Preschool debate

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

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Shelby County government could add an additional $2.5 million for pre-K for the new fiscal year starting on July 1.

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.

 

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Race for mayor

How to help Chicago’s younger learners? Mayoral frontrunners skip a chance to say.

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang

The challenge of mending and strengthening Chicago’s network of care and education for its youngest residents defies instant solutions, but four candidates for mayor agreed Monday on one point: The city needs to care for its child care centers rather than imposing more burdens on them.

And the city should include those crucial small businesses, which often anchor neighborhoods, in its growing pre-kindergarten system.

Related: Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has preschool providers worried

At a forum Monday at the University of Chicago on the topic of early childhood education, candidates addressed how city government can stitch together a stronger early learning system. Chicago’s mayoral election is Feb. 26.

Chicago is in the first year of a four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout, and the city’s next mayor will determine much of the fate of the program. About 21,000 children have enrolled out of an estimated 45,000. And cost estimates are now north of $220 million, much of it federal and state money earmarked for early childhood expenditures. But the mayor can direct how that money is spent.

The forum attracted four candidates: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, state representative and former teacher La Shawn K. Ford, and John Kozlar, a University of Chicago graduate who, at 30, is the youngest candidate in the race.

Four candidates considered front-runners — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley and Gery Chico — didn’t attend. Nor did six more of the 14 candidates.

All of the mayoral candidates who answered said they would continue to support Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion but did not specify how.

The event was organized by Child Care Advocates United, a statewide alliance of child care providers who banded together four years ago when the state budget crisis was forcing many providers and child care agencies to cut back or close.

The central topic of conversation was how city government can build a stronger early learning system. Several questions revolved around issues faced by for-profit and nonprofit day care owners and preschool operators who are facing teacher shortages, budget pressures, and a churn of students. Some advocates say Chicago’s rollout of universal pre-K has made a operating a difficult business even more tenuous, as they lose children and revenue to Chicago Public Schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis of data published last week showed that public school preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity, while one in five seats at community-run preschools and centers is empty.

The candidates Monday offered different suggestions for alleviating the pressure.

Related: Care about schools? Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide to the mayor’s race. 

“We have to end this fight between Chicago Public Schools and (community) providers. It is killing an industry,” said Ford, a state legislator who described the budget pressures many providers faced under former governor Bruce Rauner, when Illinois did not pass a budget for more than two years.

A September report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which tracks openings and closures among licensed daycare facilities, shows a loss of 3,400 licensed facilities statewide from 2010 to 2018.

“Chicago Public Schools cannot do (preschool) cheaper, and it cannot do it better,” said Vallas, also a former budget director for the city of Chicago, who has put out a detailed prenatal-to-preschool platform that starts with universal prenatal care and a detailed menu of services and supports for children birth to age 5.

“The challenge with the universal pre-K program that Rahm Emanuel and (schools chief) Janice Jackson rolled out is that there was no engagement with community-based providers,” said Lightfoot, who questioned the timing of the May 2018 announcement just weeks before a Chicago Tribune series cast a spotlight on a pattern of mishandling student sexual abuse cases in the K-12 system. “This program was ill-conceived and rolled out in spring to be a distraction to the sex assault investigation about to be unveiled by the Tribune.”

At the forum, held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, Vallas also spoke about creating incentives to entice more prospective teachers into the field, including grow-your-own programs that target parents.

He also described a system of startup grants and opportunity zones that would make it easier for new businesses to take root and tax breaks for providers who serve a variety of children well.

Ford advocated pressuring state legislators to increase reimbursement rates to providers, which could be used to increase teacher pay, and setting aside tax-increment financing, or TIF, dollars for early childhood businesses. And Lightfoot talked about converting some of the schools that Chicago has closed into job training and early childhood centers.

“The policy that has been rolled out is not equitable and not sustainable,” she said of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout. “We need to work in partnership with our communities.”

Are you ready to vote on Feb. 26? Find everything you need at Chi.vote, a one-stop shop for the Chicago election — Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner.