big data

Three out of four Illinois kids aren’t ready for kindergarten. Why that’s a problem.

PHOTO: Krisanapong Detraphiphat / Getty Images

Three out of four Illinois children starting kindergarten aren’t prepared. That’s according to data released Monday by the Illinois State Board of Education in conjunction with a power list of early childhood advocates who’ve spent nearly a decade lobbying for a baseline assessment.

Only 16 percent of low-income students, measured by those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, demonstrated readiness in the three core benchmarks: social-emotional learning, literacy, and math. But perhaps more surprising, wealthier districts reported low readiness scores, too, challenging common assumptions that tend to link richer communities with higher test scores.

Statewide, by race, 32 percent of Asian children and 29 percent of white children demonstrated readiness. The percentages of black and Latino children demonstrating readiness were lower, at 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Related: Diana Rauner sizes up the challenges ahead for early childhood education in Illinois 

The Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, aka KIDS, must be completed in the first 40 days of school, so it is not intended to gauge performance of districts or individual schools or teachers, said Jaclyn Matthews, a spokeswoman for the state board.

Rather, said Geoff Nagle, CEO of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago child development brain trust, the survey holds a mirror up to how communities, and our society, fail to prepare children for kindergarten.

“We don’t do that. There’s no system to do that,” Nagle said. “Then the kids enter the K-12 system, they come in at all different capacities. For years, the schools haven’t been able to close the disparities, and we have blamed them.”

“It’s sobering data,” agreed Theresa Hawley, vice president of policy at Illinois Action for Children, an advocacy organization that trains child care providers across the state. “It points to what we’ve known all along: We need to be doing a better job of preparing kids for success across the board.”

More than 100,000 Illinois kindergarteners, or 81 percent of those enrolled in public programs, were observed for the survey, which was developed by San Francisco-based WestEd. There was no pen-and-paper or electronic test; rather, children were asked to perform such tasks as sharing art materials, sorting objects like buttons by shape and size, recognizing multiple letters, and acting out stories. Dual language learners were encouraged to participate in their home language or in English.


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State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith praised districts for undertaking the project. “Illinois’ kindergarten teachers and school and district leaders have shown extraordinary leadership in making the first year of KIDS data collection a success,” said Smith. “The data give families, teachers, and communities a powerful tool to advocate for the resources and supports all children need.”

Statewide, 42 percent of kindergarteners failed to display readiness in any category. And only 24 percent — one in four — demonstrated readiness across all three. Students were more prepared in social-emotional learning — that is, sharing, asking for help from adults, and raising hands to speak in class; nearly half of state kindergarteners met the social-emotional learning benchmarks. But when it came to math, readiness percentages dramatically fell: Only one in three students met the survey’s benchmarks, showing critical need for better preparation in preschool and childcare settings when it comes to numbers, shapes, and patterns.

“Parents are comfortable with the concept of literacy and reading to their kids before they go to sleep,” said ISBE’s Matthews. “But they’re not so comfortable with the activities that you need to build early math skills.”

At this stage in a young child’s life, said Nagle of the Erikson Institute, you don’t expect kids to grow and develop at equal competencies. So it’s not worrisome if a child is strong in one area and weaker in another. But it is troubling that 42 percent of Illinois kindergarteners didn’t demonstrate readiness in any area.

Still, he wasn’t surprised by the data. “We have a K-12 system that is taking steps to (incorporate) pre-K, but we need to create something more: something that starts with paid parental leave and high-quality infant-toddler systems. We have a smattering of services and great ideas, but none of them is currently at a scale that is going to move the needle.”

Related: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is on a high-speed timeline for his universal pre-K rollout

In Chicago, results tracked with state averages, with 22 percent, or one in five students, prepared for kindergarten. That percentage dropped to 17 percent when just low-income students were considered. However, only 68 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ kindergarteners’ evaluations were logged, reportedly due to a technical error. As with the state, a higher percentage of students demonstrated readiness in social-emotional learning (46 percent) and literacy (40 percent) compared with math (28 percent).  

Nine districts reported that 80 percent or more of their students were prepared: Albers, Allen-Otter Creek, Bannockburn, Cass, Community Consolidated District 2014 in Pickneyville, Gardner, Hartsburg Emden, Saunemin, and Vienna.

Conversely, dozens of districts reported that 10 percent or fewer of their students were ready, including the state’s second-largest district, Elgin’s U-46, and Cook County School District 130, which serves south suburban communities of Alsip, Blue Island, and Robbins. Both Elgin and the area around Blue Island are considered “child care deserts,” according to the Center for American Progress. A child care desert is a census tract where three children or more exceed each available licensed slot.   

Ginger Ostro, the executive director of Advance Illinois and a former budget director of Chicago schools, said the gaps in availability between seats and kids in need “absolutely cries out for additional investment.” Her group highlighted those gaps in a report in 2016.

“When you think about how important that connection is to what’s happening in the K-12 system, you want those systems aligned and reinforcing each other,” Ostro said. As kids grow up year by year, families don’t say, ‘now we’re in early childhood, now we’re in K12.’ They live their lives continuously, but we have disconnects in education systems that currently fail to reflect that continuity. The new KIDS data helps inform what we need to be doing to connect those important pieces and link the systems together.”

Hawley, of Illinois Action for Children, said Illinois communities should view the data as a rallying point to unite parents, educators, librarians, police, mental health providers and more over a common cause of better and earlier support for families. “It is not just a school issue.” Policy changes could include pushing more districts to adopt full-day preschool programs — following on the heels of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout — or adopting more widespread home visiting programs for newborns.

Whether states should measure kindergarten readiness, and exactly how to do it, is the subject of debate: According to the New America think tank, 40 states have adopted some kindergarten readiness assessment or are in process. In the vanguard are states such as Washington, which has touted a goal of 90 percent kindergarten preparedness by 2020.

 

Face-to-face

In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

detroiters
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.