Ready or not

New waivers from school readiness law raise concerns

More than 60 Colorado charter schools  — and one of the state’s largest school districts — have been granted exemptions from some requirements of the state’s school readiness law just as it is being rolled out statewide.

Those schools and four districts have been granted waivers by the State Board of Education, which allows them to use their own programs to determine if kindergarteners are ready for first grade.

While the waivers are permitted by state law, some observers are concerned that such flexibility could lead to inconsistency among schools and districts and make it harder to track whether kindergarten students statewide really are prepared for first grade.

While no one seems to be questioning the quality of individual waiver plans, some people are concerned that it will be hard to review the quality of individual school and district readiness tools.

“I’m apprehensive about the trend,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said she also has questions about “the push-to-a-waiver mentality.”

Angelika Schroeder, vice chair of the State Board of Education, also raised questions during the Oct. 7 board meeting at which the issue was discussed.

“Having everybody get a waiver, that would be a problem. … I really don’t want to go against what districts want to do, but I don’t want the legislature to believe we will go against their legislative intent,” she said.

School readiness evaluations of kindergarteners are required by a sweeping 2008 education reform law called the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. Evaluations were supposed to start statewide in the 2013-14 school year, but full rollout was delayed until this year.

Children are not formally tested but rather observed in a structured way by their teachers, who use the information to decide if students have the skills necessary for first grade. Evaluations cannot be used to prevent children from entering first grade.

What’s behind waiver applications

What CAP4K requires
  • All kindergarteners must be evaluated for school readiness using CDE-approved assessments
  • Children are to be evaluated on physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, language and comprehension development, math and cognition and general knowledge
  • Individual student readiness plans
  • Reporting of aggregate readiness data to CDE

Those familiar with the issue say the surge of waiver applications, which started last April, was prompted by two things. One is advice given last year by the state attorney general’s office to the Colorado Department of Education concluding that schools could seek waivers from the readiness law.

Second, some schools wanted to get waivers before the program’s requirements rolled out statewide this school year.

And some districts and schools have been unhappy with the most widely used readiness assessment tool, Teaching Strategies GOLD.

During its past few meetings the state board has granted waivers to charter schools without discussion and by voting on applications as a group. Schroeder said she has less concern about charter applications because those have to be approved by local school boards before they come to the state.

But waiver applications from school districts have prompted a bit more board discussion. Readiness waivers have been given to three small rural districts in eastern Colorado, Holyoke, Kiowa and Woodlin.

The board faced a different case on Oct. 7, when the 24,578-student Academy 20 district in El Paso County came before the state board for a waiver. Academy is the state’s 11th largest district and is ranked at the top level of the state accreditation system.

“We understand the important purpose underlying the state law,” Academy Assistant Superintendent Susan Field told the board. But she said the district believes its own system for evaluating kindergarteners is “meeting the intent of the law in a manner far better suited to our community.”

She noted that a charter school in her district already has a waiver.

“If the waiver is good for the kindergarten students in our charter school, why isn’t it good for the rest of the kindergarten students?” Field said.

A key reason that Academy wanted a waiver was so it could continue evaluating kindergarteners’ readiness within the structure of its standards-based report cards, which it uses in elementary grades. The district argued that kindergarteners need to kept within that system so that there’s continuity in tracking student progress from grade to grade.

The district’s application contained more than a dozen documents making its case. CDE staff reviewed the application and concluded, “The district provided documentation to demonstrate how the standards-based report card is inclusive of the areas for school readiness.”

The board granted Academy’s request.

Two concerns raised about waivers

Observers of the waiver surge raise two issues.

The first is whether the individual substitute plans offered by school districts are adequate.

“They vary significantly,” Jaeger said. “Do the replacement plans adequately meet the intent of the law? It’s an open question.”

Walmer has a similar feeling. “The replacement plans are all over the map. … I have a concern that the state board isn’t looking closely at the replacement models.” Walmer added, “I’m OK with flexibility as long as we’re holding to the intent of the law.”

One of the sponsors of the CAP4K law had similar thoughts. Former Democratic Rep. Christine Scanlan of Dillon said she hasn’t been following the waiver applications closely, but added, “I hope that those districts who have waived out of the assessments either have good data sharing with preschool providers that give district teachers necessary information to best support the needs of new kindergarteners or that the local assessments being used have proven to be better than the state’s at identifying specific learning needs and gaps.”

Jaeger noted that state law gives the board fairly limited grounds for denying waiver applications.

“It is difficult for the state board to deny waivers even if they have concerns,” he said.

The second concern was voiced by Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder. While charters are overseen by local school boards, she said, “We don’t have a re-evaluation plan for districts,” given that waivers for districts are open-ended. “Where’s the oversight when we grant all these waivers?”

Teaching Strategies GOLD a sore point

Readiness timeline
  • 2008 – Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids passed
  • 2010 – Expert panel reviews criteria for readiness assessments
  • 2012 – CDE determines only TS GOLD meets criteria
  • 2013 – Program supposed to launch statewide, but SBE gives districts flexibility because only one assessment available
  • 2014 – CDE adds to new assessments and short version of TS GOLD to approved list
  • 2015 – All schools to do evaluations this school year
  • 2016 – SBE to adopt system for reporting results

Part of school and district anxiety over readiness is driven by the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment tool, usually referred to as TS GOLD.

