Virginia Republican Party Chair John Whitbeck joins us in studio, and we get an update on Congress and D.C.'s "Death with Dignity" bill from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
Charter schools in D.C. could begin assessing 3 to 7-year-olds in math and reading under a proposal to better evaluate charter schools and offer parents performance-based comparisons. But not everyone likes the idea of testing such young students. Kojo explores the proposal from the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
- Sam Chaltain Strategic communications consultant; Author of "American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community"
- Sara Mead Associate Partner, Bellwether Education Partners; Member, DC Public Charter School Board
- Jack McCarthy President and CEO, Appletree Institute for Education Innovation and AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, despite more than a decade of intense debate, the battle over high-stakes testing in the nation's schools rages on. In the District, the Public Charter School Board has proposed new tools to assess charter schools by testing the school's youngest students.
MR. MARC FISHERStarting in preschool and going up to second grade, public charter school students would have to take standardized tests in math and reading skills. Those results would then be used to judge how each charter school is performing. The idea is to make it easier for parents to compare schools. But some are concerned that it doesn't make sense to use questionable test results from children who can't even read yet to evaluate a charter school's performance.
MR. MARC FISHERDo high-stakes tests belong in the earliest grades? Joining us to discuss this and other issues around the city's charter school movement are Sam Chaltain. He's a writer and strategic communications consultant and author of several books on education, including the forthcoming "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice." Sara Mead is a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board and a partner, associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit focused on improving educational outcomes for low-income students.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd Jack McCarthy is president and CEO of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation and the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter Schools, which are here in the District. So let's start out, Sara Mead. You're on the Public Charter School Board, and charter schools now account for something like 42 percent of the public school population in the District. Certainly you're one of, if not the largest, such systems in the country.
MR. MARC FISHERWhat kind of accountability does your board insist upon at this point, before this new proposal, among -- for -- to see how the charter schools in the city are performing?
MS. SARA MEADSure. Thanks for asking me that. I think a lot of people don't necessarily understand what the role of a charter school authorizer, which is what the Public Charter School Board, is. Authorizers are the entities that award charters to new charter schools, and then after those schools are created, we are responsible for monitoring their performance and holding them accountable for student achievement, how they're using taxpayer monies and how they're complying with the law.
MS. SARA MEADAnd so for most of our history, we've done that through individual school accountability plans, which were things that were typically spelled out in the school's charter that laid out a set of goals that the schools would achieve. Now, one of the issues that emerged was that, over time, we authorized lots of different schools serving lots of different goals.
MS. SARA MEADAnd schools had very different sets of goals and things in their charter, some of which were harder and easier to evaluate, and there was no consistency in how we're all looking across schools, which made it hard for parents and the public to compare schools and make decisions. So several years ago, we initiated the performance management framework at the elementary and secondary level, which created a standardized way for us to look at the performance of schools on a host of both test scores and other indicators in those grade levels. But we hadn't done that yet for early childhood.
FISHERAnd the notion of the charter school board saying, you know, here's how we're gonna measure you, is really a shift in the overall ethic of the charter school movement. Where initially, the idea was -- and I guess this is how you'd initially set it up -- each charter school basically said, this is how we're gonna measure ourselves. Is that fair?
MEADSure. So the charter school movement predated the No Child Left Behind Act. And so some of the tests that, you know, had been in place after the No Child Left Behind Act and became so prominent didn't actually exist when the charter school movement was coming on board.
MEADAnd so it started from that position. As testing in grades three through eight became such a prominent part of how schools were being held accountable, it became obvious that charter authorizers -- and this is national, not just in D.C. -- needed to account for that more clearly and consistently on how they were evaluating schools.
MEADYou know, D.C. is unique in that we are one of the only states in the country that allows charter schools to offer pre-K and preschool. And so our need to hold pre-K and preschools accountable is different from the needs that most other authorizers have. And so we've been sort of grappling with that issue on our own.
FISHERSo we'll get into how you're asking charter schools to measure student performance and how you're evaluating the schools overall. You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850, or email us at kojo, K-O-J-O, @wamu.org. Let us know how you think charter schools should assess the progress of students and especially the youngest students. How do you feel about standardized tests and the impact that they've had on the schools you know?
FISHERAnd do you think charter schools need more accountability? 1-800-433-8850 is the number. And Jack McCarthy from the AppleTree Institute, you not only study what charter schools do and should do, but you actually -- your organization runs a charter school. With that hat on, you know, part of the appeal of charter schools was that they would each make their own way. They would each come up with their own system not only for teaching, but for measuring the outcomes of those teaching -- of that teaching.
FISHERAnd so what have you learned, as an operator of a charter school, about what kinds of accountability you need to have both to the parents and -- at the school and to the larger community that's trying to figure out how those schools are doing?
