Author Archives: Ashley LiBetti Mitchel

Choice is Coming – But for Pre-K, It’s Already Here

Betsy DeVos is top-of-mind right now, particularly after her tense confirmation hearing on Tuesday night. Front and center in most of these conversations is DeVos’ strong support for school choice. What’s getting little attention, however, is what DeVos could accomplish on early childhood issues.3969866244_b02e13b9fb_o

We don’t know much about DeVos’ views on early education, but I’m personally hopeful that she takes a lesson from her home state: Michigan has a strong state-funded pre-k program that utilizes “diverse delivery.” “Diverse delivery” is another way of saying “school choice for early childhood.” In this system, parents of young children pick from a range of early childhood providers — including for-profit centers, churches, nonprofit community-based organizations, and school districts — based on whatever factors they deem most important. And in Michigan, unlike many other states, charter schools are included in the pre-k program. That model is something DeVos should bring to the national stage.

Michigan’s state-funded preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), is a good example of diverse delivery in action. Funding for the program goes to intermediate school districts (ISDs); ISDs then contract with a variety of providers, all of which must meet a state-determined standard of quality, to actually serve preschool children. GSRP is targeted to families that make less than 250% of the federal poverty level, so if children are eligible to participate, their parents can send them to any GSRP center that has space for them.

And research suggests that Michigan’s program is effective. A 2005 study of five states, including Michigan, showed that children who participated in state-funded preschool had better vocabulary, early math skills, and understanding of print concepts than children who did not attend. GSRP is also growing. Between 2013 and 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder upped the investment in GSRP by $130 million. The program currently serves 32 percent of four-year-olds in the state, more than 35 other states.

And many of those children are served in charter school pre-k programs. Michigan is one of the more hospitable states for charter schools to serve preschoolers. In fact, Michigan has 76 charter schools that serve preschoolers, which is the fourth highest in the country behind California, Florida, and Texas.

This type of charter school/pre-k synergy is rare even though most states already have pre-k systems that incorporate a range of public providers. Diverse delivery may be old news in the early childhood world, but that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to certain providers — specifically charter schools. States that have offered pre-k choice for decades struggle with how to best incorporate charter schools as an early childhood option for parents.

Even so, early childhood is already more supportive of choice in ways that are controversial in K-12 — as evidenced by Tuesday’s hearing . In a column for U.S. News earlier this month, Andy Rotherham astutely noted that with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the country’s education agenda, “More choice is coming to education — it’s a question of when and how rather than if.” DeVos should take a cue from Michigan and start by expanding choice in early childhood.

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.

The Charter Model Goes to Preschool

Richmond College Prep emphasizes a student-centered atmosphere.

Photo courtesy of Richmond College Prep

Over the past 20 years, both charter schools and prekindergarten have taken on increasingly prominent roles in the schooling of America’s children. Charter schools in 43 states now serve more than 2.6 million students — roughly six percent of all students attending public schools. And more than two-thirds of four-year-olds attend some form of public or privately funded preschool, with 1.4 million of them enrolled in state-funded pre-k programs.

As separate reforms, charter schools and pre-k produce strong, positive results for high-need children. But what happens if we marry high-performing charter schools with high-quality pre-k? Could the combination of these two reforms produce a result better than the sum of its parts?

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Go Forth and Improve, Teacher Preparation Programs. But Don’t Ask How.

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Image by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

A few weeks ago, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an open letter calling out education schools. In it, he made several blunt remarks about the quality of teacher preparation programs, including that current teacher training “lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and […] leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk.”

What the former Secretary’s letter didn’t include, however, were specifics on how preparation programs should improve. He talked a lot about grades, and about holding teachers to high standards, but that’s it.

At this point, you may be thinking: “You can’t expect him to get into the nitty gritty! The letter was more an op-ed than a policy brief.”