The tool is widely used by schools and also in the Colorado Preschool Program for at-risk students. Part of that is because for two years it was the only state-approved assessment. Additional tools were added to CDE’s list only last year.

TS GOLD has been criticized by some teachers and administrators as too time-consuming.

Some parent activists also fear it infringes on family privacy with questions asked about a child’s social and emotional development and have worries about the privacy of that data.

“Teaching Strategies GOLD has gotten mixed reviews,” said Jaeger, agreeing that some teachers find it too time-consuming.

A lot of the concerns were summed up in testimony to the board by Cindee Will, principal of the James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs, which has a waiver.

“All that glitters is not gold; it might be fools gold,” she said. Use of the tool “amounts to a significant loss of instructional time.”

Will added, “Assessing the whole child is nothing new … what’s new is the intrusion into personal matters. Teachers are required to upload private and personal data. … Why does personal information have to be uploaded to follow a student throughout their school years and perhaps into their careers?”

Information about students is uploaded to a central database. TS GOLD also allows teachers to upload photos and videos of children to the database, a feature that makes some parent activists nervous. The state doesn’t require use of photos of videos. That decision is left to individual schools and districts.

Reporting whether students are ready

The CAP4K law also requires creation of a statewide data reporting system about the readiness of kindergarten students.

The state board is only beginning to consider that task. Some members indicated during a recent discussion that they want to be careful about that process.

Republican member Debora Scheffel of Parker was critical of the data collected by TS GOLD.

“These data points are far in excess of what’s needed to measure readiness,” she said.

Board chair Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said, “It would seem to me the legislature wants to know whether kids are school ready. That’s yes or no. That’s two data points. … When it comes to the data collected, less is better.”

What’s next

The flow of school readiness requests may have crested for the moment.

“There are other districts talking about it,” said Michelle Murphy, new executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “There are a lot of other districts interested in it, [but] there are none in the hopper right now.”

Murphy speculated that districts’ interests in waivers may turn to the state’s new graduation guidelines, which have been criticized in some quarters. The state board recently approved those, with the proviso that districts could seek waivers.

“It’s an open question to me if we will see [waiver laws] used for something other than school readiness,” Jaeger said. He and Schroeder both suggested the legislature might want to review the broad question of waivers from education laws.

More immediately, Schroeder said the board itself needs to take a deeper look.

“I think we’re all ready to have a serious conversation about this,” she said.

Learn more about school readiness requirements and programs on the CDE website. Get details on assessments and readiness plans here.

early childhood discipline

New Colorado bill aims to keep young students in school — even after they misbehave

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Colorado’s public schools handed out nearly 6,000 out-of-school suspensions to young children. 

This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation that could reduce those numbers — the latest push in a four-year effort to get early childhood discipline reform across the finish line.

The bill introduced Wednesday would limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through second grade to certain circumstances, including if they bring weapons or drugs to school, or are deemed a safety threat. It would also require schools to exhaust other alternative discipline options before removing students from school. Finally, the bill would limit suspensions to three school days.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2020.

While the bill would apply to all public K-12 schools, it would apply to only some preschools — those housed in school districts or charter schools, as well as community-based programs serving children eligible for certain kinds of public funding, such as state preschool dollars.

The behavior that gets little kids suspended varies, but can include biting, kicking, fighting or causing frequent classroom disruptions.

Across the nation, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

In Colorado, the disparities are pronounced. Last year, for example, young boys received 86 percent of K-2 suspensions though they made up only half of the K-2 population.

Black students, who made up just 5 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received nearly 12 percent of K-2 suspensions last year. Students with disabilities, who made up 10 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received 37 percent of K-2 suspensions.

The Colorado Department of Education tracks suspension data for public schools, but not for preschools that operate outside of public schools.

Opponents of suspensions and expulsions say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

But school district leaders who’ve pushed back against discipline legislation have argued that limiting suspensions takes away one of their few tools for addressing disruptive and violent behavior. They’ve also expressed frustration about the lack of staff and resources, especially in small rural schools, to handle students’ mental health needs.

This year’s early childhood bill is similar to one that was defeated in 2017, but allows schools a little more leeway in doling out suspensions and expulsions. For example, the earlier bill would have allowed expulsions only when young students brought guns to school. Now, there would be several reasons a young student could be expelled.

Likewise, the previous bill would have allowed suspensions only if a student endangered others, but didn’t specify that bringing drugs, controlled substances, or weapons to school could also be grounds for suspension.

The earlier bill faced sharp opposition from rural school district leaders, among other groups. It ultimately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the coalition of groups that worked on the latest bill tried hard to incorporate feedback from critics while staying true to their goals.

“We’ve done our best all along the way to be responsive,” he said.  

Besides broadening the grounds for out-of-school discipline, the latest version of the bill delays implementation by a year.

Jaeger said that delay will allow state-level mental health and funding initiatives in the works now to trickle down to school districts and give districts more time to adapt local discipline practices.

K-2 Suspensions by District

This chart shows the number of suspensions given, not the number of students suspended. In some districts, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.