a new paper I’ve written on how to renew Head Start’s promise for disadvantaged preschoolers. Head Start doesn’t get a lot of press or public attention, and it’s also largely overlooked by education reformers. This is a huge mistake. Here’s why:

1. It’s a big program that serves a lot of kids. Head Start serves more than 903,000 students–roughly 40 percent as many children as all children served in charter schools nationally.

2. It focuses on the most disadvantaged children. By law, Head Start focuses on children living below the poverty line (programs may serve some children with family incomes up to 130% of poverty). In enrolling children, Head Start programs must prioritize those with the greatest need factors. Thus, Head Start focuses on the very population of poor children about whom education reformers care most.

3. It’s a dysfunctional, entrenched system in need of reform. Education reformers have focused on tackling the dysfunction and entrenched interests of large urban school systems. Head Start faces many of the same challenges–extensive and burdensome regulatory requirements; a focus on compliance over performance; entrenched providers of mediocre quality (but also some really exemplary Head Start providers doing awesome things for kids!)–that education reformers have tackled in the K-12 space. Moreover, because Head Start already spends some $8 billion a year in federal education funds, this is one place in early childhood education where there’s potential to drive improved outcomes by improving the effectiveness with which existing funds are used.

4. It’s one place in education where federal policy changes can make a huge difference. Because Head Start is a direct federal to local program, governed by federal policies, its one of the areas in education where federal policy changes can make a big difference. In K-12 education, federal policies must trickle down by placing requirements on states, that in turn place requirements on districts, that in turn eventually impact schools and classrooms. Recent federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have simultaneously pushed the boundaries of federal authority in education and illustrated its severe limitations as a driver of real change at the school level. In Head Start, by contrast, the 2007 federal reauthorization led to significant changes–such as mandating use of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System as a measure of teaching quality–that were felt across all Head Start programs nationally. Federal executive branch officials have the regulatory authority to rewrite the Head Start Performance Standards without requiring Congressional action.

5. Effective early learning can change the trajectory of kids’ lives. This is the biggest reason that education reformers should care about Head Start. Research shows that achievement gaps begin well before children enter the schoolhouse door. It also shows that high-quality pre-k programs can significantly narrow those gaps, enabling disadvantaged children to start school on an even footing with their peers. On average, Head Start programs aren’t producing those kinds of results right now, but the examples of high-performing providers, both in Head Start and other publicly funded early childhood programs, suggest it’s possible.

By ignoring Head Start, education reformers are missing a huge opportunity to change the trajectory of millions of children’s lives and to fundamentally change the game for K-12 schools seeking to put disadvantaged kids on track for success in college and careers.

–Sara Mead

The “Test and Punish” Trap

An old theme of education debates has grown increasingly incessant in recent months, most recently in a resolution at the annual AFT convention: Rather than a “test-and-punish” approach to education reform, we need “support and improve” approach that shifts focus from testing, labeling, and punishing  schools and educators to providing them with support to improve.

This argument seems designed to infuriate supporters of standards-based reform. The primary cause of this fury is inaccuracy: As the New America Foundation’s Anne Hyslop eloquently noted in a recent column,

the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” doesn’t exist. At least not right now. Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”

Yet for all of the explanations that NCLB hasn’t resulted in large scale “punishment” of educators and schools; that NCLB includes no financial penalties for low-performing schools but in fact gives them additional money; that the number of teachers who’ve lost their jobs as a result of NCLB ranges from precious few to nil—I can’t help but thinking of this paragraph from Nixonland:

“Nixon himself had voted exactly as [liberal Congressman] Marcantonio had in the triple digits himself. Douglas tried to point this out. It didn’t matter. The explanations were complicated. The smear was simple.….This was not the time for nuance.” (emphasis and link added)

Supporters of standards-based reform can argue until they’re blue in the face that the “punish” aspect of “test-and-punish” is largely a myth. But they can’t win the argument when a significant subject of the audience believes that “testing” inherently means “punishment.” In the screwed up dynamics of our current education reform debate, the very act of trying to objectively measure student learning is seen as penalizing students and teachers.

