Is It Quality Or Quantity That Counts?

Ah, January is upon us: The wind is howling, the thermometer is plummeting, and we are greeted by the nineteenth consecutive edition of Quality Counts, Education Week’s compilation of mostly useful data, analysis, rankings and commentaries.

The single best thing about QC is its focus on states, not just because it enables state leaders to view external gauges of their own performance and compare it with other states, but also—especially valuable today—because it reminds everyone that states remain the central players in matters of K–12 education quality. (So many have obsessed for so long about federal stuff and Common Core—itself a state initiative—that it’s easy, especially inside the Beltway, to lose focus.)

The analysts and authors of QC keep fussing with the variables, metrics and weightings by which they grade state performance. This year, once again, those variables are sorted into three buckets, two of which have to do with processes, practices, and inputs. Some of the latter (e.g., parents’ education) is completely beyond state control, and some is based on questionable assumptions about how much is enough (and whether more is better) when it comes to education spending. Only the achievement bucket focuses on outcomes. Along the way, some issues of key interest to education reformers—most conspicuously school accountability, teacher quality, and choice—have vanished from the QC calculus.

One helpful bit: If you don’t like their weightings within the variables, you can fiddle with them yourself and maybe change your state’s grade. Be aware before you start that, using the present weights and measures, the average grade is C and no state gets either A or F. Massachusetts (yawn) earns the highest B, most states are in the C range and ten get D’s.

The most troubling element of the new QC, however, is the editors’ handling of this year’s focus topic, namely preschool. They’ve climbed onto the “preschool for everybody” bandwagon which (as David Armor makes plain in one of the accompanying essays) is not a good place to be.

This climb-aboard is most obvious and most egregious in QC’s rankings and ratings of states, where all the metrics deal with participation rates by the state’s children (three- and four-year-olds, poor and non-poor) in preschool, full-day preschool, Head Start, and kindergarten (both all kindergarten and full-day kindergarten specifically).

Some of these comparisons are worth making, notably the gap in preschool participation between non-poor and poor children (widest in Vermont of all places, then North Carolina and D.C.). Only in Wyoming and Montana are poor kids likelier (by tiny margins) to participate.

Also to the analysts’ credit, they avoid the input-centric gauges of preschool “quality” so dearly beloved by many in the early-childhood field.

To their discredit, however, they’ve made no visible effort to deal with the actual educational effectiveness of any state’s preschool program (much less with the shameful, costly achievement record of Head Start), nor even with such revealing clues as whether the state has academic or cognitive standards for its preschools and whether it uses any sort of kindergarten-readiness measures to determine which preschool “graduates”—and from which preschool operators—are really prepared to grapple successfully with the stiffening cognitive demands of today’s kindergartens.

The overarching problem with QC 2015’s whole approach, alas, is the loud signal it sends that, if everybody went to preschool, God would be in his Heaven and all would be right with the world.

That’s just wrong. Millions of middle-class families have found (and figured out how to pay for) satisfactory preschooling for their little ones without the state’s help; why spend scarce public dollars on a new middle-class subsidy? The proper focus for state policy is to get exceptionally needy toddlers and three- and four-year-olds into intensive preschool sequences that impart the knowledge and skills they will need to thrive in primary school. Such programs are deep, long-term and costly. If states are instead encouraged to spread their resources across everybody, as the authors of Quality Counts would clearly have them do, they’ll never do right by the kids in greatest need of serious early-childhood education. Quality does count. But this year’s QC, at least in the preschool realm, insists instead that quantity counts.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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