Early Childhood Education and leadership in schools

July 28, 2015

By Eleanor J. Shirley, MA, CSW, Nebraska Department of Education, Office of Early Childhood. In October of 2013, Eleanor was appointed Director of the Nebraska Early Childhood Quality Rating and Improvement System, Step Up to Quality, legislated by the Nebraska Unicameral in June 2013. Prior to October 1, 2013, she served as Director of the Nebraska Head Start-State Collaboration Office for nearly 16 years building and bridging systems in early care and education across federal, state, and local early childhood programs and services. She administered the federal Even Start Family Literacy program across the state and serves as Ombudsman for Nebraska Department of Education. In previous years, her scope of social work practice included various programs and initiatives that address the needs of children and their families, particularly children birth to age 8, and their families who may be challenged due to economic disadvantage.

Recently, many educational leaders from across the country attended the Early Childhood Roundtable, an annual convergence of CEELO, ECE SCASS, and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (aka, the “Specialists”) meetings. Dr. Steve Tozer, UIC, Center for Urban Education Leadership, expounded upon school leadership. He said, “School leadership is second only to classroom instruction in making a difference in wall-to-wall school learning and outcomes.” Steve hit home that socio-economic issues may be predominant, but should not become an excuse for poor learning outcomes. He cited Bryk, Sebring, et al (2010) and Bryk, Gomez, et al (2015) to help us expand our understanding regarding the essentials to organize schools for improvement, and the leadership that it takes to do so.

Another recent event that I attended was the BUILD, National QRIS Conference in Baltimore. It was a mix of early childhood leaders all engaged in implementing state quality rating and improvement systems. Lea Austin, Ed.D., UC Berkeley, closing plenary speaker, and co-author of Leadership in Early Childhood: A Curriculum for Emerging and Established Agents of Change, focused on re-conceptualizing leadership in the field of early care and education. She urged us to ask ourselves tough questions. Do we have the right leaders in place? Do they represent the diverse perspectives of the populations we serve? Do we have data related to current and potential leadership? What does this imply about our workforce? She said, “We need more voices to get us out of our echo chamber.”

14312472040_697117b434_oIn my professional journey, I studied leadership theory and various models of leadership development, and have facilitated professional leadership development activities. In recent years, it was my privilege to be included in leadership development in our state education agency. At the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE), we adapted McREL‘s model of “balanced leadership,” initially designed to develop principal leadership in public schools. Our SEA adaptation was intended to help the Department further support school administrators in continued leadership thinking and doing. It has been an honor to serve in various roles at NDE, and bring to bear upon my practice my own discipline in social work, adult and vocational education, and social policy and planning. I’m the first to admit my perspectives are a bit different from the typical educator or administrator. My knowledge and experience helps me reflect on interests of the adult humans doing early childhood work and remembering it’s ultimately about positive outcomes for children.

Thinking back on the national events, I would nudge us to hone in on the human agenda when we consider leadership development. My observations are that we, intentionally, or not, use words that are militaristic, competitive, and industrial in tone. We talk about getting people in the pipeline, levers of change, drilling into the data, strategizing and strategic planning, and calibrating, and recalibrating as if it is the only way to facilitate change in adults, children, and families!

My personal belief is that we cannot make people change. We can be with them, model, and influence their intrinsic desire to change. With that belief, I grapple with the ongoing search for, and vision regarding, the human element in leadership development, especially in early childhood. We are so inundated and daunted by standards and assessments that we may forget about the needs and persuasions of the grown-up humans who are helping little humans in their knowing and growing.

Why not consider leadership development as an opportunity to facilitate values clarification? Why not challenge individuals’ beliefs by inviting them into authentic dialogue? Why not focus on relationship-building by influencing and modeling rather than directing and dogmatic strategies? Why not consider cross-discipline leadership to expand our thinking and doing?