MR. JACK MCCARTHYWell, charter school is an independent public school. And so the basic charter bargain is that you get autonomy to do something different, but you're held accountable for results. And so you need to do three things. You need to measure that children are learning. You need to demonstrate each year that you're a viable organization. And you need to show that you're keeping the promises you made when you were granted the charter to operate the school.
MR. JACK MCCARTHYIn our case, we have a preschool and prekindergarten program, and we see early education as the promise to close the preparation gap before children enter kindergarten. That's what AppleTree has demonstrated a great deal of success in doing.
MR. JACK MCCARTHYAnd so when parents come to us, they're looking for a program that's gonna build children's language, vocabulary, pre-literacy skills, alphabet knowledge, things like that, early math skills and the important social, emotional skills that we know lead to school success, things like being able to attend to instruction, persist when frustrated, take directions from teachers and solve problems with words and work collaboratively.
MR. JACK MCCARTHYThese are the things that when they're all put together in a way that, I think, is fun and engaging for young children, children enter kindergarten ready to learn. And it's really important, I think -- now, at this point, where we -- so much in early education is changing with the president's initiative and so forth, we were really excited by the idea that someone's putting a stake in the ground to start to measure what quality early education ought to look like.
MR. JACK MCCARTHYAnd we and other charter schools who are working in this space participated in this process and helped to vet it. And I think accountability is really just holding you to account for the promises that you made in order to accept public dollars to educate children.
FISHERSam Chaltain, where -- in a city where the charter school movement put down an early stake and has grown to really an enormous size, and now -- and at the same time, the city has also been a leader in providing universal preschool education, both in the traditional public schools and now in the charters as well. So what is the charter school system now doing that's gotten you a bit upset?
MR. SAM CHALTAINSo, first, to echo what my colleagues have said, Sara's exactly right. There's a vital importance of the PCSB because they're responsible for more than $600 million of taxpayer money to ensure a system of accountability that incentivizes educators to do the right things, that helps parents make informed choices. We don't disagree with the importance of accountability. What got my knickers in a twist is my job is working in and with schools around the country, and so I get to spend a lot of time in classrooms.
MR. SAM CHALTAINI have a lot of conversations with teachers. There's a lot of great stuff happening across the country, including here in D.C. And one of the most persistent stumbling blocks to preventing more of that great stuff happening is this very sticky wicket of getting accountability right. I mean, in today's Washington Post, the U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, said that part of the problem we now have nationally is that we have inflexible accountability provisions that are becoming an obstacle to progress because they're focusing schools on a single score.
MR. SAM CHALTAINI've seen that. It's real, and it's not saying that the two skills that we measure, reading and math, aren't valuable, but it is saying that they're overvalued. So when I saw the PCSB's proposed framework and that 60 to 80 percent of a preschooler, lower elementary' program's overall effectiveness would be tied to those same two scores, I went back to the time when I was a varsity basketball coach in Brooklyn and imagined myself assuming that the best way to create a winning team was to ensure that all of my kids could shoot free throws.
MR. SAM CHALTAINFree throws are an important part of being the larger goal, which is a good basketball player. That involves dribbling. That involves outside shooting. That involves rebounding. There's also a lot of research that we now know about the brain, that learning involves the brain weaving skills together as if they were different parts of a rope. And so in the same way that for a rope to be strong, you need each of those interdependent strings to be connected, it's also true with schooling.
MR. SAM CHALTAINSo my interest, as a parent and as a public advocate, is not to pillory the PCSB, but to widen the public conversation and to ensure that we can get this very sticky wicket right.
FISHERSara Mead, as attractive as Sam's twisted knickers may be, they certainly represent a broader sense, not only here in Washington, but across the country. There's been a continuous tension and friction over the question of high-stakes testing. And the younger you go with that sort of testing, the more upset parents tend to be because there is somewhere in the popular notion of what the youngest -- what early education ought to be, this sense that play and that less than a full-scale academic program is important to -- developmentally for kids of that age.
FISHERAnd interestingly, in the most expensive schools, the most selective schools in the country, there's no high-stakes testing for the youngest grades. In fact, there's a heavy emphasis on play. So there's a real contradiction between the direction that we've seen in public education reform and, say, private education on the other hand. So what do you see the testing program that's been proposed here achieving, and why do you think parents are as allergic to it as some seem to be?
MEADSo I wanna make two things very clear because there are two things that are frequently understood here. Number one, this policy does not require schools to administer any new tests that they were not already administering to children in this age range. It is not going to bring an onslaught of new tests that weren't previously used. It's more a way of using data from the assessments that schools were already using.
