Education

New School District-Level Pre-K Data Reflect Drop in State Spending

September 24, 2013
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This post also appeared on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

In February’s State of the Union address, President Obama outlined a new proposal to expand state pre-K programs to all low- and moderate-income children across the country. The federal funds would require state matching funds, and the state and federal dollars would both be allocated to school districts to expand access to pre-K for eligible children.

In many states, though, it’s impossible even to know the answers to basic questions about pre-K. Because pre-K is often not tracked, or not tracked at the school district level, most principals can’t say how many of their incoming kindergartners attended pre-K, and many policymakers don’t know how many children in their state have access to early education.

New data released in a joint effort by the Federal Education Budget Project (FEBP) and the Early Education Initiative, both of the New America Foundation, begin to answer some of these questions. Released for the first time last fall, FEBP and Early Education Initiative staff collect and analyze state- and school district-level pre-K funding and enrollment data where available. The latest update includes information from the 2012 school year, as well as data for earlier years that states had not previously made available. Check out your state or school district in our Funding Per Child widget below:

New School District-Level Pre-K Data Reflect Drop in State Spending

September 24, 2013
Publication Image

This post also appeared on our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.

In February’s State of the Union address, President Obama outlined a new proposal to expand state pre-K programs to all low- and moderate-income children across the country. The federal funds would require state matching funds, and the state and federal dollars would both be allocated to school districts to expand access to pre-K for eligible children.

In many states, though, it’s impossible even to know the answers to basic questions about pre-K. Because pre-K is often not tracked, or not tracked at the school district level, most principals can’t say how many of their incoming kindergartners attended pre-K, and many policymakers don’t know how many children in their state have access to early education.

New data released in a joint effort by the Federal Education Budget Project (FEBP) and the Early Education Initiative, both of the New America Foundation, begin to answer some of these questions. Released for the first time last fall, FEBP and Early Education Initiative staff collect and analyze state- and school district-level pre-K funding and enrollment data where available. The latest update includes information from the 2012 school year, as well as data for earlier years that states had not previously made available. Check out your state or school district in our Funding Per Child widget below:

The data offer an on-the-ground look at national early education funding trends. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), from which FEBP compiles its state-level pre-K data, found that 2012 was the first year in a decade in which state pre-K funding fell over the prior year. We looked more deeply into those figures and found that the cuts were far from across the board.

In Texas, for example, state pre-K funding fell from $844 million in 2011 to $727 million last year. But while funding decreased substantially in some districts, it actually increased in others. Houston pre-K funding fell from more than $61 million to nearly $53 million  over the same one-year span, leading to nearly 400 fewer children in enrolled in pre-K. Meanwhile Denton School District saw increased spending of more than $700,000 and 100 more children enrolled. Even San Antonio, the city whose mayor launched the Pre-K 4 SA initiative to raise the sales tax and fund pre-K, lost $1.2 million in state funding and more than 200 state pre-K slots (though keep in mind that our figures include only state dollars, so pre-K slots funded by the sales tax increase are not reflected in these data).

FEBP is the only source of this critical information across the country and at the school district level. The FEBP website displays the information over the past five years, where available. These landmark pre-K data were first released last fall, and this year’s update includes additional information for the 2012 school year, as well as updated information for states that had not previously provided data. New America maintains the most comprehensive education funding database in the country, with information on funding, demographics, and outcomes for every state, school district, and institution of higher education in the nation.

It is important to note that some states collect data in a way that is notably different from others; the specific caveats for these states may be found on our pre-kindergarten data background page. Some states do not offer state-funded pre-K programs or did not provide the data. Pre-K programs funded through community-based organizations unaffiliated with school districts are not included in the data. For the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, FEBP was able to collect state pre-K enrollment data for 26 states and funding data for 16 states. FEBP also shows data for Head Start programs run by 186 school districts around the country.

To view the pre-K data for your state or school district, visit febp.newamerica.net and use the PreK-12 search box. Researchers may also download national, state, and district raw data files on the FEBP website.

E-rate Modernization: Promoting Connectivity for 21st Century Learning Environments

September 23, 2013
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Last week, the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program and Open Technology Institute jointly submitted recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission outlining ways to modernize the Commission’s E-rate program. Our recommendations underscore a more modern understanding of how connectivity is leveraged by schools, libraries and communities throughout the country to promote 21st century learning.
 