By understanding the science and art of human systems and interactions and valuing the diverse talents of others, we can develop leadership with the parallel respect that we have for young children. Maybe the essentials of leadership in schools to support early care and education are those of relationship-building, reflective practice, and demonstrated respect for the diverse needs of children and families in our communities. Together we can get our voices out of the echo chamber and back into strong and sustainable early childhood leadership, literally ‘leading’ to better programs and best possible outcomes for children.

 

 


Birth-3rd and Leadership: Steve Tozer’s message to the Birth-3rd Community

July 22, 2015

This is a post from July 1 on The Birth Through Third Grade Learning Hub, by David Jacobson. It is the first post in our next forum on Leadership in Early Education. Follow us for the next few weeks, and please weigh in with your comments and opinions, as we explore this issue from a range of perspectives.

Research shows that leadership is the second most important influence on student learning in schools. Further, as Steve Tozer points out, leadership is critical to improving the most important factor—teaching. It is hard to imagine improving teaching and learning throughout an entire school or early childhood center without good leadership.

Tozer has an important message for the Birth-3rd Community. He directs the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he runs an award-winning principal preparation program. Tozer has recently made compelling presentations at two early learning and care events, most recently at a meeting of state early childhood specialists in New Orleans and before that in Chicago at the Ounce of Prevention’s District Leadership Summit. Tozer suggests that Birth-3rdinitiatives and leadership development form an important “nexus” between two worlds that until recently have operated separately, but that could and should be joined together in mutually reinforcing ways to achieve greater impact.

“The System is Designed to Obtain the Results It is Obtaining”

Tozer uses this popular saying to make the point that if we want significantly better results in Birth—3rd education and care, we need to make big improvements to the systems that produce these results.

Tozer’s understanding of leadership is thus less about a “leader as hero” model than about improving the way organizations and systems work through the basics—“good shooting, dribbling and passing.” A central priority for leaders of centers and elementary schools should be developing their organizations as “good places for adult learning,” in effect building the capacity for continuous improvement so that centers, schools, and the systems that connect them and other partner organizations “get better at getting better.”

Theory of Impact

Five essential supports provide direction to the challenging work of getting better at getting better. These supports are described in what in Tozer’s view is the most important education book published in the past 25 years, Organizing for School Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (Bryk et. al., 2010). See this article for a summary. The five supports, listed below, emerged from a multi-year study of elementary schools as the distinguishing factors that accounted for the success of high-achieving schools.

  • Coherent instructional guidance system (e.g, clear curricular expectations, common assessments, and related coaching and professional development)
  • Professional capacity
  • Strong parent-community-school ties
  • Student-centered learning climate
  • Leadership drives change

In Tozer’s view, leadership teams build capacity in elementary schools and preschool centers through these five essential supports and P-3 (Birth-3rd) alignment.Since most principals are not trained in early childhood education, the foundational new PreK-3rd Leadership competencies issued by the National Association for Elementary School Principals serve as a pivotal step in bringing Birth—3rd and leadership efforts together. One of the school success stories profiled in the NAESP report is of Carson Elementary School, a school led for 16 years by Kathleen Mayer, now a coach in UIC’s leadership program. Mayer led her staff in designing the prekindergarten program and in integrating Reggio Emilia practices. According to Mayer, she could not have achieved the success she did in her school without incorporating prekindergarten.

The five supports and P-3 alignment lead to good teaching and care in classrooms, which in turn leads to student engagement and learning, as shown in the following theory of impact:

image

This theory of impact is embedded in the UIC principal preparation program that Tozer directs, the result of a 10-year partnership between the Chicago Public Schools and UIC. Over time Tozer and his colleagues have increased the priority placed on early childhood development and best practices in the program. Additional essential (and uncommon) features of the program include:

  • High selectivity
  • Clinical intensity
  • K-12 results orientation
  • Residency and post-residency coaching
  • Assessment rigor—> counseling out

UIC has tracked student gains in schools led by UIC-prepared principals and compared them to Chicago’s average. UIC-led principals have significantly outperformed Chicago averages on a number of measures, including one-year gains in student achievement, performance at mostly low-income/mostly African-American schools, and performance in high-performing schools as well.