This has created a major liability for proponents of standards-based reform. Yet it also demonstrates the bankruptcy of arguments for “support and improve” as an alternative to “test and punish.”

Proponents of “support and improve” may claim that they are simply calling for fairer ways of measuring school performance, for increased support for educators, and for more comprehensive responses to the range of challenges that face children living in poverty. Yet the subtext of their rhetoric, and the underlying sentiment within their base of support, is that objectively measuring school performance constitutes punishing educators.

And this is dangerous.

The belief that it is possible to objectively measure the results of actions, to make judgments, and to adjust future behavior based on that measurement, is the foundation of modern scientific progress. To be sure, education is far more complex than many areas of human endeavor and inquiry. Yet when we mistake this complexity for immeasurability, we are in trouble.

Whatever the faults—and they are real—of current systems of standards and assessment, they provide a common frame of reference for understanding what it happening in education, and useful tools for improvement. Commonly understood, objective measures allow us to identify gaps and areas in need of improvement, to make informed decisions about where and how to focus our efforts, to gauge progress over time, and to identify successful models from which to learn.

Without some objective measures to frame our understanding, and provide a common ground for discussion and action, we are left with the subjective forces of emotion, sentiment, and affinity to guide our judgments and decisions.  This why the narrative of “test and punish” has gained the force of fact despite the objective reality that few educators or schools have actually been “punished” under current accountability regimes. When subjective perception and experience become the sole arbiter of truth, the objective reality of punishment (or lack thereof) matters less than individuals’ subjective perceptions that they are being persecuted.  Until supporters of standards-based accountability fully confront this narrative—not just by noting the lack of punishment, but by engaging the emotional realities at play and offering viable counter-narratives—they will be on the losing end of this debate.

–Sara Mead

Friday Guest Fish Porn: Name That Fish!

Guest post by Jim Ryan

Finally, what you’ve all been waiting for.

Blog 001


Blog 002

All three fish were caught and released recently in Essex, Mass.  The first is a striped bass (or “stripah,” as they say up here), and the second is a blue fish (or “blue fish,” as they say up here).  (Technical details for those who fish:  9 wt. fly rod using a 2/0 Monomoy Flatwing.  Great fly.)   I have no idea what the third fish is; we found it in our lobster trap.  Any ideas?

If you want to see more, you really need to check out my new book.  Ok, that’s not technically true.  The book jacket has my photo, but you can’t see my hand.  Or any fish.

Thanks to Andy, again, to Sara Mead, and to all of you for letting me invade this blog for a week.  Now back to your regularly scheduled program.

Funding Cuts in the News

Guest post by Jim Ryan

Seems one day there’s a story about a new federal funding program, and the next day a story about another round of budget cuts at the state or local level.  We should be approaching equilibrium at some point, no?

Today and yesterday were about cuts.  There’s a story in today’s NYT about funding for charter schools in Chicago, which is being cut.  The story also reports that many charter schools run at a deficit.

Picking up where yesterday’s post left off, charter school funding seems ripe for litigation.  Most charter schools receive less public money than traditional public schools.  Whether that’s a good idea or a bad, a state court that is inclined to read—or has already read—the state constitution to guarantee roughly equal funding is likely to greet the discrepancy with a good deal of skepticism.  In any event, charter school funding, if nothing else, is interesting because it brings out the hidden egalitarian in some who are otherwise comfortable with unequal funding for regular public schools.

Today’s story about funding cuts to Chicago charter schools comes on the heels of a story from yesterday’s NYT about the impact of budget cuts on the Yonkers school district:  fewer teachers and larger class sizes, including a class size of 36 students for summer school!


No, I’m not talking about the legislation the president signed yesterday. I’m talking about a rare opportunity to become part of the Bellwether Education team!

Bellwether is currently hiring for an Associate Partner to work with our Strategy Consulting team and an Analyst. If you’re a self starter committed to expanding educational opportunity for low-income kids, this could be just the opportunity you’ve been looking for. Love of fish porn is an asset but in no way a requirement for the job.

