beyond the marshmallow test

New research on homegrown curriculum “Tools of the Mind” helps pave way for expansion

Preschool students at McGlone Elementary in Denver work on a project together.

There are certain things you won’t see in Anna Hileman’s kindergarten classroom at Denver’s McGlone Elementary School. One of them is any kind of sticker or traffic light chart indicating who’s behaving and who’s not. Although ubiquitous in many elementary classrooms, such devices are absent here, and it’s not because her 26 students are perfect.

It’s because Hileman and her fellow preschool and kindergarten teachers use a curriculum called “Tools of the Mind,” which focuses on developing skills like self-control and attentiveness along with reading and math. The idea is that working early and intentionally on traits that fall under the umbrella of “self-regulation” makes learning more efficient and builds valuable lifelong skills.

The curriculum, which was developed in the early 1990s by two researchers at what is now Metropolitan State University of Denver, has received laudatory mentions in books such as “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough and “The Marshmallow Test” by Walter Mischel.

Still, its footprint has remained modest— this year touching around 50,000 young students in 18 states. Even in Colorado, where it was first piloted in Denver’s University Park Elementary 16 years ago, the program is used in only four districts.

Tools of the Mind basics

  • Created by: Dr. Deborah Leong and Dr. Elena Bodrova
  • Based on: Work of Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky
  • Grades: Preschool and kindergarten
  • Focus: Development of self-regulation at the same time as academic skills
  • Central activities: Mature make-believe play and dramatization
  • Used nationally: In 18 states with 40,000-50,000 students
  • Use in Colorado: Denver, Jeffco, Poudre and Monte Vista school districts

“For the first 10 years … I knew the name of every single teacher in our program,” said Deborah Leong, co-creator of the curriculum and now executive director of the Tools of the Mind non-profit.

In fact, the program, which relies on word-of-mouth publicity, gets many more requests than it has been able to accommodate. But recent changes in the program’s training model, including the launch of an iPad app last month, could boost participation dramatically. In fact, Leong hopes the curriculum will reach one million children nationwide by 2017.

New research on the program may bolster those expansion plans. A study published today in the online journal PLOS ONE, found that Tools had positive effects on kindergarteners’ academic and self-regulation skills. And with bigger impacts found in high-poverty schools, the authors believe the approach holds promise for closing the achievement gap.

New study results
  • Journal: PLOS ONE
  • Authors: Clancy Blair and C. Cybel Raver, New York University
  • Tools of the Mind had positive effects on kindergarteners’ working memory, reasoning ability and math skills, as well as stress hormones that affect attention and emotional regulation.
  • By the end of kindergarten, there were also improvements in reading and vocabulary, which increased into first grade.
  • In addition, positive effects on reasoning, vocabulary and stress physiology were more pronounced in high-poverty schools.

The new results are especially welcome to Leong and her team because in recent years several studies on Tools showed lackluster results. Those studies seemed to contradict earlier research that offered up glowing results and launched the curriculum into the spotlight.

Leong noted that some earlier studies  compared Tools to the instructional equivalent of “business as usual” –mediocre curricula or none at all. The later studies, which were done as the program was scaling up, compared Tools to other high-quality early childhood curricula, she said.

Carrie Germeroth, assistant director for research at the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, said the complex nature of the curriculum and the need for intense training can make implementation tricky.

“If you’re in big school districts where there’s other initiatives going on….If the principal or building leader is not behind it, if the administrative support isn’t there, it’s not going to go well,” said Germeroth, who recently served as project director for a study examining a modified Tools curriculum.

Disappointing though some recent Tools studies have been, they led to a series of tweaks to the curriculum and the accompanying training regimen.

“What we learned from all those studies is you have to grow with fidelity,” said Leong. “We used everything we learned ….to fix what we were doing…. and it’s working much better now.”

Play with a purpose

The emphasis in a Tools classrooms is on play, dramatization and peer-to-peer interaction. It’s easy to see at McGlone, which is one of six Denver schools that uses Tools and one of two Tools lab schools in the metro area.

Preschoolers at McGlone play together in the kitchen center.
Preschoolers at McGlone play together in the kitchen center.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Hileman and one of her students acted out the concept of bartering during a lesson on the Magic Tree House book “Mummies in the Morning.” She pretended to be a penniless scribe who offered the student books in exchange for a snake.