MEADAnd, second, nothing in this policy requires any assessment ever to have any kind of high stakes for any individual child. The board agrees that that is developmentally inappropriate, and we would not support any school taking action in that way. That aside, I think Sam is actually right, that getting accountability right is absolutely critical, and it's one of the biggest challenges we face in public education, all the more so when we're talking about the youngest kids.
MEADThat's why we spent well over a year in consultation with the full range of our schools that are serving young children to really work with them to develop a policy that they felt was right in terms of their ability to have that support what they were doing that was right for kids. And we had widespread buy-in and participation in our pilot of the PMF, and the policy here really reflects input from the schools.
MEADI think the other important thing to take into account here is that this is a policy that includes a variety of different measures. It includes the math and the science measures. It includes the option for early childhood schools to use social, emotional. It also includes a valid and reliable assessment of the quality of adult-child interactions in early childhood programs, which we know is one of the strongest predictors of children's learning in those programs.
FISHERLet's hear from one of our listeners. Denicia, (sp?) you are on the air. Denicia?
DENICIAYes, I'm here.
DENICIAHi. Thank you for taking my call and for having this conversation. I appreciate what the last person said about the testing not being high stakes, but I fear that that's not what's gonna happen. If you look at the history of standardized testing in this country, they're increasingly becoming more and more high stakes. I'm a teacher/educator. I prepare early childhood teachers here in Washington, D.C. And one of the things we talk about assessment is that assessment should never be a form of punishment, right? It's supposed to guide and inform your teaching. So you look at - you do a preassessment to find out what the kids know. You instruct them
DENICIAAnd then you do another assessment to see what they've learned. But more and more, we see these assessments being used to punish children, right? You don't pass this assessment, so you can't take an elective, or you can't graduate. And that's where the high stakes come into play. So I'm not sure how if we move in this direction of more testing for charter school students in the young grades, at what point when will not be able to attach the high stakes because that's where all of our testing is going.
DENICIAAnd so I think parents seem to really ask themselves, what does this testing prove? You know, I believe in high-quality instruction for all students as well, but is testing the only way to measure it? Typically, it's not, but it's the easiest way to measure it. And so that's why it's being used more and more in schools. And testing is expensive for a lot of these schools, as well, having someone train the teachers on the testing and evaluate the testing. When does the information come back to the students in an enough time to the teachers, in an enough time to help the students or the next year when that kid have already moved on.
DENICIAI think we really need to look at taking a moratorium on standardized testing all over the country because it's really become something that is not really helpful to education. And also parents who are interested in opting out should look up unitedoptout.com. It's an organization that encourages parents to opt out of high-stakes standardized testing because it's not as beneficial as it could be because it's being misused in a lot of schools.
FISHEROK. Sam Chaltain.
CHALTAINYeah. Let me both help and hinder Sara's argument in response to that. So there's a number of words right now that are like red flags, standardized, testing, charter schools, choice. And when people hear them, they go ballistic and sometimes lose sight of some core aspects of the argument. So the way I want to help Sara's argument is that what is being proposed is not a series of standardized fill in the bubble tests for 3-year-olds.
CHALTAINAlmost any preschool in the city worth its salt is already assessing children on a number of skills, including and not limited to reading and math. Most of these assessments are one on one. They're with the teacher and a kid. I've seen this done. If a teacher does it well, the kid doesn't even realize it's a test. Where I'm gonna hinder the argument is that may not be high stakes for the child, but rankings matter to any school.
CHALTAINThey are particularly important to charter schools because they impact everything from fundraising to parent recruitment to the ability to access facilities. If you're a tier one school in D.C., you're gonna have a greater likelihood of acquiring that fabulous building that's been left abandoned in that community for so long. So there is huge pressure on adults. Now, one final point is I want to echo what was also said.
CHALTAINPart of the deal of being a charter school is you get greater autonomy for greater accountability. So we're not saying that there shouldn't be high stakes on adults. What I'm saying is when you disproportionately weight the ways in which those schools are ranked knowing that that ranking will impact the most essential aspects of a charter school's ability to remain viable, you are in effect incentivizing adults to pay disproportionate attention to just a piece of the pie, instead of the whole pie.
FISHERJack McCarthy, there is in this whole debate the larger question of the role of testing gets sort of lumped in with this -- what's happening specifically here in the District where you're simply changing the way schools are being evaluated. So tell us -- I mean AppleTree runs -- what -- seven campuses across the District. Tell us what happens in those earliest classes for the youngsters at this point when it comes to testing...
FISHER...and what if anything would change under this proposal?