National Standards and School Finance Litigation

Guest post by Jim Ryan

Ok, I’m done plugging my book; that’s as much marketing as I can stomach.  Back to some questions that have puzzled me for a while and that might be of some interest to the rest of you.  This is a long post, for which I apologize in advance.

The question for today is what might national standards mean for school finance litigation and vice-versa?  I’m not tackling here whether school finance litigation is a good or a bad thing, or whether more money is the answer for some schools.  Instead, I want to focus on the impact that national standards might have on the litigation and the impact that the litigation might have on the standards.  I’ll leave it to you to judge whether these potential impacts are, in the grand scheme of things, good or bad.

Some quick background:  School finance litigation has been going on, in one form or another, for about fifty years.  All of the action these days is in state courts, where claims are based on state constitutions.  Each state constitution has an education clause, which basically guarantees children the right to attend school and sometimes describes the sort of school system required—“through and efficient” or “free and appropriate,” etc.  School finance attorneys have argued that these clauses guarantee students the state constitutional right either to equal educational opportunity or to an adequate education.  These rights, if plaintiffs succeed, are translated into dollar figures, which represent the amount states need to provide in order to equalize funding or make it adequate.  All but four states have seen their financing systems challenged; plaintiffs have prevailed in about half of the states.

For a while now, a lot of school finance reform advocates have argued that the standards and testing movement can work to the advantage of school finance plaintiffs.  (Those who oppose school finance litigation have feared the same development.)  Standards can be used by courts to define what counts as an “adequate” education, and test scores can be used to show whether students are receiving such an education.  This relieves courts of the onerous and arguably improper task of defining what constitutes an adequate education, and test scores could, in theory, provide excellent evidence of whether students are receiving an adequate education.  Courts would be left the task of determining whether existing resources are sufficient to meet the standards and pass the tests—which is akin to the task of creating opportunity to learn standards—but at least the knotty definitional problem would be solved.

I’ve never bought this argument.  The reason is that relying on standards to define an adequate education will inevitably lead to relying on test scores as evidence of whether the standards are being met.  Test scores, however, as everyone now realizes, don’t prove much about the quality of a particular school.  Faced with the accountability provisions in NCLB, many states have gamed their tests, either making the tests easier, lowering cut scores, or both.  Why, if you are looking to get more money from the state, would it be to your advantage to rely on the low bar most states have established as the definition of what the state constitution requires?  Where standards are high and tests are meaningful, by contrast, school finance litigation risks creating pressure to lower the standards or make the tests easier—much like the accountability provisions in the NCLB create perverse incentives to lower the bar.

Enter national standards, or the “common core” standards as they are being called.  More than half the states have already adopted these standards, which cover reading and math.  As the standards get implemented, two sets of questions arise about the potential relationship between these standards and school finance litigation.

First, will school finance attorneys use these new standards to define an “adequate” education?  The Fordham Foundation reviewed the standards and generally gave them a thumbs up, concluding that they are more rigorous than the standards in most states. School finance attorneys may well be tempted, therefore, to argue that these new standards should be used to define, at least partially, what constitutes an adequate education.

Second, if the standards are used in school finance litigation, what sort of incentives will that create for states?  Andy has rightly mentioned on this blog that standards are only one piece of the picture.  Another, huge piece, are the tests used to determine whether the standards are being met.  Because relying on standards in school finance litigation inevitably leads to relying on test scores, one could imagine states undertaking efforts to game the tests in order to avoid liability in school finance cases.  At the moment, what sort of tests will be used and how much control states will have over them and their scoring, remain to be seen.  But it stands to reason that the more pressure—either financial or political—states will face for poor test scores, the more effort they will make to produce good test scores, even if that means making the tests easy to pass.  Who controls the tests, therefore, will matter a great deal.

