Preschool debate

Landmark study sparks question: Do preschool effects stick in Colorado but not in Tennessee?

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A recent landmark study out of Tennessee upended the conventional wisdom about the power of preschool and raised questions nationwide, including in Colorado, about how to leverage early education to produce long-lasting impacts.

The Vanderbilt University study revealed that at-risk students who participated in Tennessee’s publicly-funded preschool program showed significant gains initially, but by third grade performed worse than non-participants on both academic and behavior measures.

Early childhood experts here say the study underscores the need for quality in both preschool and subsequent K-3 instruction, but that the findings don’t match Colorado data showing that academic benefits of preschool do stick.

“You don’t have the same story in Colorado,” said Charlotte Brantley, president and CEO of Denver’s Clayton Early Learning.

Like several early childhood advocates here, she cited longitudinal data showing that students in the state-funded Colorado Preschool Program consistently outperformed non-participating peers on all state tests from third to ninth grade.

But Dale Farran, one of the Vanderbilt study authors, said such data—part of an annual report to the Colorado legislature—doesn’t rigorously match preschool children to comparison group children. Instead of matching them prior to the preschool year, they’re matched after-the-fact in first grade—leaving many unknowns about parent motivation, poverty status and skill levels when the comparison children were 4.

Vanderbilt study highlights

  • Preschool participants had significantly higher achievement than non-participants at the end of the pre-K year.
  • At the beginning of kindergarten, teachers rated preschool participants as better prepared for kindergarten work and as having better work skills and more positive peer relations than non-participants.
  • By the end of kindergarten, non-participants had caught up to preschool participants on achievement measures.
  • By the end of first grade, teachers rated preschool participants as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills and feeling more negative about school than non-participants.
  • By the end of second grade and into third grade, preschool participants were doing worse than non-participants on most achievement measures.

“You can’t claim your program is effective for poor children if you don’t know [the two groups] were the same at the beginning, before the children went to Pre-K,” she said.

Megan McDermott, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Education, said via email, “We acknowledge that it is not as rigorous as an experimental study. We are using extant data because that is what is available to us.”

She went on to say that the 2012 legislative report included a more rigorous regression analysis study that found significant positive benefits of Colorado Preschool Program participation in third grade through sixth grade.

Early childhood advocates here and around the country say Vanderbilt’s findings on the “fade-out” of preschool benefits isn’t surprising given similar findings from an earlier Head Start Impact Study. What’s sometimes missing from the discussion, they say, is that other studies have shown pre-school participants reap significant non-academic benefits later in life. These include things like increased earnings, better health and reduced criminal activity.

“It’s not like this is the first time that a large-scale study has found this,” said Brian Conly, deputy director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood in the Department of Human Services.

“Yes, there may be a fadeout…but there are many, many other benefits to providing pre-kindergarten services.”

The wheels on the bus

Amid the debate about the impact of preschool, a visit to Clayton’s classrooms in northeast Denver offers both a glimpse of how a highly regarded program works and a reminder that it’s not easy to achieve.

The program is part of the national Educare network of model centers serving at-risk children. It’s been deemed a Center of Excellence by the federal Office of Head Start and holds a four out of five on the state’s quality rating system, Colorado Shines. (Currently, there are no programs with fives.)

Preschoolers at Clayton Educare in northeast Denver go on an imaginary bus ride.
Preschoolers at Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning go on an imaginary bus ride.

On a recent afternoon there, six preschoolers boarded an imaginary bus, sitting in two rows of wooden chairs near their classroom door. One girl created tickets for her classmates, writing in orange crayon on slips of paper. A little boy in the front row assumed the role of the driver.

Lead Teacher Christine Holpuch crouched near the three- and four-year olds as they chattered about where they’d stashed their tickets and what errands they would do.

She smoothly eased frustration about the seating arrangement and asked the kids questions about their trip—How do you start the bus? Who’s wearing a seatbelt? Could they go to the grocery store?