Leading Organizational Change Efforts

Tozer’s views on the organizational nature of improving Birth-3rd improvement naturally leads him to the research on organizational change. Specifically, Tozer points to an important list compiled by change expert John Kotter of errors that leaders often make in change efforts, a list that in effect serves as a thought-provoking set of suggestions to keep in mind for Birth-3rd change efforts.

  1. Allowing too much complacency
  2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
  3. Understanding the power of vision
  4. Under-communicating the vision by a factor of 10, 100
  5. Permitting obstacles to block the new vision
  6. Failing to create short-term wins
  7. Declaring victory too soon
  8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in organizational culture

According to Tozer, “social justice resides primarily in institutions.” He appeals to the Birth-3rd community to become agents of institutional change in programs, centers, schools, and communities. Tozer shows that it is possible to dramatically improve how we select and develop good leaders while highlighting adult learning, the five essential supports, and “getting better at getting better” as key priorities for Birth-3rd efforts.

Tozer’s Early Childhood State Specialists presentations can be found under the presentations tab here at the CEELO website and his Ounce of Prevention presentation can be found here.


1. Tozer uses the term “P-3” but makes it clear that he is referring to the prenatal-through-3rd-grade continuum.


P-12 Alignment: Collaboration and Communication in Louisiana

June 24, 2015

As part of an ongoing series of interviews with leaders in early childhood education, CEELO spoke with Jenna Conway, Assistant Superintendent, Early Childhood Education, Louisiana Department of Education, about their process of implementing major changes in Louisiana’s early childhood program. We focused on how they are enhancing leadership at every level.

What is the scope of change occurring in early childhood in your state?

We are part of a multi-year effort to unify early childhood programs in Louisiana–Head Start, pre K, child care, public and nonpublic schools–from how do we keep kids safe, all the way to: How do we identify what instruction we want to see happening in every early childhood classroom in Louisiana? How do we work together to achieve that?

This effort is unprecedented in the level and speed of change in Louisiana. It comes with a host of leadership challenges. The first is the need for all the leaders to come to the table and work collaboratively to achieve shared goals. And we’ve gotten every community in Louisiana to step up and to do this; leaders who didn’t interact, who may even have perceived each other as competitors, are now working together to consider how to focus on kids; look at standards, professional development, enrollment, what the data tells us about kids being kindergarten-ready. The most dynamic leadership teams are taking it back to teachers and parents to make sure they’re part of the change movement.

The other important challenge is that this effort works differently in different contexts. Part of the magic in our model is in saying that local leaders are best suited to find solutions that meet their local needs, as they are the ones who best understand their teachers, children, and parents.

A bit of learning we’ve had from implementation—we pilot and learn from that and then develop policy. And we support local leadership: if local leaders are invested and believe that it’s a solution that works for their families, it’s more likely to be successfully implemented.

How are you addressing leadership at different levels in the state: classroom, school, district, SEA?

Considering we are building local birth-through-12th-grade systems that include a portfolio of providers, we like to think of our local networks as community entities rather than school districts. At the state level we see our leadership work in 3 key pieces of work.

First: promote a shared vision and support our community leaders to successfully execute that vision locally. In our pilot model: all kids are Kindergarten-ready; kids have access to high quality classroom experiences; parents can make the best choice for their kids; teachers are supported to provide effective meaningful interaction in the classroom. The state provides funding and technical assistance to achieve that, then removes the barriers–regulatory and bureaucratic–to allow communities to be successful.

Second: Organize all of the things that impact programs, from rules and regulations, and funding, to create a more level playing field. You can’t just say here’s a shared vision, but child care is funded at a lower level than schools; teachers and their preparation differ. We’re thinking about how to use policy, funding, and incentives to create a more level playing field in which the community networks are operating.