As OTI’s Danielle Kehl and Sarah Morris discuss in the Dispatches from the Digital Frontier blog:
 
Schools and libraries face enormous challenges in ensuring that they are adequately connected to broadband services that enable 21st century learning. Although the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries obtain affordable telecommunications services, has had tremendous success in helping schools get connected, upgrading capacity has become increasingly difficult in recent years.
 
 
While capacity has been lagging in schools and libraries throughout the country, we increasingly need more of it to meet 21st century demands.
 
Schools and libraries are physical and symbolic anchors in their communities and, especially for areas with the highest need, are a central point for disseminating many needed resources. Public libraries, for example, offer some 3.75 million children's and educational programs to the public, according to the Institute for Museum and Library Services. We believe that schools and libraries should have the flexibility to maintain open Wi-Fi hotspots—not only during non-school and non-business hours, but even when school is in session and libraries are open (as long as it is not disruptive to students or library patrons).
 
 
Further, we provide several specific recommendations addressing the need for greater program parity. Some of the proposed funding changes put forward by other stakeholders—such as allocating E-rate dollars to schools on a per-pupil basis—could actually lead to greater inequity due to the highly variable cost of broadband service across the country. In thinking through alternative funding structures for the program, making sure the funding structure takes into account these variations is crucial.
 
We also caution against tying E-rate funding to specific educational outcomes. Broadband access is a necessary component for building 21st century learning environments, and we should understand how connectivity expands the tools and resources that schools and libraries can provide. It is highly problematic, however, to use student outcomes to determine the level of infrastructure investment a school or library should receive.
 
Additionally, we urge the Commission to look for ways to promote greater equity in E-rate’s treatment of support for our country’s youngest learners. Currently, the Commission recognizes state definitions of elementary and secondary schooling for funding decisions—unfortunately, in some cases this has led to unequal access to support. This is most clear in the case of pre-kindergarten; due to state definitions of elementary school, a pre-K classroom in Florida, for example, is eligible for E-rate funds while a pre-K classroom in Georgia is not.
 
To read more on our E-rate recommendations check out more coverage on OTI’s Dispatches from the Digital Frontier blog or view our full recommendations, available through the FCC’s electronic comment filing system.

Trading Transparency and Accountability Today for Better Testing Tomorrow

September 23, 2013
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2013-14: the school year all American students, in all public schools, were expected to be proficient in reading and math. It’s finally here. But don’t kid yourself – nobody expects American schools to meet that goal this spring. And thanks to the U.S. Department of Education’s ESEA waivers (and waivers of waivers), most won’t have to.

Instead, 41 states, Washington, D.C. and eight California school districts have different goals for student performance. Goals that cut achievement gaps, or delay the universal proficiency deadline, or lead to college and career readiness, or something else. In some states, failing to meet these goals – like failing to make AYP – triggers interventions as a priority or focus school. But in others, there isn’t any meaningful accountability attached to the new targets. Moreover, many states won’t name any new priority or focus schools this year.

While states don’t have a clean record when it comes to gaming accountability systems, that isn’t necessarily what’s happening here. Holding priority and focus lists constant from 2013 to 2014 is a pragmatic decision on states’ parts, because school performance goals aren’t the only thing changing. Across the country, in waiver and non-waiver states alike, students will also be field testing the new Common Core-aligned tests developed by SmarterBalanced and PARCC. And the Department is letting all states apply for additional flexibility so that some students, in some schools, would take the field test and wouldn’t take state standardized tests in at least one subject. In other words, states won’t have to “double test.”

This creates a problem for the continuity of school accountability systems. How can you judge school performance fairly and accurately when the data aren’t comparable between schools? That’s like determining the faster runner when one competitor has hurdles in their lane and the other doesn’t. Further, the field tests aren’t designed to be used for making school accountability determinations, or frankly, measuring student performance. As Tom Kane notes in his incredibly smart take on the issue, the field test is meant to test the validity of individual test items, not produce a valid score for an individual student. Making a trade-off between high-stakes consequences for school accountability and a valid field test seems like a relatively easy choice. Hold accountability determinations steady and continue all current school improvement efforts, but make sure the field test is conducted to the highest possible standard so that the tests are ready for primetime in 2015.