Clayton, located in a stately building in northeast Denver, is a warm, inviting place where kids get lots of personal attention from well-trained teachers. On the afternoon of the imaginary bus trip, Holpuch, who holds a masters degree in early childhood education, and her fellow teacher John Quinn were in charge of about eight children.

Both teachers got down on the students’ level and let the youngsters guide the play—Holpuch’s group moved from riding the bus to playing school to building wooden ramps. Quinn sat nearby with two boys who were busy building robots and skyscrapers.

Brantley said Clayton just receiving funding to embark on its own study of longer-term preschool outcomes, following on work done by Educare centers in Chicago and Omaha

“In those programs so far, they’ve got one or two cohorts now of kids who’ve completed third grade. There’s not been a fadeout,” she said.

Fast and furious

So why do the Tennessee results look so different?

Responses to the Vanderbilt study

Some believe preschool quality suffered there because of a rushed statewide expansion. The 18,000-student program ramped up far faster than the similarly sized Colorado Preschool Program, launching statewide in 2005 compared to 1988 for Colorado.

Leaders here say several efforts to promote preschool quality have been going on in Colorado since the 1990s. These include the creation of the voluntary Qualistar rating program, which helped pave the way for the new mandatory Colorado Shines program. There also have been state grants to improve preschool quality, the creation of quality standards for Colorado Preschool Program classrooms and ongoing work by regional early childhood councils.

Kathryn Harris, executive director of Qualistar Colorado, said of Tennessee, “I don’t think they had the same vision around quality in early learning.”

Some early childhood leaders in Tennessee agree, saying practices varied wildly from classroom to classroom leading to spotty quality overall. But Farran has pushed back against that explanation. She rebutted such criticisms in a recent Brookings Institution report, writing that while the Tennessee program “has ample room for improvement, there is simply no convincing evidence that it is a program of distinctly lower overall quality than other statewide programs.”

In fact, Tennessee does have several well-regarded policies in place.

It meets nine of 10 preschool quality benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIERR. These include requiring preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, and having class sizes of 20 or lower and staff-child ratios of 1:10 or better.

In comparison, Colorado meets just six of the 10 benchmarks.

Although Colorado falls short on four benchmarks—including the one requiring teachers to have a bachelor’s degree—it exceeds benchmarks on class size and staff-child ratio. The maximum class size in the Colorado Preschool Program is 16 and the maximum staff-child ratio is 1:8.

The director of NIERR, W. Steven Barnett, addressed the disconnect between model policies and quality classrooms in a recent blog post about the Vanderbilt study.

He said the NIERR benchmarks “are not, in themselves, guarantees of quality…they are primarily indicators of the resources available to programs, not whether these resources are used well.”

Financial resources

Many states, including Tennessee and Colorado, face preschool funding restraints that hinder their ability to meet the 10 quality benchmarks, according to the annual NIERR report. Both also lack the funding to serve all eligible at-risk children.

Clatyon building

Tennessee, which spends about $85 million on preschool, would need to spend an additional $3,200 per child to fully implement the benchmarks. Colorado, which spends about $75 million on preschool, would need to spend an additional $1,000 per child.

The average Colorado Preschool Program slot, which typically covers a half-day class, cost about $3,400 in 2013-14.

In contrast, consider an exemplary center like Clayton, which offers families a full complement of services along with child care and preschool. Each full-day, full-year seat costs $15,000-$18,000—typically paid for with money from various sources, including Head Start, Colorado Preschool Program, state child care subsidies, grants and private money. All told, there are nearly 200 preschoolers at Clayton’s main site and a second location in far northeast Denver.

While there are a small number of tuition-based slots at Clayton, most families either pay nothing or a small fee determined by the state’s child care subsidy program. Generally, children with the most risk factors receive priority in admission.

Conly said while every Colorado child doesn’t need a program as intensive as Clayton’s, adequate funding is a constant challenge.

“At the state level, there’s just so many competing priorities for the money,” he said.

No silver bullet

Aside from fresh discussions about what defines preschool quality, the Vanderbilt study has put new focus on the responsibility of the K-3 system to capitalize on preschool gains.

That’s because the Tennessee preschoolers studied did in fact show show up to kindergarten ahead of their peers in literacy and math, and were rated more highly by teachers on work skills and peer relations.

Some experts say that public schools tend to focus on the stragglers, leaving the more prepared preschool alums repeating lessons they already know until their non-preschool peers catch up.

In the same vein, Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colordo Children’s Campaign, said that nine months of preschool can’t be expected to inoculate kids from the effects of attending underfunded, low-performing schools in kindergarten and beyond.

But in states like Colorado and Tennessee—where K-12 funding is far below the national average—what are the prospects for a robust K-3 experience for at-risk children?

Take class size, which is strictly regulated in CPP programs but not in most public schools,  Jaeger said.

“These kiddos walk into kindergarten,” he said, “and we’re hearing stories about kindergartens with 27, 28, 32 in a classroom.”

The following is from the 2015 Legislative Report on the Colorado Preschool Program:

A co-author of the Vanderbilt study questions whether this data from the 2015 Colorado Preschool Program Legislative Report valid methodology.
A co-author of the Vanderbilt study questions whether this data from the 2015 Colorado Preschool Program Legislative Report valid methodology.

 

Early readers

Tennessee wants to boost third-grade literacy. Here’s why it’s looking to early childhood education as the answer.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at the University of Memphis about reading and early childhood education.

Calling reading the “equity issue of our time,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that Tennessee will increase its literacy rates when it improves the quality of its early education programs.

The state has been waging war on illiteracy for years but is zeroing in on pre-K and other early education programs as the best vehicles to get 75 percent its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025. Currently less than half of its students are there.

Beginning this year, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding, tying the amount received to the quality of programming instead of the volume of students.

But McQueen said the state still has a lot to learn about developing young readers, and data is key.

“Before kids get to third grade, we have very little information statewide with whether or not those students are on track,” McQueen said. “We have very little data statewide to know where we should be putting investments.”

The state is seeking to fill that void by working with local leaders to better track its youngest students to determine what’s working best. In Memphis, Porter-Leath is taking the lead in that effort. The nonprofit organization opened a major pre-K center this year to serve as a teacher training hub to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Sandra Allen of LeBonheur Center for Children and Parents, Rafel Hart of Porter-Leath, Sharon Griffin of Shelby County Schools, and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

McQueen was part of an early reading panel discussion hosted in Memphis by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education and the PeopleFirst Partnership. The event featured Shelby County Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, state Rep. Mark White, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam, who has championed literacy during her husband’s administration.

Since launching its Read to be Ready initiative last year, Tennessee has invested $30 million in summer reading camps and another $4.2 million in a coaching network to support teachers with literacy instruction.

The stakes are high because reading is foundational to lifelong learning — and is critical to closing the achievement gap.

“When kids are not reading on grade level by third grade, they are four times less likely graduate high school,” McQueen said. “Kids scoring in the lowest proficiency level on literacy almost never catch up. Guess who is in that bottom level? Students who are African American. Students who are Latino. Students with disabilities. Students who are English language learners.”

(Very) early education

Bank Street heads to East New York to help child care providers play to their strengths

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sherease Alston sings along with children at her child care center, Little Minds at Work.

One little girl would simply repeat anything that was said to her, rather than answer basic questions like, “How are you?” Another toddler seemed more active than the other children — maybe too active. But Sherease Alston, who has run a child care center from her living room for the past six years, was often met with skepticism when she would share her observations with parents.

The hard part isn’t noticing when a child may have a developmental issue, she explained. It’s getting the child’s parents to recognize it, too.

“It’s hard for parents to see sometimes because they’re in denial,” she said.

A cold call from a leading education school helped change that. With the help of the new Guttman Center for Early Care and Education at the Bank Street College of Education, Alston came up with a strategy to help parents see what she sees. Now, she asks them to log their children’s behavior at home, so those logs can be compared against ones kept by the daycare, Little Minds at Work.