Next door, as fellow kindergarten teacher Jamie Livingston got ready to split the class into two groups, she asked half the class to turn into black cats—in keeping with the “Mummies in the Morning” theme—and head toward the aide who would be working with them. Meowing, they crept playfully on their hands and knees toward the appointed spot.

On the back of this "play plan," the teacher wrote out the student's intention: "I'm going to go to the art center."
On the back of this “play plan,” the teacher wrote out the student’s intention: “I’m going to go to the art center.”

Down the hall in a preschool classrooms, students were completing “play plans,” in which they drew pictures of the center they would go to. Using the curriculum’s scaffolded writing approach, they attempted to write in a description of their planned activity.

Once the plans were complete, the children scattered across the room, planning a party in the kitchen, working on their cars in the garage, and building a road in the block area. While there would be free play later, students were expected to adhere to their plans and stay at the center with the group of peers they had started with.

For Tools developers and the educators who implement it, the curriculum’s play component is unique. At Irish Elementary School, the only school in the Poudre district to use Tools, Principal Lindsey Walton said it’s also popular with parents. Previous kindergarten curriculums seemed to ask the children to behave more like first- or second-graders.

Now, she said, what parents see “is kids playing, but in a really productive way, and it makes them feel good…We get a lot of parents who choice into our school just for kindergarten.”

Reading, writing, self-control

Self-regulation helps kids fight distraction, persist through frustration, or resist the impulse to smack an annoying classmate. But it also has big implications for long-term academic and life success.

“What we’ve found through the neuroscientist evaluations of self-regulation is it’s kind of the new IQ,” said Juanita Regehr, director of staff development/lab schools for Tools.

That’s why Tools classrooms embed skill-building around self-regulation into every lesson and activity. It’s common to hear stories about how Tools teachers no longer hustle around the classroom “putting out fires” or how students gradually learn to solve peer conflicts without tattling to the teacher.

Kristin Steed, principal of Marsh Elementary in the tiny Monte Vista district, said teachers have really noticed a difference since Tools was adopted in 2012.

“It’s amazing how one child will turn and tell another child, ‘Hey that hurts their feelings. You shouldn’t talk to them like that.”

Tools uses visual and audio cues called "mediators" to help children know what they should be doing.
Tools uses visual and audio cues called “mediators” to help children know what they should be doing.

There’s also a sense that Tools helps establish clear boundaries and expectations for students. At Irish Elementary School, the only school in the Poudre district that uses Tools, Principal Lindsey Walton said kindergartners show a sense of responsibility and purpose.

“They know exactly where to go and what to do and what their job is…and the teacher is more a facilitator.”

Irish started using Tools in its kindergarten classrooms seven years ago. There were significant behavior problems among kindergarteners at the time and the former curriculum, “Open Court” didn’t address that issue, said Walton.

Since its adoption she’s seen a decrease in office referrals among kindergartener, though she can’t attribute it to Tools with scientific certainty. This year, the school started using Tools in its preschool classes to better align the preschool-kindergarten span.

While Tools of the Mind staff say the curriculum is effective for students of any income level, many high-poverty schools use it. At McGlone, nearly 93 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. At Irish that number is 82 percent and at Marsh, it’s about 70 percent.

“We often get asked in schools like this…that are harder schools,” said Regehr, during a recent walk-through at McGlone. “We don’t target, but they are often seeking more help and more support, so they target us.”

Complications

While many teachers sing the praises of Tools, there seem to be a few weak points. Anecdotally, math appears to be one of them, with complaints that it’s not as rigorous as it could be and doesn’t lend itself to differentiated instruction for advanced students.

All the kindergarten classrooms at McGlone have a treehouse prop to go along with the "Magic Treehouse" books that are used throughout the year. Regehr said besides the books' sense of adventure, Tools developers "love the vocabulary in them. It stretches the kdis."
All the kindergarten classrooms at McGlone have a treehouse prop to go along with the “Magic Treehouse” books that are used throughout the year. Regehr said besides the books’ sense of adventure, Tools developers “love the vocabulary in them. It stretches the kids.”

Given that Tools is a research-based curriculum, ensuring fidelity–careful adherence to specified methods–is another challenge. That’s part of the reason it comes with manuals two inches thick and teachers receive extensive training during the first two years of implementation. Still, for veteran teachers, embracing Tools whole hog can be tough.

“Every teacher comes with their own idea, of course, and experiences with what they think works,” said Regehr, adding that she often hears the questions, “Why isn’t this working?”

“We kind of come in and sit down with them and use the text as the expert.”

