Early Learning in ESEA: Talking about Turnarounds

Over the past several months, we’ve seen – and will continue to see — a flurry of announcements about states receiving federal grants to fix the schools that they have designated as “persistently low performing” – eduspeak for those 5 percent at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to giving children a decent education.

As we contemplate the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – which now appears to be in a holding pattern until after the November elections – we have to ask: Could any of these grants be harnessed to prompt new investments in early learning?
Not as easily as one might think. Why? In one sense it’s obvious: While “turnaround” implies a rapid improvement in results, the payoff from early learning investments is long-term.  Think about today’s 3-year-olds. If they enroll in a high-quality pre-K program and have strong teachers in early elementary school, the gains they experience – like the ability to read proficiently and solve problems – should put them on the path to strong performance in middle and high school.  But the data demonstrating that strong performance – the data that could move a middle school off of that “low-performing” list — won’t appear for eight to 10 years.
This is why early education advocates – ourselves included — often grumble that the current craze for turnaround strategies fails to recognize that true reform means starting early and sustaining gains over time. 
Yet at the same time, we cannot forget that there are low-performing schools that must also take rapid steps to turn themselves around and avoid harming yet more students. The administration’s recent research brief on the need for turnaround strategies argues that incremental reforms are rarely successful.
So it behooves us in the early ed field to think about how we can add to the turnaround conversation in a meaningful way. One way to do that is to look more closely at the School Improvement Grant program.
The program started as a small grant program embedded in the Title I provisions of ESEA, but it received a $3 billion boost last year courtesy of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.  Subsequent rounds of these grants will be significantly smaller if they exist at all, but the U.S. Department of Education clearly views these grants as important levers for school reform. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is particularly interested in turning around failing schools, spurred in part by dismal drop-out rates in urban high schools, documented by reports like Cities in Crisis, which showed that only about half of all young people in the nation’s largest cities were graduating on time. As we’ve noted before, the Blueprint for Reform – the Administration’s outline for ESEA – spells out a particular vision for turning around failing schools that looks a lot like the School Improvement Grant guidelines.
(By the way, early childhood advocates may be encouraged to hear that the Blueprint was updated in May to feature a new section on Early Learning. The pages are a recognition that early learning needs to be explicitly addressed in ESEA, something that we had called out as missing. Noteworthy: it also makes clear that Title I funds can be used for programs for young children starting at birth.)
Under the School Improvement Grant program, states apply to the federal government for formula grants that the states are expected to distribute to the bottom five percent of schools or the bottom five schools, whichever is greater. The U.S. Department of Education released a detailed “FAQ” at the end of May and more guidance this week, but the gist is this: Schools in trouble have four options: Turnaround (with new principal and at least 50 percent new staff), restart (under new management, like that of a charter organization), close (relocating students elsewhere) or transform (with a new principal and new ideas but not necessarily new staff).  
Most observers expect that schools will opt for the transformation model. In its latest guidance, the Department explicitly states (see Question E-11) that districts “may also implement” full-day kindergarten or pre-kindergarten in addition to required activities, such as replacing the principal and using student-growth data in evaluating teachers. 
In other words, early learning programs are allowed but not required as a strategy for transforming these schools. Since the grants are only now being disbursed, it’s too early to know whether pre-K or kindergarten will, indeed, gain some ground under this program. Still, the difference between allowed and required is worth dwelling on. Let’s consider what might be gained if districts with “persistently low-performing” elementary schools were provided carrots or even required to roll out these early learning programs. In an ideal situation, superintendents would take stock of the number and needs of preschoolers in their districts, reach out to community providers, and collaborate with them on professional development, data collection, standards and curriculum alignment. This would create bridges between pre-K and kindergarten to sustain the advantages of high-quality early learning programs. Using a variety of funding sources (such as the money from the improvement grants, regular Title I funds, state pre-kindergarten dollars, child care reimbursements and other resources), school districts and community agencies could hire more qualified early childhood teachers and create seamless programs so that children receive solid learning experiences that build upon each other throughout the early grades. 
So let’s assume that this is a solid recommendation for improving the School Improvement Grant program: Build incentives into the local districts’ application process that drives them toward the creation of high-quality early learning programs.
Then we run into our next problem: Many of the schools in this designation are not elementary schools. The latest guidance from the U.S. Department of Education makes clear that a “persistently low-performing school” can be an elementary, middle or high school, but browse through the applications that states have submitted and you’ll see that while elementary schools are included on state lists, middle and high schools are dominant.
This raises one of the big hurdles for embedding early learning strategies in applications for these School Improvement Grants. If a high school is the designated “problem” school, the introduction of high-quality early education will not result in rapid change – nor is it something that a high school principal would have any control over. It is the district superintendent who should be building a system-wide approach to high-quality early learning programs. (The pre-K-through-12th grade reforms in the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland would not have been possible without leadership from the superintendent, Jerry Weast.) And that means that a district must have the resources to support pre-K teacher salaries, more early childhood facilities, etc. The S.I.G. application specifically asks states to evaluate whether its local districts will have the “capacity” to implement their intervention models. Creative superintendents will, and do, find ways to redirect money in this way but the S.I.G. program is not necessarily nudging them in that direction.
The ability for School Improvement Grants to augment early learning investments may depend on these factors – the absence of real “carrots” or requirements for low-performing elementary schools to create better pre-k and kindergarten programs; the emphasis on fixes to specific middle and high schools instead of district-wide reform with resources to support it; and the demand for rapid improvement in secondary schools. The third in this list is not something that the early learning community can provide much help with. A better kindergarten program won’t help today’s struggling 16-year-olds graduate from high school. But the first two factors should be part of any reform agenda for ensuring that upcoming students aren’t struggling in the first place.
There’s a lot to watch over the next year as states divvy up their School Improvement Grant monies. We’ll be tracking whether these two factors will, in fact, have any bearing on the ability to make the improvements in early education that could set the stage for true and sustained turnarounds in student learning. The result should help to inform the larger question of how early learning investments can be better embedded into ESEA.

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July 13th, 2010

Jimmy Kilpatrick

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