All of which raises the more fundamental questions underlying standards, testing and accountability.  Is it possible to hold schools accountable, either through legislation or court decisions, without creating perverse incentives to lower the bar?  If those incentives cannot be avoided, is it realistic to expect the federal government to prevent states from acting on them?  And, just as one last kicker:  Might it be better for the federal government to get out front here and encourage the development of national opportunity to learn standards, rather than leaving this issue to piecemeal litigation in the states?

A Quiz and a Shameless Book Plug

Guest post by Jim Ryan

Who would you say is the architect of modern education law and policy?

a.) Bill Gates

b.) Horace Mann

c.) Richard Nixon

d.) Andy Rotherham

If you guessed “D,” you’re sycophantic.  If you guessed C,” you’re correct.  Or at least that’s what I argue in a book that officially comes out tomorrow.  (It’s already available at Amazon!)  The book is called Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America (Oxford 2010).  It’s about the law and politics of educational opportunity over the last fifty years.  It tells the story by using two schools in the Richmond area, one in the central city and the other (five miles away) in a neighboring suburb, as extended examples.  It’s not really a case study, nor is it a (completely) dry, abstract, academic book.  It’s something in between, sort of like the duck-billed platypus of books.

Here’s the basic argument.

In March 1972, President Nixon gave an unusual televised address, devoted solely to the topic of school desegregation and busing. A few months earlier, lower federal courts in Detroit and Richmond had ordered suburban school districts to participate in metropolitan-wide desegregation plans.  The courts ordered the participation of the suburbs because there were not many white students left in either city.  These decisions were later overturned on appeal, but at the time of Nixon’s speech—and as hard as it might be to imagine today—the possibility of cross-district, urban-suburban busing seemed very real.

Nixon denounced busing and proposed legislation that would prohibit busing to achieve racial balance in schools, suggesting that this reflected the views of both black and white parents, who preferred neighborhood schools.  He then offered an alternative approach to the problems facing urban schools.  “It is time for us to make a national commitment to see that the schools in central cities are upgraded so that the children who go there will have just as good a chance to get a quality education as do the children who go to school in the suburbs.”

Nixon’s compromise was clear:  poor and minority students would remain in the city and not have access to suburban schools, but efforts would be made to improve city schools.  In other words, save the cities, but spare the suburbs.

To say that this compromise is all one needs to know in order to understand the basic structure of educational opportunity would be overly simplistic.  But only a little.  Nixon’s compromise, slightly broadened to mean that city schools should be helped in ways that don’t threaten the physical, financial, or political independence of suburban schools, has shaped just about every major education reform since.  It is evident not only in legislation but also in court decisions, and it has surfaced in reforms ranging from school desegregation, to school finance litigation, school choice plans, and even the No Child Left Behind Act.  It has curtailed not just liberal reforms, like desegregation and school funding litigation, but also conservative ones, like school vouchers.  Indeed, to a very large extent, providing some type of aid to urban students while maintain the sanctity of suburban schools has been the defining feature of modern education law and policy in the United States.

Or so I say.  At length.  Too much length, frankly.  If you are bored and looking for something to do, having trouble sleeping, or even if you would just like to know more, you might check the book out.  Not literally, though; you should definitely buy a copy.  After trying to prove my thesis, I spend some time looking ahead at the changes, especially in the suburbs, that are disrupting the traditional patterns of educational opportunity and offering both new challenges and new opportunities.

Current Events

Guest post by Jim Ryan

Two stories of interest in today’s NYT.  First, there is a front-page story about the mad rush by companies to get federal money for helping to turn around failing schools.

As the headline (in the print edition) says, “School Reform Draws Crowd, Not Credentials.”  One company promises to help schools by “facilitating new conversations through story listening, expressing empathy, appreciative inquiry and design thinking.”  I’m sure some of these turnaround companies have great ideas, though I think some might best be called “turnaround and around and around” specialists.

The second story is about a new effort by the New York City Department of Education to track how high school graduates fare in college.  Each high school is getting a report indicating how many of their students who enrolled in the city’s public colleges needed remedial courses.  It’s a small sample and just a start, but it’s an interesting idea. As a bonus, the article has a quadratic equation that you can try to solve.