Sure. But then last week, the Department of Education released the final version of its long-awaited teacher preparation regulations. The regulations are an effort to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the performance of the teachers they train after those teachers enter the classroom. Using teacher performance data, the regulations require states to create a system that rates programs as effective, at-risk, or low-performing.

Like the open letter, these regulations are devoid of specifics for how programs should improve. They say that states need to provide technical assistance for low-performing programs, for example, but don’t hint at what that support should look like. When the regulations were out for public comment, which were due in February 2015, several commenters suggested that the regulations should include specific prescriptions for what states need to do to support programs — but the Department declined, saying instead that states have “the discretion to implement technical assistance in a variety of ways.”

Why do both of these documents — representing the past and future of the highest education office — say practically nothing about how preparation programs can get better?

The answer is depressing: As a field, we don’t know how to build a better teacher preparation program.

That’s what Melissa Steel King and I found in our latest paper, A New Agenda: Research to Build a Better Teacher Preparation Program. There’s half a century of research on what makes a good teacher, but that research provides only the barest outlines of what an effective preparation program should look like. So much of teacher prep research asks “Does it work?” when really we need to be asking, “How well does it work, for whom, and under what circumstances?” Continue reading

When Soundbites are Technically True but Terribly Misleading [UPDATED]

UPDATE [May 20, 2016, 10:29 a.m.]: On May 18, Governor Wolf vetoed the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.

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Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a bill, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act, which would base teacher layoffs on performance rather than seniority. The bill isn’t going any further, because Governor Wolf pledged to veto it, but that hasn’t stopped proponents and opponents from dropping not-quite-accurate-but-very-quotable soundbites.

Sen. Dave Reed says that the current seniority-based policy “forces schools and districts to lay off teachers based solely on date of hire,” and that the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act would give districts the ability to “hire and keep the best teachers.”

But Wythe Keever, a Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman, says the bill would do the exact opposite: “Experience in education has been demonstrated through years of research to have a correlation with students’ academic achievement.”

So…which is it? Would this bill help or hurt the teaching force?

The answer is both and neither. Reed and Keever’s comments are technically true, but also terribly misleading.

Despite what Sen. Reed suggests, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act wouldn’t ensure that only the best teachers stay in the classroom. In 2013-14, only 1.8 percent of Pennsylvania teachers—220 teachers in all—were rated unsatisfactory. This bill could allow districts to fire every unsatisfactory teacher, and yet the overall teaching force would remain largely the same.

Wythe Keever isn’t right, either. On average, teachers with decades of experience are better than teachers with no experience, but they’re only slightly better than teachers with a handful of years of experience. And there’s significant variation within and across every experience level. That’s a very different conclusion than what he—and the current layoff policy—suggests, which is that more experienced teachers are always better than less experienced teachers.

Indignant soundbites are much more fun than the full truth, but as I’ve said before, context and nuance are crucial for any real policy decision.

If the Decision is Obvious, You’re Not Doing It Right

I’m a big supporter of charter schools as pre-k providers. I have a daily Google alert for “(pre-k OR prekindergarten) AND charter.” No one else really writes about charter schools and pre-k, so usually this Google alert sends me news about when and where a charter school is going to accept pre-k applications. Good information for parents, but not blog fodder.

Sometimes though, it’s exciting news. Like when Success Academy had a showdown over pre-k with Mayor de Blasio. Or yesterday, when my Google alert told me that a New Jersey charter school — the John P. Holland Charter School in Paterson — wasn’t allowed to open a pre-k program.

Often, charter schools’ pre-k applications are rejected for bureaucratic or logistical reasons, and in response I make the case again for policy reforms that get rid of those barriers. It’s all very clean because quality isn’t a consideration, and my support for charter pre-k remains unchallenged.

But this New Jersey situation is different — and much messier. It’s also a good time to remind everyone that supporting charter pre-k programs doesn’t mean blindly supporting all charters. Not all charter schools are high performing, and not all charters should offer pre-k. But in making decisions about what proposals to support and when, context is important.  Continue reading