Third: Be very responsive to what is working and what is not in the field and communicate that frequently as you go. A law was passed to call for a unified system—that has been a very dynamic and interactive process since the beginning, responsive to families and local leaders.

The hardest part about this work and about change is how it works and how you implement changes over time. Being responsive, adjusting, and learning as we go has been important. We quickly fix what’s not working—going from ideas and a requirement to sustained, locally owned change.

What are the challenges associated with implementing professional development changes?

When it comes to leadership there are both tangible and intangible aspects that are critical to success. Since the outset we have grappled with the question: How do we at the state level support local leadership in a specific sustainable way? We’ve focused on collaborative leadership locally. We created a pilot rubric in which we laid out what success looks like over time in leadership and tried to make sure everything we produced was in line with that rubric.

We provide professional development sessions, such as a data reflection workshop at the end of the year, in which we model how to use data and think about what to achieve next year. We’ve put out an early childhood guidebook to get an understanding of what success looks like and give real-life examples of how this plays out.

We’d love to be able to provide more intensive PD, but there are very real resource restraints, and we may not be best positioned to teach leadership, especially the more intangible aspects.

Instead, what has worked well for us is this idea of cohort. We’ve provided space and time for ‘partner panels’ where we brought together leaders from each of the community networks. They share what’s working and what’s not, and they have really grown, both in their relationships with each other and in understanding in their work.

What leaders really need is tools to support their work, time and space to interact with their colleagues, and someone to get on the phone to work through issues with. This is not a typical workshop format, but is supporting community-level leaders.

As we move forward we need to take it to the next level, to help every director, Head Start, child care, elementary school principal, become the instructional leader, or to make sure instructional leadership is happening within their program. A critical lever for long-term success will be program-level leadership, not only in resources and enrollment, but in focusing on how they ensure every child has access to a high quality early childhood classroom.

Any advice to other states who may be considering taking on the same kinds of changes?

  1. Empower and honor local leadership from the beginning; fund them to pilot the change; make it their choice rather than a mandate; and learn from them. Be committed to going back to them time and time again—be humble about the state role and acknowledge their insights and efforts where the work is being done.
  1. Consider all the pieces of the system when you make policy: how you think about funding impacts teachers you can hire; which impacts what happens in the classroom; which impacts quality; and impacts what programs parents choose. If you do things in isolation it creates major gaps and unintended negative consequences for providers, families, and kids.
  1. Be intentional and proactive in engaging everybody who is touched by the work. We are making sure they feel heard, that we respond to every email, that we talk to people in programs.

We don’t have all the answers, we are working on a shoestring budget; we get things wrong, as everybody does. But we are committed to always being responsive to every parent, teacher, director, and superintendent.

Anything else you would like to add?

It really takes leadership at all levels; we’re transforming the Department of Education into a Birth-12th grade organization and that takes leadership from the top—acknowledging that the foundation for school, college, and career success starts at birth. At the local level, the child care owner, the Head Start executive director, and school Superintendent are critical—where they have been clear in their commitment to this work it has allowed other at other levels to support it as well, which is necessary to achieve and sustain this much change. And the leaders must keep kids’ interests at heart. Increasing opportunities for all young children should always be the priority.

 


The State of Preschool 2015: Please join the conversation

June 17, 2015

This year at the CEELO Roundtable in New Orleans, Steve Barnett talked about the findings reported in The State of Preschool 2014. He noted that we might be considered to be “on the sunny side of the street,” at the moment: quality is up in some states, Mississippi has a program, more children are enrolled. However: many states don’t have enough money to provide preschool at high standards, and the highest percentage of children are enrolled in states with lowest quality.

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 4.28.06 PMThere is still tremendous variation across the states in pre-K—and we don’t see that variation in any other education area. Preschool has shown, however, what states can do in a short period of time. The biggest gain in the decade occurred in Vermont, which was not predicted—and added 82% of children to programs, going from 9% to 91%. Florida went to UPK, from no program. States that are very different can make really tremendous progress over a period of time.