MCCARTHYSure. I mean what I'm thinking in terms of stakes and I'm thinking in terms of narrowing the curriculum and I'm thinking in terms of testing, I just think in terms of the high stakes for the 70 percent of three -- third graders in Washington, D.C. who cannot read at a basic level of comprehension on the NAEP and so forth. So when we're thinking about stakes for schools, I think it's important also to think about stakes for kids because we live in an economy right now where it used to be a high school diploma, hard work and playing by the rules allowed you a middle-class job.
MCCARTHYToday, if you aren't able to read at grade level in the third grade, your chances of graduating high school are slim or none. So that's the problem that we're trying to solve, and I think the stakes are high for us as a country by and large to do something meaningful to ensure that 90 percent or 95 percent of the kids are able to read at grade level in the third grade.
MCCARTHYSo the way that we attack that at AppleTree we also know that five out of seven live births in Washington, D.C. are to single mothers living in poverty, and we also know that the children who are living with a single parent who might not have a great experience in school themselves or who are living in disadvantaged circumstances are going to come to us when they're three years old having heard probably 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers who live in other parts of the city.
MCCARTHYSo what you need to do to make early education the kind of intervention that will get kids on par so they have a chance to succeed by the third grade is to build their language, their vocabulary, their preliteracy skills, things like alphabet knowledge, the phonological awareness which is the blends of letter sounds together, their early math skills and, again, those important social emotional skills that are school-ready behaviors.
MCCARTHYAnd so we use a variety of valid and reliable methods to both measure where children are when they come in because you need to know if children are starting way behind or if children are on par. And you need to make sure that children leave us and enter kindergarten ready to thrive that they have those skills both cognitive and social, emotional skills that they're going to be prepared to thrive in kindergarten. So we use a whole variety of ways to do that.
FISHERThat's Jack McCarthy. He's president and CEO of the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation. We're also talking with Sam Chaltain, a writer on education, and Sara Mead, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. And we will get further into exactly what those tests look like for 3- and 4-year-olds and hear more of your calls when we come back after this short break.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about testing and D.C. charter schools with Jack McCarthy from the Appletree Institute, Sara Mead from the D.C. Public Charter School Board and Sam Chaltain, the author of the forthcoming book "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice." You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can send us a tweet to @kojoshow. And here -- from Capitol Hill is James. James, you're on the air.
JAMESHi there. My concern when I hear about assessment tests like this applied across the system is that -- and I have twin 5-year-olds in a public charter school system in D.C., and I (unintelligible) my knowledge of upper grades is just from the media, so (word?) that's what it's worth. But is it -- this country hasn't done it very successfully. It depends that when you do these sort of things, you end up homogenizing a system and trapping creativity from under the (word?) school.
JAMESAnd we were drawn to a public charter school specifically because it was a phenomenal group of people running it, and they're taking a very creative approach to running a school and how they educate our children. And I -- it scares me to hear, you know, when you start talking about systemized testing like this that it'll homogenize -- homogenizing effects it will have and zapping that creativity from the system, which is it's specific strong suit.
JAMESAnd then, you know, the teachers teaching towards the tests and less emphasis on things that aren't tested, they're equally important or more important like their socialization skills. At the higher grade levels, of course, I think someone was talking earlier about the, you know, the sacrifice that's been experienced across the country of music and art in favor of math and reading, which I think is (word?) detrimental such as, I guess, you know, obviously a very emotional response from a parent, it scares me.
FISHERSara Mead, obviously, parents have a lot of emotion invested in these issues. But, you know, at the back of the proposal that the school board has made about testing, there's a lengthy list of the various tests that schools could use in order to qualify -- to be evaluated by your board. So it's not as if you are mandating a particular test, and as you say, the schools are already doing some form of testing even at that earliest age. Is that right?
MEADYes. So Jack mentioned this sort of accountability for autonomy bargain that's at the heart of the charter concept, and I think those were the two principles that were fundamental to us as we went into developing this performance management framework. We believed it was absolutely critical to have some way of giving parents and the public information about the performance of our preschools because they are publically funded, and parents need to make choices.
MEADBut at the same time, we really strongly privilege the autonomy and the flexibility of the schools and did not want to do anything that would mandate particular assessments or restrict the school's flexibility to choose the assessments and the approaches that best align with their instructional philosophy.
FISHERSo, Sam, what's wrong with that? If they're already doing testing and, as you grant, there ought to be some sort of assessment, why have they've gone -- in what way they've gone astray?
CHALTAINI support the idea of identifying some uniform standards of quality across that. So that's a great starting point. And again, to me, the goal here is to help the PCSB get it right. The issues that I have, one I've spoken to already, which is the idea of disproportionately waiting one aspect of those standards to the exclusion of others, you're setting up a system where 80 percent of preschool or kindergarten, in this case, would be focused on reading and math. I just don't think that's a good idea. I don't think it's aligned with the research.
