Playing Catch-Up

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2012

An important new report from ACT’s National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA) turns the lights up on a point that cannot be made often or strongly enough: when it comes to academic readiness, it’s easier to keep up than to catch up.  Over at Education Week, Sara Mead summarizes the findings, which she correctly describes as “sobering.”

“Among students who were ‘far off track’ in reading in 8th grade, only 10 percent achieved college and career ready standards 4 years later. In math and science, the percentage was even lower. And over 40 percent of African American students taking ACT’s EXPLORE exam in 8th grade scored ‘far off track’ in reading–as did 50% in math and 74% in Science. Put that together and you can’t like those odds.”

Policymakers take note of this from the report itself:

“Efforts to improve students’ academic preparation have often been directed at the high-school level, although for many students, gaps in academic preparation begin much earlier. Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge. These gaps are likely to widen over time because of the ‘Matthew effects,’ whereby those who start out behind are at a relative disadvantage in acquiring new knowledge.”

Bingo.  Old hat to followers of this blog, perhaps, but if “better schools” or even “better teachers” is your go-to response, here’s some cold water for you: “’Far off track’ 8th graders who attended schools in the top 10 percent of performance were roughly 3 times as likely to get back on track by 12th grade as the total sample,” Mead observes. ”But even looking at the top 10 percent of schools, the percentage of ‘far off track’ students getting back on track never exceeded 30%.”

Sobering, indeed.

The report’s takeaway emphasizes the need for “a realistic view of the difficulty of closing these gaps,” hence the need to start earlier.

“Underestimating the time and effort required could lead educators and policymakers to underfund prevention efforts and choose intervention strategies that are too little and too late. Underestimating the difficulty could also lead policymakers to hold schools to unrealistic accountability targets, creating strong incentives at various levels in the system to lower standards and artificially inflate test scores.”

In Mead’s view, this means “high-quality pre-k and early childhood education, particularly for African American, Hispanic, low-income, and other children from groups with higher percentages of students falling behind in school.”  I agree.  But critically, it must also mean a clear and focused understanding of what we mean when we say “high quality pre-k.”  Gaps in language proficiency are fundamentally gaps in knowledge and vocabulary–and the deficits are readily apparent on Day One.  To my mind, “high quality preschool” means aggressive interventions aimed at building language skill and knowledge acquisition before the dreaded Matthew Effect becomes a runaway train.

Sara Mead Gets It

by Robert Pondiscio
June 9th, 2009

This blog has long noted the strange indifference of the ed policy community to curriculum.  In wonk world it’s all about structures, and all will be well as long as a child has a great teacher, held accountable by testing, incentivized by merit pay, and serving at the pleasure of a principal in a charter school (or variations on that theme).  Curriculum?  The invisible hand will presumably see to that. 

sara-meadThe New America Foundation’s early ed specialist, Sara Mead, is a notable exception.  Writing last week about the Administration’s proposed $300 million Early Literacy Grants, Mead praised the program, but registered concern that its “emphasis on reading comprehension could lead many schools to devote excessive time to teaching so-called ‘comprehension strategies.’

As we’ve written here before, and as Daniel Willingham compellingly argues here, the best way to strengthen children’s ability to comprehend what they read is to expose them to rich and diverse content across various domains, so that they have the general knowledge to easily understand written passages on a wide variety of topics. That requires less time spent drilling comprehension strategies, and more time reading a variety of texts (especially non-fiction), and studying science, social studies, music, and the arts. If this program can help school districts move in that direction—while also maintaining a focus on strengthening students’ decoding skills and helping them gain fluency and vocabulary—that could be a really good thing.

Mead, who has clearly invested considerable time on the mechanics of teaching and learning, was at it again yesterday on her Early Ed Watch blog.  Commenting on last week’s Common Core report linking high academic achievement in other countries with a rich, broad curriculum, she highlighted Lynne Munson’s observation that the content of a student’s education has a greater influence on his level of achievement than does delivery or accountability systems. 

As research by both the American Federation of Teachers and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has shown, the early elementary school years are home to some of the weakest areas in existing state standards, and the early grades curriculum — particularly for low-income students — is too often a “content-free zone.” What can we learn from other countries about improving children’s access to high-quality, rich content — in a full range of academic subjects, including music and the arts — in the early grades?  

Perhaps there should be a conference of ed policy types who are as concerned as Sara Mead about early elementary curriculum.  We can book the washroom of a 737 for the meeting.

PreK: Access for All? Or For All At-Risk Children?

by Alice Wiggins
April 24th, 2009

A Washington Post reader last October asked education columnist Jay Mathews to “start a discussion on the advantages (real and imagined) of pre-kindergarten.”  The writer cited evidence that the effects of pre-k wear off and expressed concerns attempting to serve middle-class and at-risk kids with the same program might be “a sure recipe for a new middle-class benefit that shortchanges the poor.”

In response, Sara Mead of the New America Foundation laid out a case for universal pre-k (UPK) largely based on research demonstrating that all children, not just low-SES kids, would benefit.  “It’s true,” she wrote, “that the high-quality, randomized controlled trials that demonstrated long-term benefits to participation in high-quality pre-k programs focused on low-income students.”

But data from more recent evaluations of pre-k programs suggests that these programs also have benefits for middle-class children. For example, a Georgetown University study that looked at children in Oklahoma’s universal pre-k program found that all groups of students participating in the program, including middle class kids, made learning gains as a result, compared to students who didn’t. But the greatest gains were for low-income and otherwise at-risk students. Other studies looking at state pre-k programs have found similar results.

Mathews’ correspondent observed that the middle class has to be included to build the political momentum to get a program passed.  Mead cited research that shows a lot of working- and middle-class families can’t afford pre-k either.  And she’s especially persuasive when she notes “the simple fact that we don’t restrict children’s access to K-12 education based on their parents’ incomes.”

In the end, the question of universal pre-k vs low-income pre-k is a political question.  But the benefit of preschool for low-SES children can no longer be seriously disputed.  There is no doubt that access to high-quality preschool programs helps. But the key phrase in that sentence is not access, but high-quality.  Universal access to low-quality preschool would be a high-cost, low-value proposition.  Data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows most programs in the United States are rated mediocre, and fewer than 10% meet national accreditation standards:

Across the nation child care fees average $4,000 to $10,000 per year, exceeding the cost of public universities in most states. Yet, nationally only 1 in 7 children who are financially eligible for child care subsidies is being served, and only 41% of 3 and 4 year old children living in poverty are enrolled in preschool, compared to 58% of those whose families have higher incomes.

Cracking the nut of ensuring high-quality is a work in progress.  What we do know is that it is dependent on what teachers do in the classroom, not just what they have in the classroom.            

In the end, I’m agnostic on universal PreK.  It certainly would do no harm, and much good.  But we must find a way to guarantee every low-income child a place in a high-quality preschool. If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, it’s not going to happen without a robust program that captures all of our most vulnerable, at-risk children.

Algebra II

by Robert Pondiscio
September 22nd, 2008

“If we want kids to master algebra by eighth, we need to focus at least as much energy on getting them proficient in whole number operations by fourth,” writes the New America Foundation’s Sara Mead, commenting on today’s Brookings report.  “That’s a lot harder than simply mandating algebra for all eighth graders, but in the long term the results will be much better.”

Just so.