As a national average we’re moving pretty slowly—we need a greater sense of urgency about early education. It would take 75 years to serve 50% of all 4-year-olds. To get to 70%, a figure some use to represent universal access, would take 150 years.

Quality standards are still a big issue, particularly teacher qualifications and pay. We use the examples of Perry and Abecedarian, but we invest on a lower-league scale, which won’t have the same results. Funding differences by state are really extreme; they would not be tolerated in K-12.

Expansion and development grants give us opportunities to build success, measure success. If we put evaluations into place we can have a body of evidence available to build support more quickly for the kind of success we’d like to see.

The State of Preschool is one useful tool to measure progress and improvement. As NIEER gears up to develop the next version and begin gathering data, we are asking for your input. Keep in mind the fact that we gather data from state administrators, who gather it from different sources within states themselves.

  • What kind of changes would you like to see in the Yearbook?
  • Any benchmarks to add? Drop?
  • What additional information would be useful to you?
  • Any variations on what we have?
  • Is there anything about the design and delivery of the Yearbook you would like to change?
  • If we could release the Yearbook any time of year, what would be optimal in terms of informing your state policy or budget processes?
  • We would like to add some special topics from year to year, and report out on findings: any suggestions for what topics would be most helpful to you?

Here are some topics that came up in the Roundtable Presentation discussion. Feel free to build on those or add your own and weigh in using Comments below. (Please note that comments are manually approved, so there may be a delay before your comments show on the site.)

  • More defined enrollment data; reducing duplication; including race, ethnicity, free lunch status, gender, home language
  • Some indicators of actual quality and outcomes
  • More clearly defined hours per day of service
  • Policies related to dual language learners
  • Information about teacher salaries and benefits; comparable to K-12?
  • Teacher retention
  • Evaluation results
    • Do you have an evaluation?
    • Does it show substantial impact?
    • What kind of evaluation? Required legislatively?
  • Child outcome measures and their use
  • QRIS information
  • Context and outcomes, linking to quality benchmarks.
  • Process quality measures (CLASS)
  • OSEP 619; report now, would like to approach that for all students.
  • Engagement of family in pre-K world and K
  • Clarifying funding streams: local schools, counties, Title 1, Head Start.
  • Leadership: Principals, coaching in classrooms
  • Public school pre-K facility licensing/approval
  • Kindergarten assessment
  • Teacher evaluation
  • Early learning standards alignment with K-2

Questions raised. Do you have any to add?

Can we pick one benchmark we should all embrace as states to emphasize or work on to move forward to move things faster?

Can you set a rubric on evaluation? Is the state looking at its results? Is it being used to make changes? How often to visit classrooms? What process measures to use? Which classrooms to visit?

Funding adequacy—is there enough money here to provide a program of sufficient quality and intensity to achieve the goals we want for kids?

Is there a rubric for a continuous improvement process in place: how to structure for reliable scoring for states?

Follow up with early learning challenge grants: measure of how much progress is being made in these grants.

A rubric to assess state agency capacity; organizational model for P-3rd grade?

–Kirsty Clarke Brown


Next generation leadership in early education

June 5, 2015

During a session on Building the Next Generation of Inclusion Leaders at the 2015 National Inclusion Institute, a young woman, teaching in an early education inclusion program, shared a dilemma that has stayed with me for days. Kira (not her real name) bravely disclosed her struggle to be taken seriously as a new person entering the field by more experienced colleagues content with the status quo. Her commitment and passion were as evident as her frustration and disillusionment. “What does it take for me to be welcomed into the profession and seen as someone who has something positive to contribute?” she wondered. “I almost feel invisible.” It is a travesty that anyone should be made to feel this way, and I fear she is not alone in her experience.