“It was easy to see once it was all documented,” Alston said. “It was an easy tool to use to open that door for our parents.”

New York City is in the midst of a massive push to expand access to early childhood education — and to make sure quality keeps up. Site evaluations and teacher training have been a centerpiece of the city’s free pre-K program, which now serves 70,000 4-year-olds and is expanding to enroll 3-year-olds, too.

The city is slated to bring its pre-K model to children as young as six weeks old, with plans to transfer responsibility for publicly funded childcare programs from the Administration for Children’s Services to the education department. Making that shift will require the city to turn its attention to a vast network of providers like Alston — those who are already working with infants and toddlers in their communities.

That’s where the Guttman Center is focusing its attention. Working with providers on the ground in low-income neighborhoods, the Center wants to help them solve problems and improve their care.

“We really wanted … to have the input of the community, acknowledge the exceptional range of abilities that already exists, and partner with them,” said Director Robin Hancock. “The beauty of having all these perspectives in the classroom is people are constantly hearing from other corners in the field.”

Across the country, early childhood advocates have taken a similar approach, working to meet providers where they are — and build on their strengths. In Colorado, for example, community organizations have trained the aunts, neighbors and other caregivers who form an often invisible network of care. The state has also paid special attention to helping Spanish-speaking providers earn early childhood credentials.

In New York City, the scale of the challenge is huge. ACS currently oversees programs that serve about 20,000 children ages 3 or younger. A recent report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that home-based providers especially struggle with a labyrinth of safety and compliance requirements, understanding what is developmentally appropriate for very young children, and enduring long hours for low pay.

Guttman’s work represents one step in helping child care workers navigate those issues. The first cohort of providers was drawn from East New York — one of two neighborhoods (along with the South Bronx) where the city is launching its pilot for free pre-K for 3-year-olds this fall. The Guttman program was created for even younger children, from infants to 2-year-olds.

Providers meet on Saturdays every other week for a semester, and coursework centers on topics like building partnerships with families and caring relationships with students. Group discussions are paired with on-site coaching.

“The goal really is for them to be able to look at their own practice and to understand what’s working and what is not,” said Margie Brickley, a program director for the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, who helped develop the Guttman curriculum.

Ultimately, the program hopes to create a community of support for providers who often find themselves working in isolation. Already, some have opened up their sites to visits from other providers to observe good practices in action and share ideas.

“The first 36 months of life are critical for cognitive development and we’re building the foundation for learning,” said Johannah Chase, then an associate dean at Bank Street. “It’s part of the reason why we’re putting so much of our energy into child caregivers.”

Kiara Dash, an assistant at Little Minds at Work, reads to Thravis Ealey. (Photo: Christina Veiga)

On a recent morning at Little Minds at Work, five squirmy toddlers and an infant gathered on a rug made of giant foam puzzle pieces. Sunlight streamed in through two windows facing a quiet residential street. The group sang about their feelings and assistant Vanesha Mayers playfully wiggled one boy’s fingers and toes as they counted to 20.

Before joining the Guttman program, Alston said she took a more academic approach to working with the very young children in her care — which often led to frustration for both her and the kids. Guttman helped her refocus her curriculum around play and building relationships.

“That was an eye-opener,” she said. “They helped me understand their needs.”

Brickley said Alston’s struggle is common. Often, providers simply “water down” programs meant for older children even though infants and toddlers have very different needs.

On the other hand, Alston said she is adept at juggling the business and regulatory aspects of her business — something she can help other providers learn.

Hancock, the center’s director, said the program was built to recognize providers’ different abilities and fill gaps as needed. That tailored approach respects the knowledge providers already bring to the table, she said, and helps create a culture of trust.

“We really want to make sure to help providers build confidence that they are experts,” she said. “They know their environments and they know their children best.”

Correction: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Johannah Chase’s name.