CHALTAINThe other problem I have and this is less of a direct criticism to the PCSB and more of a reflection of how hard their job is. So as she was just saying, they're not mandating a single literacy or math assessment, there's a pool of what, 34, that schools can choose from. Here's the reality though, let's play this out. School A chooses to use a very complex measure of literacy and scores 65 percent. School B chooses a measure of literacy that is really just monitoring the extent to which kids can recognize letters, and they score 80 percent.
CHALTAINFor purposes of tiering and for purposes of certainly public perception, School B is better. Now, the danger -- and I sympathize with your challenge here, the danger is to find a range of assessments that are at least tightly enough bunched along the continuum that your incentivizing schools to default to the highest common denominator. As it's currently proposed, based on what I've already said about all of the things that are tied up with fundraising, facilities and recruitment, you're incentivizing schools unintentionally albeit to default to the lowest common denominator. So we can do better.
FISHERSo, Jack McCarthy, given that argument, are charter schools sort of caught up in their own rhetoric of wanting each school to do it its own way when, in fact, it might make more sense as the traditional public schools to just say this is the test, use it?
MCCARTHYWell, I'm listening to Sam's argument. I understand what you're saying, and I think I agree with a lot of it. The way that I see the performance management framework, it's a first stake in the ground to try to develop an apples to apples comparison of quality between a preschool and a high school or a preschool and a middle school and a preschool and a preschool. I mean, that's really what we're talking about. What are the good schools? What are not the good schools?
MCCARTHYAnd, you know, I know that two years from now, it's not gonna look exactly like this first pilot looks like because there's so much that is emerging right now in how to do a better job of looking at, you know, you were talking about different ways of measuring literacy. So, I mean, I really think -- I trust and I believe that through engagement, we'll continue to make progress in all of those. But, I mean, what I don't wanna lose sight of is particularly with regard to early education.
MCCARTHYThere's not a real consensus right now regarding what quality early education means. I mean, right now, a lot of it is measured through inputs. The biggest programs in the United States measure inputs. They, you know, head start has, I think, 2,300 performance standards, but they're not looking at important outcomes. In outcomes like language, vocabulary and pre-literacy skills for reading, reading is a gateway skill. If you can read, you're gonna be a life-long learner.
MCCARTHYIf you can't read and if you can't read by the third grade, the prospects of your education are really grim. And so I wanna stay focused on the opportunity that the District has through this robust level of funding and really trying to get early education right and starting to define quality in terms of those early reading, those early math skills. Background knowledge is really important and that is part of early education when you see it along with the social emotional skills. It's not like you drill on these things independently.
MCCARTHYWhen you see really high-quality early education and people who are delivering it and people who are measuring progress of children, you see a lot of things going on at the same time. You see a joyful and a warm and engaging environment. And I think when I look at the PMF and the things that we're trying to measure, that's really what, I think, this is trying to do, to really look at the definition of quality early education and really lift it up from where it is right now in D.C. so that parents have more quality preschool options when they choose a charter school.
FISHERPMF is performance management framework which is essentially the way that charter school board evaluates schools.
MCCARTHYHow you're holding yourself. Well, how you're holding yourself -- how you've agreed to hold yourself accountable.
FISHERLet's hear from Rio in District Heights. Rio, you're on the air.
RIOHi, good day. I'm a long-time educator and a fan of the show, and I'm making a little cross in my statement, but I've got to say, today was my first day actually working with kindergarteners. And if anyone who is out there actually works with kindergarteners understand there's not a lot of assessment that goes on on your first day. And then in the first day, the assessments are basic. We are teaching students here.
RIOAnd when we're forced to come up with all these different standards to show which preschool or pre-K program is now good enough to get you into the next Sidwell Friends, will get you into the next Harvard, so on and so forth, I don't see how we, as educators, don't see that as a very slippery slope. Now, I'm all for data collection because we must assess how well we are doing. But let's remember, we are talking now about 3- and 4-year-olds.
RIOI'm a 38-year-old teacher, and I can honestly say 20 years ago, 30 years ago, when I took the California Achievement Test, it just wasn't so based on it. It was based on was I actually learning the practical art of mathematics, how to do long division without a calculator, how to actually recognize letters and sounds and punctuation and formulate a solid sentence structure. We've gotten so far away from that and only testing to outcomes.
RIONow, once again, the data must be there to correlate that the teachers are doing the work, I'm an advocate for that, but our work is not building cars. We're not assembly line. It's not homogenous. Every student is different. And if we start saying, well, this student is preset for this in pre-K or this student is at this aptitude, are we truly being fair to a young child not just a student?