Preschool classroom

© NIEER

Reluctance to embrace new people with new ideas and practices can be a powerful reason so many young or new-to-field teachers are exiting the field, with estimates that one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and almost half are gone within five years. It’s costing us dearly in both dollars and unrealized potential. How can we build the leaders needed for our field when we cannot even assure a safe foothold for our newest practitioners to gain valuable experience? How do we achieve our vision and who will guide us? Where is the leadership?

Kira’s dilemma is an example of what Ron Heifetz terms an “adaptive challenge” (others call it a “wicked problem”), where solutions not currently available to vexing problems will require innovation, new thinking, and adjustments on all levels, particularly by those experiencing the problem. Kira’s predicament begs the question about cultivating early education leadership for the 21st century, a topic many early education leaders in state departments of education will examine at CEELO’s upcoming Leading for Excellence 2015 National Roundtable in New Orleans.

When Kira bared her soul that day, it was heartening to see how quickly she developed a circle of support and acceptance from a roomful of participants who applauded her courage and lent encouragement to stay the course to follow her dreams. I hope Kira returned to her center realizing that she is part of the solution she seeks. It may not have been comfortable, but it was worth the risk. And this is precisely what the next generation of inclusion leaders looks like.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow


Checking boxes leads to opening doors

May 27, 2015

I recall sitting at my desk in 2002 as the Early Childhood Programs Coordinator at the Vermont Department of Education, when I first received a survey from a relatively new organization called the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The survey included multiple questions asking about Vermont’s Early Education Initiative (EEI), a state-funded pre-K program for at-risk children. As much as survey requests would make me groan, I dutifully completed and returned the survey without a second thought. “Perhaps this one might actually amount to something,” was always in the back of my mind.

Percent of 4-year-olds served in state preKLittle did I realize that I would be sitting on the other end of this survey a decade later. Now a member of the research team responsible for the NIEER State of Preschool 2014 Yearbook, I have a new appreciation for the combined contributions of my colleagues at NIEER and especially the state education agency partners who provide the data. I’ll spare you the details involved in collecting, verifying, analyzing, and reporting the data; suffice it to say it’s a laborious process for all parties concerned. But the result is worth the effort–and the sighs of relief echo across the NIEER office once the annual report is released.

That’s not what I want to tell you, though.

Hindsight is a wonderful gift. When I look back to see how early education has evolved both in my former home state and across the nation since filling out the first survey, I am amazed. State-funded pre-K has expanded its reach from 580,000 4-year-olds in NIEER’s first report, to more than 1.3 million in 2013-2014. Not a single state met all 10 of NIEER’s quality standard benchmarks in 2002, now five states and one of Louisiana’s programs clear the bar, and others are close behind. Little Vermont grew beyond most people’s expectations, from a small program serving 1,001 at-risk children in 2002, to a program serving more than 7,200 children, regardless of their situation. Vermont now ranks first among the states for enrollment (behind only DC) serving more than 90 percent at age 4 and 25 percent of 3s. Vermont has placed quality improvement in its sights as well, with support from the federal Preschool Development Grant program. The Green Mountain State is not alone in showing other states what is possible, and momentum continues from New York City to Mississippi, North Dakota, and Hawaii. There will be even more information available in future NIEER Yearbooks.

What does momentum on the national front have to do with the NIEER Yearbook and other research reports? I am convinced pre-K would be a footnote rather than a headline without this research tracking our progress. Filling out those checkboxes has paid enormous dividends. Once relegated to discussions in state agency meeting rooms, pre-K is now on the lips of parents, politicians, scientists, economists, philanthropists, and leaders in military, law enforcement, and business, throughout the nation. The Yearbook has proven to be an indispensable resource for policymakers seeking to capture best practices and policies around the country. The biggest beneficiaries of the Yearbook and all the hard work involved, however, are the many children who can look forward to going to pre-K as a result of these national conversations. They just don’t know how to express it quite yet.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow


When Research and Emotions Collide

May 20, 2015

Certain practices evoke strong reactions among early educators. Kindergarten “red-shirting (Katz, 2000),” academic “hothousing” (Hills, 1987), and developmentally inappropriate practice raise ire, yet pale in comparison to the issue of retaining children early in their school careers. As an increasing number of states adopt policies supporting, even requiring retention, emotions run high among early educators, policymakers, and parents on the topic.

