Accountability in early childhood education

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The importance of early childhood education is nary denied by education advocates from across the spectrum – even though we may disagree on the nuts and bolts. In coming years, we hope a groundswell of support from all sides will result in policy changes at the state level to expand access to high-quality programs.

As we engage in this work, however, we must remain grounded in research. To that end, this week we are discussing a new paper by researchers from Stanford University and the University of Virginia. The Effects of Accountability Incentives in Early Childhood Education finds that pre-k programs “respond to lower quality ratings with comparative performance gains, including improvement on a multi-faceted measure of classroom quality” and that parents respond to these lower ratings by switching programs, especially when there are more options.

What we know

Meaningful accountability in early childhood education serves two vital functions. First, transparency allows parents to respond to program quality. Second, monetary incentives for performance encourage improvement and excellence.

Though parents know that a quality preschool experience is valuable, many enroll their children in programs based on anecdote or incomplete data. This puts many children in low-quality programs that have high rates of parental satisfaction without proving any real results.

As research as shown in the K-12 context, parents do respond to clear summative measures of school performance when other options are available. Thus, if we can carefully design systems to communicate quality to parents, they will be more likely to enroll their child in a high-quality program.

Transparency does little without good school options, though. The necessary second prong, then, is incentives for performance, which have been shown to increase student achievement.

Contrary to some narratives, money alone is not the answer. Increased funding must be tied to a well-designed framework for successful early childhood education.

Accountability that works

An accountability system that works for early childhood education is quite different than those used for K-12 education. This is in large part due to the availability of data and the differing rates of participation.

As such, The Effects of Accountability Incentives in Early Childhood Education offers several pointers for policymakers who seek to build valuable systems:

  1. Standards for performance must be thoughtful and must be backed up by monetary incentives.
  2. States must provide local support through technical assistance and community partnerships.
  3. Regular program monitoring and accountability are essential.
  4. Ratings must provide clear and actionable data for parents.
  5. Participation in the accountability system must be widespread or mandatory for the biggest effect.
  6. Systems must give credit for structural quality and process measures with a heavier weight on process quality.

The last point is particularly important in the Texas context, as many advocates routinely push for greater reliance on structural quality measures in existing accountability systems. These inputs, such as class size, teacher preparation/experience, and class size ratios, are weaker and less consistent predictors of learning. On the other hand, process measures (in this case, classroom observations) can much more reliably gauge overall program quality.

To see these priorities in action, the report’s researchers took a look at North Carolina.

The North Carolina experience

North Carolina has one of the oldest accountability systems for early childhood education in the country. The state has incorporated all of the elements researchers suggested, which makes it a great subject for study.

Created in 1999 and revamped in 2005, North Carolina’s Star Rated License (SRL) system labels participating providers on a five-star scale. Programs are evaluated at least every three years for performance, and results are published online as well as posted in programs’ facilities. In addition, the state reimbursement rate for eligible students is tied to the star rating each program earns.

The results are clear: incentives and transparency work when coupled together. Schools worked to improve the quality of instruction when assigned lower ratings. Parents voted with their feet when they had the chance. Programs are improving and are making a bigger impact on student learning.

Although more research must be done, North Carolina shows us that well-designed accountability can work in early childhood education. As we move forward in Texas, it is imperative that we remember these lessons and incorporate them into our approach.

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