FISHERSara Mead, Rio's comments really reflect that tension where, you know, on the one hand, he's for data collection. On the other hand, he's worried about the impact that the test could have on -- especially on young kids. There is in the popular expectation for school and especially at the earliest grades a sense that it ought to be about discovery. It ought to be about learning how to learn, and certainly, the schools, the high-end schools, emphasize that and de-emphasize testing and assessment.
FISHERIs there -- do we have a two-tiered system in our country? Is there -- should there be different expectations for low-achieving communities versus those who are shelling out big money for schools that do none of these assessment and yet manage to pull in kids and be extremely attractive?
MEADSo I think the real problem here is that we have a really polarized way of looking at this and where people tend to assume that if you're doing assessment, you're somehow not doing discovery. If you wanna see why that's false go, you know, not very far away and visit Jack's School. That is a school that is very rigorous about using assessment to monitor and improve on an ongoing basis every aspect of what they do and how they serve kids. But it is also an incredibly joy-filled, fun, wonderful place for children where children are engaging in discovery every day.
MEADThere is not a tension between those things unless adults impose it, and it's not an inherited thing. I think that there has been a great fear around measuring child outcomes in the early childhood community for a long time because of some misuse of that data that did happen in the past that was wrong.
MEADBut I think there is an increasing recognition in the early childhood field that if we are serious about wanting to deliver quality early learning experiences for children at scale and to get the political support needed to do that, we will have to find ways of measuring the outcomes being produced by these programs in ways that are appropriate, in ways that are much more nuanced than what we've traditionally done in K-12, and that we can do this, and we're capable of doing it.
FISHERSam Chaltain, we have an email from Monica, saying, "I'm a parent with a 3-year-old who's going into a public charter school starting tomorrow. I think it's absolutely wonderful that here in D.C., we can have school for our 3-year-olds, but we should not confuse this preschool with school. At 3 years old, our children are not supposed to be performing. They should be developing, which cannot be measured by a test like the one that is proposed. Why should we put this pressure on our children? The solution is that we as parents are given the tools to rate the schools."
FISHERSo how does someone like Monica rate the schools? What tools should they be given if not these sorts of tests that attempt to create some kind of a way to read across different schools?
CHALTAINI think the most valuable question that any parent should ask a school and that a school should be able to answer and show how they're answering it is what is -- what are the characteristics of the ideal graduate of your school? And how do you know if my child will have acquired those skills? If the school can't answer that question both just in language in terms of their vision and mission and in terms of very clear measurable data that demonstrates their effectiveness, don't send your child there.
CHALTAINI also wanna underscore this is what Sara and the PCSB are trying to figure out. What they're trying to figure out is a way to help parents like Monica, parents like my wife and I were a few years ago to make more informed choice. The problem is that when we set up accountability systems that are not paying attention to the multiple neurodevelopmental pathways that kids need, which is not just cognitive, it's social, it's emotional, it's ethical, it's physical, it's linguistic, I think we would all agree.
CHALTAINI think just about any parent would say, if you can find a school that tends to all of those different needs of my child, sign me up. So then why wouldn't we, knowing how important it is and knowing how deep the investments in this city are for universal preschool, take the extra time to tap the wisdom of the community and identify an accountability framework that is incentivizing educators equally across all of those developmental pathways? That's all I'm saying.
FISHERJack McCarthy, the word preschool implies to many people as a place where it's primarily socialization that's going on. There's a lot of play. There's a lot of, sort of, looking at how kids organize their thoughts and prepare to cooperate. But preschool has become considerably more academic in recent years, hasn't it?
MCCARTHYNo. I mean, I think you have to see what really good early learning looks like to understand that there is nothing about having a rich language, vocabulary environment where children are learning background knowledge about themselves, the world around them. They're learning colors. They're learning directions. They're learning, you know, about dinosaurs. They're learning about plants. They're learning about all of these things, and they're having fun doing it. And it is not work.
MCCARTHYAnd, really, when we're talking about assessment, we're talking about measurement. We're trying to measure children's progress in these discreet domains. But also, you're looking to try to measure overall children school readiness.
MCCARTHYAnd, you know, I agree with Sam. That is the goal. I have been involved with this work for about 17 or 18 years, and the reason we have high-stakes assessments in the third grade and in the other grades is because we haven't reached that ideal of being able to develop an accountability system and performance in public education or the whole where we're educating all of the students to high levels.
MCCARTHYThe standards movements in the 1990s set that as a goal, so you can't get -- we're not, as a country, getting where we wanna be, so we're selecting the things that are really important, I think, as first steps to try to make progress while we develop our capacity as a country to educate our citizens to high levels. We've got a long way to go.