But it isn’t quite that simple. After all, accountability is about more than being labeled a “failing” school or a priority one. Accountability relies first and foremost on transparent, accurate reporting of student achievement data. And this is where the field test creates a much more harmful trade-off. The U.S. Department of Education will still require all students to be assessed in both reading and math, but states will not be required to publicly announce the results for students taking a field test. For the first time in the NCLB era, there will not be achievement data available for a significant number of students and public schools.

This is a big deal. These data (should) inform nearly every decision made in education – for families, for educators, and for policymakers. Should we send our child to the neighborhood school, or try to enroll her in a charter school nearby? How effective was our new 7th grade math curriculum? Did our new professional development program improve teaching quality? Are the interventions in our focus schools working? All of these questions will be much more difficult to answer without student assessment data. Further, as Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman and Andy Smarick write, this compromises efforts to measure student achievement and growth as required in Race to the Top, ESEA waivers, and a host of other Obama education reforms. Yes, states could continue to administer their current tests during the field test, as they have during previous assessment revisions. But many will not. While the Department was clearly trying to appease (or even subtly encourage) states to participate in the field test, would states have really balked at field testing if every student was also given the state assessment?

Giving up a year of meaningful school accountability is a high price for getting better, more rigorous assessments that reflect what truly matters: whether students are ready for college and career. But the Department didn’t just give up meaningful accountability. They’re also giving up public reporting of test results at the same time. Does that make the price too high?

While it’s too late to reverse the Department’s decision, states participating in the field test should take a prudent and limited approach to it. Let field tests be field tests. They weren’t designed to be used as measures of individual student achievement or school performance. And the more students and schools participating in field testing, the larger the effect on transparency and accountability will be. Unfortunately, a few states – most notably California – are already gearing up to scrap their state assessments entirely this year and only administer the field test.

2014 was never going to be the year we saw universal proficiency. Unfortunately, it could shape up to be the year we see universal missing data. Let’s hope other states don’t follow California’s lead.

What Might Ratings-Based Financial Aid Look Like?

September 18, 2013

Last month, President Obama stood before a crowd at the University at Buffalo to propose a new higher education affordability initiative. The plan calls for the U.S. Department of Education to rate colleges prior to the 2014-15 academic year. Then the Department would tie financial aid to those ratings by 2018 – a carrot-and-stick approach to college quality. But we wonder if the Department’s version will really have the teeth to penalize bad actors, and how feasible it really is.

So far, there’s not much information on the White House’s plan. For the most part, all we have to go off of is a White House fact sheet that summarizes the plan. According to the fact sheet,

“Over the next four years, the Department of Education will refine [the ratings], while colleges have an opportunity to improve their performance and ratings. The Administration will seek legislation using this new rating system to transform the way federal aid is awarded to colleges once the ratings are well developed. Students attending high-performing colleges could receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans." [emphasis added]

There are a few items of note here. First, the White House acknowledges that any such effort will require congressional approval. That means that, at least without a sea change in the political environment, this may never come to fruition. But second, and more interestingly, the White House’s examples look at only the “carrot” side of the carrot-and-stick – more available aid for high-performing schools, without any clear punitive measures for poor-performing ones.

Of course, it’s far too early to say what implementation would look like. But it closely resembles an idea that the New America Foundation first published in Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid, and which Senior Policy Analyst Stephen Burd dug into deeper in Undermining Pell. Our proposal included both the “carrot” and the “stick” – a Pell bonus for high-performing schools that enroll a larger share of low-income students, and a Pell matching requirement for wealthy schools that divert aid away from low-income students.

The New America Pell Grant bonus differs somewhat from the administration’s. The administration plans to use a ratings system that will likely include a broad range of quality metrics; we would give the bonuses to public and private four-year schools that enrolled large shares of low-income students or to community colleges with strong student outcomes. Our Pell Grant bonus would be double the size of the maximum grant (currently $5,550).

We used data from the Federal Education Budget Project to calculate the costs and estimated the Pell bonuses alone (without the baseline costs of the Pell Grant program at these eligible schools) at $23.6 billion over 10 years for public and private four-year schools and $34.9 billion for community colleges. Those figures include schools that qualified for the proposed bonus based on 2010 data, as well as schools on the cusp of qualifying, which we assume would be willing to work a little harder for a substantial payoff.

At four-year schools, we found that the federal government already disburses $1.2 billion in Pell grant funding to already-qualifying schools,  and another $344 million to the 86 near-qualifiers. That made the math pretty easy – for the additional costs of the program over the baseline, we simply rounded up to provide a conservative estimate, and then counted up 10 years with built-in inflationary increases.