KIPP and Catholic Schools

Guest post by Jim Ryan

I’m a fan of KIPP schools and impressed by their performance, though I appreciate the points made by some critics regarding attrition and selection.  I also admire the goal of KIPP schools to show that demography is not destiny and that all kids can learn.

But I’ve often wondered about KIPP and integration, either racial or socioeconomic.

Here’s the question, which I recognize is a little delicate:  Would KIPP’s methods work in integrated schools?  For example, would the famous SLANT method (sit up straight, listen, ask and answer questions, nod your head, track the speaker), work in schools where a substantial number of kids might not need instruction in how to interact with teachers or other adults?

Does KIPP’s approach, in short, depend on segregation?

Before anyone takes offense, I’m not suggesting, even for a second, that KIPP schools are designed to perpetuate segregation or that they have this effect.  I’m just curious if the methods of the school would work if the schools were more diverse, especially socioeconomically.  If KIPP’s methods are, in part, explicitly designed to teach poorer students what (most? many?) middle-class students learn at home, would KIPP schools have to change if middle-class students attended them?  Or would all kids benefit from the same methods, even if for some it was old news?

In thinking about that question, I wonder if it’s worth considering the experience of urban Catholic schools.  Sure, there is a religious component to those schools, but the emphasis on discipline, high standards, buy in from students and parents, etc., does not seem much different from the KIPP approach.  Catholic schools, for a long time, were attractive to lower- and middle-income white families, including many families who were not Catholic.  Might KIPP be as well?

If so, why are KIPP schools not becoming more diverse more quickly?

Show Me The Money

Guest post by Jim Ryan

Thanks to Andy for inviting me to guest blog.  I haven’t blogged much at all, so I apologize in advance if I’m lousy at it.  I’m a law professor at the University of Virginia, and I write and teach about law and education.  I recently finished a book, which will be published this week by Oxford University Press, which I may talk about later this week.  For the first couple of days, though, I want to raise some questions that have puzzled me.  I’m hoping readers will have answers.

A front page story in the NYT on July 27 described the recent findings of some education economists regarding the impact of good kindergarten teachers on their students over the long haul. The headline of the article says it all:  “The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers.”  The researchers estimated that this was the present value of the additional money a full class of kindergarteners taught by a standout teacher would eventually earn over a class taught by a less talented teacher.

The findings have not been peer reviewed, and they may not hold up.  But that’s not what’s interesting to me.  What I’m wondering is why more social scientists don’t make an effort to translate their findings into points that resonate with other, non-expert academics (think, say, law professors), policymakers, or the public?  The economists who studied the value of kindergarten teachers seem to be following in the footsteps of preschool researchers, who, brilliantly I think, have tried to quantify how much return governments can expect from “investing” in preschool.  See, for example, this RAND study about expanding preschool in California.

Yet anyone who regularly reads articles by social scientists would see most findings reported in somewhat arcane and relatively inaccessible terms, like standard deviations or percentile gains over the median, which are difficult for the untutored (including yours truly) to translate into something more meaningful.  You know that bigger is better, so a .06 effect is better than a .04 effect, but you (or I, at least) have no real sense of what a .06 effect means in the real world.  In another context, I suppose phrases like statistically significant or robust to multiple variations might be evocative, but in these studies, they leave me a little cold.  I get writing for other academics, not pandering, maintaining professional standards, being precise, etc., and I recognize that not all findings can be easily translated to plainer terms.  But I bet a lot more could.

Ultimately, aren’t social scientists who write about education trying to influence public policy?  If so, what would be wrong with translating the findings into terms anyone could understand?  Instead of talking (just) about a percentile gain over the current median test score, for example, why not talk about gains in terms of months or years of school work?  (And, while we’re at it, why not try more often to compare the costs and benefits of different interventions?)  Or is a front page story in the NYT a bad thing for the academic credibility of social scientists?