FISHERThat's Jack McCarthy, president and CEO of the Appletree Institute for Education Innovation. We're also talking with Sara Mead and Sam Chaltain, and we'll continue our conversation about charter schools and also take more of your calls and get into some of the other charter school issues here in the District after a short break.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi, and we are talking about D.C. charter schools with Sara Mead, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, Sam Chaltain, a writer and strategic communications consultant, who's written a good deal on education and Jack McCarthy, who runs the Appletree Institute for Education Innovation, which has a number of charter schools across the city. And let's go to Carol in Bethesda. Carol, you're on the air.
CAROLHi. Thank you for taking my call. I've been the field of early childhood education since the 1960s, and I taught in Anacostia. And I taught kindergarten, and I've been an early childhood educator as well as a parents' educator as trainer of the Head Start teachers and childcare workers. First of all, I'd like to say I think charter schools can be an excellent resource because the schools are still not up to par in the District of Columbia.
CAROLAnd it's going to be wonderful for lower middle-class student -- families to have the access to preschool education that are not affordable to many in high quality programs such as those that are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which has been our professional association since the '60s. And they accredited -- they accredit child care centers all over the country. They fund the best of standards that luckily Maryland has -- is able to comply with. Virginia, not quite. So that's one thing.
FISHERDo you have a question?
FISHERWhat's your question?
CAROLWell, my comment actually...
CAROL...is more a question...
CAROL...that learning through play is still a very appropriate way for a preschooler, 3- and 4-year-olds can learn. And what we need mainly is teacher training that is so important so that early childhood educators understand how children think and how they learn at that age. And lastly, I would like say the testing sometime is so inappropriate. The tests that are designed -- I'll never forget this as an example.
CAROLI remember the word what is a toboggan? That was given to a kindergarten class to, you know, to say what -- if they could choose what a toboggan was in Anacostia. How many children in Anacostia knew what a toboggan was? So I think that teaching to the test is so inappropriate. Thank you very much.
FISHERThank you. Jack.
MCCARTHYI couldn't agree more. Our organization won one of the federal investing in innovation grants in 2010 for every child ready. It's pre-school instructional program that comes with content, training, professional development, assessment, you know, everything. And that really is a big problem in the space right now.
MCCARTHYThere's not a lot of content for teachers to use in order to provide the rich kind of instruction that I think Sam is talking about that will end up preparing kids to thrive in kindergarten and beyond. And teacher training, professional development, all of these are huge needs in the space as we start to look at early education in being more of, you know, a preparation for children to thrive in kindergarten rather than a place for them to just be while parents are working and so forth.
MEADOn that teacher quality point, I wanna just mention one feature of the early childhood PMF that I am very excited about, which is the inclusion of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System in the pre-K performance management framework. This is a system in which trained observers actually go into pre-school classrooms and look at the types of interactions that are happening between adults and children. And it is one of the best ways to really look at a fine-grained level what's going on and what's the quality in pre-school.
MEADAnd I think to Sam's point, the class has three different domains -- classroom management, emotional support and instructional support. And that emotional support is really about how well is the teacher and is the school supporting children social and emotional development alongside the instructional support, which is about how the teacher is supporting the cognitive development of the children. So we're very excited to have that feature in the PMF.
FISHERAnd so if this goes into effect, will the results of those classroom visits and observations be made public?
MEADSo I'm not quite sure how we intend to assess them or how we intend to report that to the public, you know, whether we would report individual domains or we would report everything added together and so forth. I don't think that's a decision that's been made yet. We're still in the public comment period for this policy and are very interested in getting -- and or responding and listening to things that folks like Sam and others have to say for us on this framework.
FISHERSam Chaltain, how do you think parents now go about choosing -- picking among charter schools? Do you think they pay attention to scores or what -- they just listen to what their neighbors say? What kinds of elements go into that selection, do you think?
CHALTAINWell, this is why I wrote the book that's coming out in early 2014. So I spent the year in two D.C. schools, a nine-year-old neighborhood school, a first-year charter school, followed around some parents that were trying to make a decision for the first time. And one thing that was ubiquitous at every open house were people clutching the D.C. schools chooser. GreatSchools is organization that has been around for 15 years maybe, 37 million visitors to their website a year.
CHALTAINAnd it's instructive for the purposes of this conversation that even though they've had lots of different ways in which somebody can gain information about a school, they've also had a star rating that is based -- has been based solely on reading and math scores. To great schools credit, they realized, you know, what we're doing is giving parents who are already busy a default way of measuring complete quality that is based on partial information.
CHALTAINSo they've revised their own framework and are now piloting in a few cities, not yet in D.C., a way of assessing schools that takes into account lots of other things including and not limited to reading and math. And so to me, that's -- again, the bottom line here is making sure that as we set out to improve learning, the goals should be to develop each child's talent so that a diversity of skills are available to the country, not just two.
