DC’s Plan to Assess Early Childhood Programs: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

In case you missed it, the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) of DC has proposed a common framework for assessing the quality of all preschool and lower elementary programs. The original proposal sparked arguments for and against the plan; led to a petition campaign of protest; and anchored a lively hourlong discussion on public radio. Lots of people wrote the board to share their own ideas and feedback, and, earlier this week, the Board unanimously approved a revised policy.

What did the PCSB get right, and where is its plan still lacking? First, here’s what they proposed (with all changes highlighted in yellow):

 

 

To evaluate these changes, I reviewed the modifications against my three central design principles of a good assessment framework.

  1. Measure the Essential Skills: On the positive side, any school that opts to measure social-emotional growth will be held to roughly equal percentages of importance (14% v. 12% in preschool, and 25% v. 20% in lower elementary). Not what I would do, but I can live with it. On the negative side, SEL measures are still not required, and the past twelve years or so of education policy would suggest that, despite one’s wishes to the contrary, a school that is only required to do A is less likely to do B, C or D with the same degree of intensity. Will a majority of schools opt in to the SEL framework? Time will tell, but I’m skeptical. I do think, however, that the addition of a mission-specific goal provides another way for schools to elevate an essential skill, such as creativity. In sum, a mixed bag.
  2. Default to the Highest Common Denominator: As I wrote previously, “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.” The danger of this was pointed out to me by the founder of a prominent charter school in DC, who cautioned that any school that chooses a less challenging assessment in, say, math will be more likely to score higher than a school that chooses a more challenging one. “This,” she says, “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.” As far as I can tell, this design flaw is unaddressed by the revisions. That’s a big problem, and one the PCSB will need to get right in the coming year.
  3. Identify the other elements of a healthy school culture: This is where the original proposal was closest to the endgoal, and that’s still true here. Its metric for evaluating teachers has three separate components — emotional support, instructional support, and classroom organization — and its attention to attendance and re-enrollment make sense. Here, too, the addition of a mission-specific goal, depending on what schools choose, could apply to this category (measuring school climate, for example).

Overall, then, I think the PCSB heeded much of what it heard from the public, and its final proposal still needs some small but significant tweaks. What do YOU think?

Categories: Learning

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