Retention has been common practice for many decades but is retention the right way to go? Everyone agrees that a student will be well served by possessing necessary skills to learn and apply new information, yet we recognize that not all children grasp new information and skills at the same level or at the same time. Thus, the debate over the merits and faults of retention persists.

So what does research have to say about retention? Among many in my generation, retention of young children was seen as bad practice and policy, shaped years ago by research conducted by Shepard and Smith (1987) and reinforced by Jimerson (2001) and others. But as a scientist I know research contributes to understanding, and I strive to let emerging research inform my opinion rather than the reverse. So I hit the journals to review the literature, learning the issue is more nuanced than one might imagine.

You can simply ask, “Does retention work?” but the answer may be hidden behind several doors, not all of which lead to the same conclusion. The answer you get depends on the questions you ask, such as:

  • Does the design of the research influence results?
  • What criteria are used by states and schools to base retention decisions on, and do different criteria yield different research findings?
  • What does research says about the short- and long-term academic and social/emotional/behavioral effects of retention?
  • Does the age or grade when retention occurs make a difference in students outcomes?
  • Is retention an effective educational strategy for young children below third grade?
  • Does retention affect certain groups of students differently?
  • Are there effective alternatives to retention?

These questions were among those examined by the Southeast Regional Comprehensive Center Early Childhood Community of Practice and CEELO, when early education leaders from several state departments of education were invited to explore retention as an effective education strategy for young children.

I’ll spare you the details of research shared in this “succinct” blog, but here are a couple of my research-informed takeaways about a practice which affects nearly 450,000 elementary school children annually, a quarter of whom are kindergartners and 60% boys. Both teacher- and test-based methods for determining retention are associated with short-term academic gains (typically restricted to literacy) that fade, even disappear, over several years. Research shows mixed results on the impact of retention on short-term social/emotional/behavioral development while there is evidence of adverse long-term effects, including school drop-out. Retained children are 20–30% more likely to drop out of school. The fairness of retention policy has been called into question, fueled by a recent report from the Office for Civil Rights, confirming that retention disproportionately affects children of color, those who are low-income, and those with diagnosed learning difficulties, with wide variation in rates across states. Additional research shared with the Community of Practice about retention’s complexities can be found here.

I came away further convinced that the decision to retain a young child, while well-intentioned, is an important, potentially life-changing event; one that should include consideration of multiple factors as to its advisability for a particular child. Inflexible policies based on a single point-in-time assessment, on a single topic or skill (e.g., literacy), may be politically popular, expedient, and, as some would argue, fair, but the research doesn’t convincingly support the practice to ensure intended short- and long-term outcomes for all students.

Further, costs associated with retention are typically absent from policy discussions. We know significant numbers of children are retained in the early years, including kindergarten (Table 1), and average K-12 student costs hover around $12,000 per year. The cost of retention and lack of comparison to less costly, effective alternatives such as remediation or peer tutoring should cause staunch proponents to rethink their position. Combined with long-term costs associated with drop-out, crime, and unemployment, retention makes little cents or sense when signs point to the supplemental interventions–not to sitting through another year in the same grade repeating every subject–as having great impact.

While some encouraging short-term results have been associated with retention, policymakers shouldn’t wave the checkered flag just yet. We would be wise to examine the full body of research evidence, considering both short- and long-term consequences and the critical importance of providing children, parents, and teachers with timely educational and emotional support throughout a student’s career. Layer in the evidence questioning retention as a cost-effective use of resources, and the caution flag should be brought out. When it comes to declaring victory through retention, too much contrary evidence exists and too many important questions remain to allow our emotions to set policy in stone.

