Tag Archives: Continuous Improvement

Don’t Ask if Head Start “Works” – That’s Not the Right Question

Head Start is an $8.5 billion federal program, which means everyone loves asking if it “works.” But that’s a useless question.

We know Head Start produces positive outcomes. There’s a substantial body of evidence showing that Head Start improves children’s learning at school entry. Other research shows that Head Start children are more likely to graduate high school and have better adult outcomes than children who did not. And a growing body of research shows that high-quality preschool programs can produce long-lasting gains in children’s school and life outcomes.

But critics of Head Start cite the same studies I just did to make the opposite argument. They have valid points. Not every Head Start program is high quality, for example, so some programs don’t produce these positive gains for students. And the Head Start Impact Study showed that Head Start’s positive effect on test scores fades as children enter the elementary grades.

Both critics and proponents of Head Start are right – which is why the “Does it work?” question is so useless. We already know the answer, and it’s not a clean yes or no. Taken all together, the available evidence shows that Head Start is a valuable program that can get better. Given, instead of asking if Head Start works, we should be asking a better question: How can policymakers and practitioners make Head Start better for children and families?

That’s the question Sara Mead and I – along with Results for America, the Volcker Alliance, and the National Head Start Association – try to answer in our new report, Moneyball for Head Start. We worked with these organizations to develop a vision for improving Head Start outcomes through data, evidence, and evaluation.

Specifically, we call on local grantees, federal policymakers, the research community, and the philanthropic sector to reimagine Head Start’s continuous improvement efforts.

Local grantees: All Head Start grantees need systems of data collection and analysis that support data-informed, evidence-based continuous improvement, leading to better results for children and families.

Federal oversight: The Office of Head Start (OHS), within the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, needs a stronger accountability and performance measurement system. This would allows federal officials to identify and disseminate effective practices of high-performing grantees, identify and intervene in low-performing grantees, and support continuous improvement across Head Start as a whole.

Research and evaluation: Federal policymakers and the philanthropic sector need to support research that builds the knowledge base of what works in Head Start and informs changes in program design and policies. This will require increasing funding for Head Start research, demonstration, and evaluation from less than 0.25 percent of total federal appropriations to 1 percent, and those funds should focus on research that builds knowledge to help grantees improve their quality and outcomes.

Philanthropy and the private sector: The philanthropic sector, universities and other research institutions, and the private sector should help build grantee capacity and support the development, evaluation, and dissemination of promising practices.

Fully realizing this vision will require a multi-year commitment. There are steps, however, that Congress and the administration can take to make progress towards these goals. In the paper, we propose several recommendations for federal policy. Taken together, these actions can support Head Start grantees in using data, evidence, and evaluation to improve results for children and families.

5 Reasons Getting Rid of Annual Testing is a Dumb Idea

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the incoming leaders of the Senate and House education committees, both say they are open to an ESEA rewrite that kills the requirement for states to test students annually. Or as I called it, the peel off the party wings approach to reauthorization. This bipartisan coalition bonds over their hatred of statewide annual testing, but not much else. And any bill they produce would be, in essence, a giant finger to the policies of Arne Duncan and Barack Obama–and Margaret Spellings and George W. Bush before them.

Like Mike Petrilli in this Flypaper post, I hope Alexander’s and Kline’s annual testing one-eighty is all just a bluff to try and get Democrats to give in on requiring states to develop teacher evaluations. And I hope they come to their senses and reveal a more centrist reauthorization proposal–with annual statewide testing, and data reporting, and school accountability requirements with teeth.

Because getting rid of annual testing is a dumb idea. I acknowledge (readily) that there are very real problems with today’s tests, accountability systems, teacher evaluations, NCLB waivers, and so on. And these problems are often most acute for those most affected by them–students, families, and teachers, rather than the policymakers that wrote the law and are now responsible for updating it.

But this particular reaction–ending statewide, comparable, annual testing–is an overreaction that creates more problems than it solves. It feeds into the false narrative that testing is only able to punish, rather than inform, support, and motivate. It makes it okay that we haven’t invested nearly enough in building educator capacity to support the students that tests identify as struggling, including significant commitments to overhauling both professional development and teacher preparation. It shies away from, rather than confronts, the hard truths that tests reveal about our education system–the disparate outcomes, and disparate expectations of what students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and socio-economic conditions can learn.