Teachers like Hileman, who is in her third year of teaching and her second year with Tools, say they like the explicit sequencing and structure, but it can feel overly prescriptive to some educators. Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools, said Tools doesn’t allow as much content flexibility as “Creative Curriculum,” which is used in the vast majority of the district’s early childhood classrooms.

Still, she said it’s good at teaching rituals, routines and self-regulation–work often squeezed out in other classrooms by the focus on academics and third-grade test scores.

In Jeffco, where Molholm Elementary also serves as a Tools lab school, the curriculum is used at all 38 preschool sites and about 10 kindergarten site. Administrators say its foundation in theory makes it a valuable resource.

“It really does teach our teachers about best instructional practice,” said Sherry Fast, the district’s preschool coordinator.

Plus, administrators say kindergarteners who came from Tools classrooms are easy to spot because of their literacy and self-regulation prowess. But the training demands can make the curriculum hard to sustain, especially in grades where there is high teacher turnover. That’s part of the reason that its use in kindergarten has gradually declined from 25 sites to 10. Another factor is some schools’ addition of subject-specific curricula, which dilute the Tools approach.

Despite such fluctuations, there’s a sense that the Tools philosophy—if not every last detail in the curriculum—fills a major gap in early childhood education sphere.

“I don’t see this going away,” said Steed, who sought out the curriculum after reading about it in the journal Science.

“It meets a need that actually hasn’t been met before and will always be needed.”

Billions

State school board asks new Illinois governor to quintuple early childhood spending

PHOTO: Getty

The state board of education is putting Illinois’ new governor to the test with a $2.4 billion-plus request to help fund a universal preschool system for 3- and 4-year-olds — a proposal that, if granted, would quintuple the state’s current spending on early education.

Universal preschool is something that billionaire businessman and early childhood philanthropist J.B. Pritzker pledged to do on the campaign trail. But in his inauguration day speech earlier this week, Pritzker made few concrete promises on education, focusing instead on overhauling the budget and fixing the state’s tax code.

The state school board’s budget recommendation dwarfs current-year preschool spending of $493 million, which Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state legislature fully funded. Those dollars go toward a menu of publicly funded early childhood programs, including free preschool for low-income families. They also fund a slate of other programs, such as after-school care and home visiting for new babies in some high-poverty counties.

The state board’s Chief Financial Officer Robert Wolfe said the “big ask” for early education funding for the 2019-20 school year seeks to serve the estimated 350,000 3- and 4-year olds left out of current state-funded preschool programs. It is a part of a larger $19.3 billion recommendation for public schools to meet the state’s goal of providing a quality education for every child in the state.

Jonathan Doster, Illinois policy manager for the early learning advocacy Ounce of Prevention, said late Wednesday that the group appreciated the state board’s willingness “to start a conversation” about what it fully costs to fund a robust early childhood system. But, he added, “the proposal approved today focuses almost exclusively on the expansion of universal preschool, leaving out a critical component — funding for infants and toddlers.”

“In order to foster the healthy development of young children, especially those facing greater challenges, we must start well before children turn 3 or 4,” he added.

Early education is just a sliver of the state’s current $8 billion budget. The board spends the most on funding individual districts, and the 2019-20 request includes $660 million more to do so according to the state’s evidence-based funding formula. Currently, the vast majority of Illinois’ school districts are not adequately funded according to the formula.

State leaders are also asking for more money for career and technical education courses for rural districts, free lunch programs, and teacher recruitment assistance to address the state’s dire teacher shortage. The request also includes additional dollars for a charter loan fund. 

Each year the board makes a request that significantly exceeds the actual budget passed by the legislature. A final proposal will be submitted to the governor’s office in February.

In coming months, the politics of the state board, and the nature of its budget requests, could change, as Pritzker will have the chance to replace several members of the state school board whose terms are expiring.

Growing pains

Even after a court victory, few charter schools are expected to join New York City’s pre-K push

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Pre-K students play during center time at The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens. The school is one of the few charters that participates in the city's pre-K program.

When visitors come to The Renaissance Charter School in Queens, Principal Stacey Gauthier often insists they stop by the pre-K classroom.

Gauthier raves about the nurturing teacher. She marvels at the progress that students make in recognizing letters and numbers, and swears by the ease with which they transition to kindergarten.

Her program stands out for another reason: It’s in a charter school.

“This is really, truly a labor of love and a strong philosophical belief that pre-K is a wonderful thing,” Gauthier said.