At community colleges, the math was a little trickier. We wanted to use quality metrics, a more simplistic version of those the Department of Education might use under a new rating system. It’s tough to see how community colleges are performing, though, because of limitations in the data. For example, the Department collects graduation rates only for first-time, full-time students, but public two-year colleges serve largely nontraditional students who don’t meet those qualifications. And students who transfer from a two-year to a four-year college without an associate’s degree are only marked as transfers, with no way to track them through the rest of their educational experiences.

Recognizing the data were so prohibitively absent as to keep us from finding a great measure, we calculated a combined graduation-and-transfer rate as a proxy. If the schools had a combined rate of at least 50 percent, they were eligible for a bonus. Many of the schools didn’t have good enough data for us to even arrive at a figure, but of the remaining schools, 262 were eligible, with Pell disbursements totaling $1.5 billion. We found another 120 who were close enough to qualify if they stretched a little further, and added their $1.2 billion in existing Pell money. We rounded up to $3.0 billion to account for missing and not-yet-successful institutions, baked in an inflationary increase, and added up the five- and 10-year costs. Again, those costs are in addition to, not including, the amount of Pell money that already goes to those schools.

Obviously, the New America proposal is not identical – or even similarly oriented – to the White House’s proposal. Ours focused on the needs of low-income students, not the quality of institutions (though with better data on colleges, a stronger focus on quality could be a rising tide that lifts all students).

But our proposal is instructive in a few ways. For one thing, the plan is going to be expensive. New America’s proposal, taken in total, is deficit-neutral, and we made up for the costs of the plan with savings from other proposals. Congress won’t be so lucky, and given the ongoing fiscal debates lawmakers are having, a plan that has one-year costs of upwards of $5 billion won’t be the most popular one. For another, the careful wording in the White House fact sheet means there’s no clear protection against bad behavior, at least in this part of the plan – just an incentive for good behavior. That may arguably be less effective than having both.

Any plan to tie financial aid to ratings is a long way off, and even the ratings system is a few years down the line. By 2018, we’ll have a different president, many different members of Congress, and undoubtedly new approaches to reforming higher education. It remains to be seen whether the plan will be strong enough to survive all that, or whether the 2018 political climate will actually be more amenable to these types of proposals. In the meantime, the New America Foundation will be watching for signs of life with this proposal, as well as the president’s other ideas.

Storify: Senate Passes Child Care Bill with Bipartisan Support

September 18, 2013
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The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) hasn't been reauthorized in 17 years. Today, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee easily passed a bipartisan bill to renew the law, though it's still far from passage.

New Report Highlights Top Teachers’ Views on Education Policy

September 18, 2013

“Good teaching is hard to define, even for the profession’s most successful and reflective members.” So says a new report from The New Teacher Project (TNTP) that compiles highly effective teachers’ voices on issues ranging from their profession to hotbed education policy topics.

Early Educational Data Comments to U.S. Department of Ed

September 17, 2013

The Common Education Data Standards (CEDS) project is an initiative headed by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics to create comparable, consistent data definitions. It’s an entirely voluntary initiative, and its glossary includes preschool through workforce data elements. CEDS is in the process of refining its version 4 dictionary – open for comments through Friday, September 20.

New Report Shines Spotlight on Negative Effects of Pre-K Absenteeism

September 17, 2013
Allbriton PreK Classroom

This month is labeled the first-ever “Attendance Awareness Month” by the advocacy group Attendance Works, and there is plenty to which we ought to be paying attention. A 2008 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) estimated that one out of every 10 children nationally is chronically absent (meaning he misses at least 10 percent of scheduled days) in his first two years of school.

Aligning Investments in Parenting With Investments in Early Education

September 13, 2013

Alignment is critical in early education policy. That goes for curriculum, instruction, standards, and much more. To be highly effective, public early education programs need to be: 1) accessible to those who need them, 2) high-quality, and 3) aligned with the rest of the education system. The last part is certainly key; we know, for example, that pre-K programs work best when they are designed in tandem with the K–12 system into which they feed. However, it is a mistake to think of alignment as perfectly linear, running from pre-K straight through college admission. Students are also their parents’ children—and those parents’ influence can support or undermine educators’ work. Can targeted policies help align parenting with schooling? Should policymakers dare to try?

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