Still, given the public beating standardized tests have taken over the last decade, and the negative narrative around testing that’s solidified as a result, it remains exceedingly important for those of us that still believe in annual, statewide standardized testing to articulate–again, and again, and again–why it matters. So if the problems above weren’t sufficient to sway you, here are the top five things we lose by giving up on annual testing:

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In Defense of Standardized Testing

According to a Gallup poll last fall, one in eight teachers thinks that the worst thing about the Common Core is testing. On the surface, that’s hardly newsworthy. We know states are changing their tests to align to the new standards, and those changes have inevitably bred uncertainty, anxiety, and even hostility, especially when results could carry high stakes someday. But educators surveyed didn’t say they were upset that the tests were changing, or that there could be consequences tied to the results. Rather, they were upset that the tests exist. Specifically, 12 percent of U.S. public school teachers “don’t believe in standardized testing.” Much like the debate over global warming, these non-believers refuse to validate an unassailable fact: standardized testing does have positive– and predictive–value in education and in life, just as the Earth is, indeed, getting warmer.

More specifically, this righteous conviction—“I don’t believe in testing”—is at odds with most policy analysis. Regardless of political or ideological bent, most will admit that NCLB got one thing right: exposing achievement gaps through the disaggregation of student data. Where did that data come from? Standardized tests. Instead of ignoring longstanding disparities in schooling, NCLB’s testing regimen forced states and districts to quantify them, examine them, and most importantly, try to improve them. It gave policymakers, administrators, and educators a common language to talk about student achievement and progress, and evaluate what was working based on evidence, not perception. Sure, standardized testing needed to be refined over the last decade to enhance quality and reduce unintended consequences—and could still use upgrades and be open to further innovation. But the value of standardized testing in terms of better understanding and improving a public education system as vast and fragmented as ours is undeniable, right? Continue reading

Innate Ability vs. Training and Continuous Improvement

In a fascinating New Yorker piece, James Suroweicki makes an interesting connection between the performance revolution in professional sports and Elizabeth Green and Dana Goldstein‘s recent books on teaching. Suroweicki notes that a performance revolution has occurred in sports because athletes, coaches, and managers shifted from believing that athletic skill is something innate that people have or don’t to believing that innate ability is only the foundation for athletic prowess and that constant, carefully designed training is critical to developing/maintaining/honing the skills that drive a competitive edge. He argues that a similar evolution in thinking has driven productivity increases and higher performance in areas of the economy from classical musical performance to manufacturing, but that we have not seen similar progress in education because the education field continues to view great teaching as an innate skill that someone either has or doesn’t and to consequently underinvest in training.

It’s a provocative argument that clearly resonates on some levels but is ultimately, I think, incomplete. In part, because Suroweicki discounts the (clearly not enough) progress that has been made in improving educational outcomes over the past 15 years. Two additional observations I’d add to this:

  • There’s  obviously a link between the idea that teaching is an innate skill you either have or don’t have and the notion that firing “bad” teachers is the way to solve the problem of poor quality teaching. The same value-added analyses that have demonstrated the significant impact of teachers on student learning in recent years may also have reinforced the notion that teaching is an innate skill one either has or doesn’t have, because these studies have tended to find that most common proxies for teacher quality (type of certification, master’s degrees, years experience, etc.) predict only a small portion of the variance in student learning between teachers. This result doesn’t actually mean, though, that the core of what makes a great teacher is some sort of innate secret sauce or generic “talent” you’re either born with or aren’t.  It just means we’re not measuring the right things–and that our conventional metrics of teacher quality and conventional approach to teacher training around lousy.
  • Focusing on the “you’ve got it or you don’t” attitude as applied to teachers overlooks an even bigger factor in our educational stagnation–the same attitude applied to students. Much of our education system continues to operate on the assumption that “being smart” is something innate that kids either have or don’t, not something that kids become as a result of hard work and effective teaching. But as Amanda Ripley and others have documented, the nations that are kicking our butts academically don’t tend to view educational success that way. Schools here at home that succeed with low-income kids also tend to take the attitude that smart is not something that you are, but something you become by working hard. Recent research supports that view. But it’s still far from the norm in our education system. And until that changes, training teachers better will probably not, on its own, drive the change we need for kids.