Few charter schools have joined New York City’s efforts to make pre-K available to all of the city’s 4-year-olds. A recent legal victory for Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, seemed poised to change that. In November, the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools should have more freedom to run their pre-K programs without the city dictating curriculum or other requirements — a significant ideological win for the charter sector.

But the decision is unlikely to open the floodgates for New York City charter schools looking to start pre-K programs. Advocates say the lawsuit didn’t resolve more significant barriers that hold charter schools back, including a crunch for funding and space and, this year at least, a tight turnaround for getting programs running.

“Until we settle these larger financial issues, you’ll continue to see limited participation from charter schools,” said James Merriman, chief of the New York City Charter School Center. “It’s going to be very, very hard for them.”

Success took the city to court over a 241-page contract that the city requires to receive funding for pre-K. The document regulates everything from curriculum to field trips, and Success argued that was an overreach of the city’s authority.

The disagreement struck at one of the core philosophies of charter schools: that they should be free from the bureaucracies of school districts. In a press release touting the court decision, Success said their victory meant the city education department “cannot micromanage charter school pre-K programs.”

Soon, the city is expected to release a new request for proposals for charter schools interested in starting or expanding pre-K programs. Operators will have the chance to bid for those contracts — the first test of whether Success’s legal victory will help change the landscape of pre-K providers.

Observers don’t expect a sea change, however, citing familiar issues in the charter world that are left unresolved by the court battle: per-student funding, and finding space for classrooms.

“Unfortunately, the decision a lot of schools make is it’s too onerous to try to make happen,” said Ian Rowe, the chief executive officer of Public Prep, one of the dozen or so charters that offers pre-K.

While the city is required to provide charter schools with space in public buildings or help pay their rent, that rule doesn’t apply for pre-K. When Public Prep charter decided to launch its pre-K, Rowe said the school had to carve out space in their existing buildings. Public Prep serves about 80 pre-K students at its Bronx campuses, and hopes to start serving students at its Lower East Side location next year.

As it stands now, Rowe said he relies on private dollars to supplement Public Prep’s early childhood efforts, which he called “not sustainable.”

In kindergarten, charter operators can rely on receiving about $15,000 per student — but in pre-K, the figure falls closer to $10,000, according to the New York City Charter School Center.  Meanwhile, class size and staffing requirements for pre-K means more money needs to be spent on salaries. 

“For an age when one could argue you have the greatest opportunity for influencing student behavior and attitudes, you get the least amount of money,” Rowe said.

Another factor contributing to the budget squeeze: Under state law, pre-K is not considered a grade like kindergarten is, so schools don’t receive the same type of supports for children who come from poor families, have special needs, or may be learning English as a new language, said Gauthier, the Renaissance principal.

Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said funding for pre-K is determined “based on a detailed analysis around specific needs and operational expenses of each program.”

The education department “works with all our pre-K providers to ensure they have appropriate funding,” Cohen wrote in an email.

This year timing is also a factor. Though Success fought its pre-K battle for years, the network won’t be starting a program soon, saying there simply isn’t enough of a runway to get a program up and running for 2019-2020.

“Hundreds of New York City children missed out on pre-K education at Success Academy over the past three years because of this legal battle,” the network said in a press release. “However, it’s a victory for younger children and their families.”

Families are already researching their pre-K options, and applications are due in March. Yet the city hasn’t released its request for proposals for charter schools interested in pre-K, and it’s unclear when operators would get word that their program has been approved — creating a time crunch when it comes to recruiting families and hiring teachers.

Rowe said he is still determined to expand Public Prep’s pre-K classes, and hopes to apply as soon as the opportunity is available, unlike many other operators.

“I think most charters have given up,” this year, he said.

Cohen, the education department spokesman, said the city is “currently in the process” of drafting a new contract for funding for pre-Ks in charter schools and that officials are “continuing to analyze” the impact of the court decision. As for charters already operating pre-Ks, the city will “issue more guidance in the coming weeks” about what the court decision means for them, Cohen wrote.

With charter operators facing headwinds in the the state legislature, concerns about pre-K might get pushed to a back burner. Recent midterm elections ushered a new Democratic majority into office, and with it, a bleak future for the expansion of charter schools in New York. Advocates are likely to focus their efforts pushing for an increase in the cap on how many charter schools can operate in New York — just seven charters are left.

“People are worrying about those things,” Gauthier said. “I’m not sure if people are going to be jumping on the pre-K wagon.”