 
All
American Indian/  Alaska 
Native
Asian
Native HI/ Other Pacific Islander
Black/ African American
Hispanic/ Latino of any race
Two or more races
White
US 4% 7% 2% 8% 5% 4% 5% 4%
AL 6% 8% 5% 14% 5% 9% 9% 5%
AK 4% 6% 4% 8% 2% 4% 3% 3%
AZ 3% 5% 2% 7% 4% 3% 3% 3%
AR 12% 11% 13% 14% 26% 13% 11% 8%
CA 3% 9% 2% 5% 5% 3% 4% 4%
CO 2% 5% 2% 4% 2% 2% 3% 2%
CT 5% 12% 3% 16% 8% 8% 8% 3%
DE 3% 5% 2% 0% 4% 4% 3% 2%
DC 3% 33% 2% 0% 4% 4% 3% 1%
FL 5% 9% 3% 4% 7% 5% 7% 4%
GA 6% 4% 3% 11% 5% 7% 8% 5%
HI 12% 21% 7% 13% 11% 14% 12% 13%
ID 2% 3% 3% 3% 1% 3% 1% 1%
IL 2% 2% 1% 2% 2% 1% 3% 2%
IN 5% 5% 3% 0% 6% 6% 6% 4%
IA 2% 11% 2% 3% 3% 4% 3% 2%
KS 2% 4% 2% 0% 2% 3% 2% 2%
KY 4% 8% 3% 5% 2% 5% 5% 4%
LA 4% 3% 2% 0% 5% 4% 4% 4%
ME 4% 5% 4% 14% 6% 5% 5% 4%
MD 2% 0% 2% 27% 3% 4% 2% 2%
MA 3% 5% 3% 8% 5% 5% 7% 2%
MI 7% 12% 5% 7% 6% 9% 11% 6%
MN 2% 7% 1% 11% 4% 3% 2% 2%
MS 8% 10% 7% 5% 8% 14% 1% 8%
MO 3% 5% 2% 6% 4% 4% 4% 3%
MT 4% 6% 0.0% 6% 4% 6% 4% 4%
NE 4% 9% 2% 19% 3% 4% 4% 3%
NC 5% 9% 3% 5% 6% 5% 6% 4%
ND 5% 8% 14% 27% 13% 10% 3% 4%
NV 2% 3% 1% 2% 4% 2% 1% 2%
NH 3% 0% 1% 0% 5% 5% 0% 3%
NJ 3% 6% 1% 3% 5% 4% 5% 2%
NM 4% 6% 2% 0% 5% 4% 3% 4%
NY 3% 4% 2% 4% 4% 3% 3% 2%
OH 4% 6% 5% 6% 7% 7% 7% 3%
OK 7% 9% 5% 8% 8% 8% 6% 7%
OR 2% 7% 1% 2% 2% 2% 2% 2%
PA 2% 0.0% 1% 0% 3% 2% 2% 2%
RI 2% 16% 1% 0% 4% 3% 5% 1%
SC 5% 6% 2% 3% 5% 5% 7% 4%
SD 4% 12% 4% 0% 6% 7% 5% 3%
TN 5% 3% 2% 15% 4% 5% 7% 5%
TX 4% 6% 3% 8% 3% 4% 7% 5%
UT 1% 1% 0.0% 1% 1% 1% 1% 1%
VT 3% 0% 2% 0% 6% 0% 1% 3%
VA 4% 4% 2% 4% 5% 5% 4% 3%
WA 2% 6% 1% 4% 2% 3% 2% 2%
WV 6% 0.0% 3% 0% 7% 7% 7% 6%
WI 2% 2% 2% 6% 3% 2% 2% 2%
WY 5% 10% 4% 33% 17% 7% 3% 4%

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection, 2011–12.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow


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