FISHERSara Mead, does the school board track how people make those decisions about which schools they are most attracted to, most interested in?
MEADSo we don't have any obvious way to track the very complicated process of, you know, thousands of individual parents making decisions for their children. I will say that one of the reasons we created the performance management framework starting several years ago was to give parents resources to help them make better decisions. And if we look at trends in enrollment across the four elementary and middle school, we tier schools in three tiers, one being the highest and three being the lowest.
MEADAnd if we look at trends, we definitely see parents gravitating towards those tier one schools and away from those tier three schools, which is exactly what we wanted to see with that system. Now, the reality is though that a lot of parents try to choose their child's school when their child is entering in pre-school and kindergarten, and then that same information resource wasn't available to parents.
MEADAnd so that's one of our goals with that Early Childhood Performance Management Framework is to help parents have a little bit more to go on when they're making those really difficult decisions.
FISHERAnd whatever difficulties there may be around this question of how to evaluate schools at that early stage, the fact that is -- that there's tremendous demand for spaces in the charter schools in this city. We've talked in the past about the need for -- the push for a common application for charter schools. Is that something that we're going to see?
MEADThat's definitely something that we've been working on with our charter schools and with DCPS. You know, having now gone through this with a number of my friends with children, seeing what a challenging process it is, filling out all the different applications, looking at two different process for charters and DCPS, it's very challenging for the families and it's challenging for schools as well.
MEADAnd we take that seriously and are very lucky to be in a position now where we're able to partner with DCPS to start thinking through, you know, how would we develop a common lottery that would be voluntary for schools but that we think would have real upsides that would cause schools to wanna join -- that would have real benefits for families in terms of not having to go through multiple systems.
FISHERAnd, Sam Chaltain, this week, with schools opening up, we're entering this period that sometimes known as the waitlist shuffle. Can you tell us what that it is, and why it causes some angst in many homes around the city?
CHALTAINSo up to this point, the -- there really has been no disincentive for any family lucky enough to get into more than one school from picking just one of those horses. So what happens is up to, I think, Oct. 5th, is count day, where school's budgets are locked in place, there is this dance of the waiting lists, where a school might just be waiting until October when a spot might open, or they might be enrolled in one school but waiting to see...
FISHERA parent might be waiting.
CHALTAINSorry. Yes. A parent might be waiting or they might to see if a spot opens up. I know that there have been a lot of steps proactively taken in the time since I wrote the book and was observing these schools to try to make that more uniform to help charter school share their own wait lists. So we're getting there, but it's still -- one of the things that is I think interesting about D.C. is, you know, we're second only in the country as far as school choice to New Orleans, and I think we know why New Orleans is number one.
CHALTAINAnd so by national standards, we've got a pretty mature market of choice, and yet even as somebody that's pretty much the tip of this (word?) nationally, we're still in the embryonic stages of figuring all this out.
FISHERAnd, Jack McCarthy, from the school's perspective, when you see parents in this sort of shopping period of -- gaming the system and all that, what effect does that have on the schools or anything that an individual school can do to try to regularize this and make it a little less chaotic?
MCCARTHYSure. I mean, we -- we're in a situation where there are not enough school -- good school choices. And so that creates a sense of shortage in the minds of parents. At AppleTree, we welcome parents. We try to show them the kind of quality education that they are gonna be provided. Oftentimes, parents will be looking for an eight-year pathway, you know, or a 12-year pathway, or they're looking for a pathway that's close to where they live or where they work. And those things sometimes affect their choices as well.
MCCARTHYBut I think from the school's perspective, you do your job, you welcome parents and, you know, just make them feel like the customer is king and you're doing everything you can to provide them with a quality school choice.
FISHERJack McCarthy is president and CEO of the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation and -- which runs the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter Schools of which there are seven across the city. Is that right?
FISHERAnd Sara Mead is a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. She is an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit focused on improving educational outcomes for low-income students across the country. Thanks for being here. And Sam Chaltain is a writer and strategic communications consultant, the author of several books on education, including the forthcoming "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice." I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for joining us.
Most Recent Shows
Lifelong Washingtonian and community advocate Theresa Howe Jones passed away last week at the age of 84. She leaves a legacy of meaningful work in the Anacostia neighborhood and in D.C. as a whole.
A new study explains the effects of rising sea levels in coastal regions, including Maryland's Eastern Shore, and parts of Virginia. What are cities in our region doing to combat these events?
The dining staples you'd expect to find on the street or in diners are becoming more and more upscale in the District of Columbia. What does that signal about the city to its longtime residents?