Louisiana, which has become the national laboratory for bringing business-minded accountability to education—an effort that has come to full flower in New Orleans where charter schools educate close to 90 percent of its students—is turning its accountability lens onto publicly funded preschools and the education of its youngest children.
In a move that worries some early childhood experts, Louisiana’s new Early Childhood Education Act is set to make major changes in the way publicly funded preschool programs are managed and evaluated. The aim of the law, also known as Act 3, is to improve the quality of early childhood education, which educators agree is key to ensuring later academic success; currently, close to 50 percent of children entering kindergarten in Louisiana are unprepared.
To do so, the Louisiana Department of Education is developing an outcomes-based rating system, including letter grades–much like the grading system it uses for K-12 schools–which will reward high-performing programs and “intervene” in under-performing ones.
While Louisiana’s preschool grading system includes the accountability components of the federal government’s Race-to-the-Top contest, Louisiana did not apply for the latest round of funding. Part of the reason Act 3 has early childhood experts worried is that it omits what they consider the best elements of RTTT, including requirements related to process improvement and raising the qualifications of early childhood educators. These requirements, the state said, were too onerous.
Indeed, at a time when standards-and-testing regimes are coming to kindergarten classrooms, and even some programs for four year olds, around the country, education experts fear that Louisiana’s Act 3 marks an escalation of the trend. They say the law could lead to developmentally inappropriate efforts to teach children below age four how to read, standardized tests for toddlers, as well as a test-prep approach to preschool curriculum.
In Louisiana, which provides one of the nation’s lowest levels of support for educating poor and low-income children under age four, education experts also are concerned that the law will undermine an established five-year effort to improve preschool education for low-income children. They say the law, which does not provide additional funding for early childhood education, may raise costs for providers, driving some of them out of business.
“When the governor decided he would focus on early childhood, we were excited,” says Melanie Bronfin, Director of The Policy Institute of the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, which has made a number of recommendations for implementing Act 3. “But if you look at how the law is written, it’s as though they’re talking about a ten-year-old child; it doesn’t show an understanding of early childhood.” (This is, in fact, the first time the LDOE will have jurisdiction over programs for children under the age of 4, although the state says it is seeking input from early childhood experts and “stakeholders.”)
Some researchers worry that the accountability measures will judge preschools based only on how well they teach literacy and numeracy. Equally important predictors of academic success are social and behavioral skills, such as following directions, working with others and maintaining the focus needed to follow a task through to completion.
“My fear is they will relegate play to the back burner,” says a leading Louisiana education expert. “This would be outrageous in a middle class environment; this is strictly for poor children and families.”
One key concern is that Act 3 will undermine the quality improvement program for preschools that was introduced in 2007. The so-called Quality Start process evaluates schools and childcare centers that nurture the state’s youngest children, from infants to four-year-olds, based on a fine-grained web of environmental and curricular factors: Does the program provide a rich array of activities, including books, building blocks, and areas for art and dramatic play? Are the toys at a height that children can easily reach? What are the qualifications and experience of the staff? How many children per staff member?
Under Quality Start, preschools earn one-to-five stars—one star is equivalent to meeting basic licensing requirements, while five stars connote the highest-quality programming. Tax credits provide the incentives for preschools to accumulate stars by improving the services and activities they provide for children, as well as the qualifications of their staff. Parents also earn tax credits by enrolling their children in higher-quality programs—the more stars, the higher the tax credit, which in turn provides another incentive for the preschool providers to improve their services.
In just five years, 53 percent of childcare centers in Louisiana have participated in Quality Start. Of these centers, the number of childcare programs qualifying for three-to-five stars has soared from just 3.1 percent in 2009 to 22.6 percent in 2012, according to the Louisiana Partnership for Children and families.
Over 700 early childcare providers, most of them small businesses, have invested in Quality Start, often borrowing money to improve their programs. If Act 3 imposes an entirely new accountability system on these providers, it could force some of them out of business, diminishing an already scarce resource for low-income families—there are currently close to three low-income preschoolers for every publicly funded slot.
In its recommendations for implementing Act 3, The Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families has appealed to the state authorities to “maintain and build on the current successful Louisiana accountability system, Quality Start.”
Another major concern is that Act 3’s accountability system will expand standardized testing to include children as young as three years old. The annual ritual of testing children to assess their knowledge and, by proxy, the quality of the schools they have attended, is fundamentally ill-suited to evaluating very young children and preschool programs, according to early childhood research. A new study by the Rand Corporation cites some of the problems with testing preschool-aged children: “Even with children close to entering kindergarten, attention spans are limited, skills are unevenly developed, and there is discomfort with strangers and strange situations.”
“Child development at this age is very different than it is for school-aged children,” says Bronfin. “You cannot do a single assessment in time and have any meaning as an accountability tool. Preschool age children can’t read, they can’t fill in a bubble” on a test sheet.
Experts in child development argue that the only meaningful assessments are observational, overtime and with someone who is experienced in assessing very young children. And that, says Bronfin, “is extremely expensive.”
Those who worry that the accountability system will lead to testing toddlers without improving preschools may not get much comfort from seeing the way the state’s test-oriented K-12 grading system works. Many charter providers in New Orleans, for example, insist that their students have made substantial academic gains since 2005, when the state effectively shut down the public school system, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and replaced it with independently run charter schools. But they say that the state’s grading system doesn’t adequately reflect those improvements. Indeed, seven years post-Katrina, the vast majority of schools still receive grades of D or F from the state, a sign that either the charter school system or the accountability system may be broken.
Meanwhile, kindergarten teachers in New Orleans describe a testing regime in which kindergarteners are subjected to computerized tests that they are not developmentally equipped to handle. “I’m not sure whether they are capable of multiple choice,” says one kindergarten teacher at a New Orleans charter school. “They need some facility with computers. The linguistic content is confusing.” Then too, she adds: “A lot of kids think it’s a game” and randomly fill in answers.
That game cost the teacher her annual bonus, which also depends largely on how her students perform on standardized tests.
The implementation plan for Act 3 isn’t expected to be finalized until early next year. The one thing everyone can agree on is that much rides on getting it right.