shaping up

New Colorado child care rules take aim at obesity

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A preschooler at Clayton Early Learning created a makeshift telescope this fall.

New state rules governing child care centers will ban sugary drinks, establish strict limits on screen time and mandate 60 minutes of daily physical activity for young children in full-day programs.

Public health advocates have lauded the new rules on nutrition, exercise and screen time as an important step in curbing childhood obesity.

“This is a huge win for kids,” said Jake Williams, executive director of the advocacy group Healthier Colorado. “It puts our state on a healthier path.”

Nearly 20 percent of Colorado children aged 2-4 are obese and an additional 10 percent are overweight, according to state health department statistics. The health department has made reducing childhood obesity one of its top priorities in recent years.

The State Board of Human Services approved the new rules in a 5-1 vote last Friday as part of larger update to childcare regulations. The rules will affect about 1,350 licensed child care centers around the state, though some may already be in compliance.

Gerie Grimes, the president and CEO of the HOPE Center in northeast Denver, said its current practices already meet or exceed the new requirements.

For example, full-time preschoolers there currently get about an hour and 20 minutes a day of physical activity.

But some of the new rules, like those requiring meals to meet certain federal standards, could create a burden for some centers, she said

“Especially for smaller centers that are down to the meat, it’s another layer for them.”

A long process

The new rules emerged from a lengthy revision process that began in 2010 and included feedback from hundreds of childcare providers and advocates.

In addition to new language on meals, exercise and TV time, the 66-page update touches on a wide array of topics ranging from educator credentials to the accessibility of thumbtacks. (The changes won’t affect licensed home-based child care. A rule update for that group will begin in 2016.)

The new rules around obesity prevention replace older ones that were often vague and lacked measurable goals.

For example, the old physical activity rules mandated daily outdoor play, but didn’t specify how much children should get. Similarly, the old one-sentence screen time rule required parents give approval for television or video-viewing, but didn’t set any time limits.

Once the new rules take effect on Feb. 2, Colorado will be among a relatively small number of states that have taken such steps for child care centers. Six states currently have similar rules on sugary drinks, eight have similar physical activity requirements and 21 have similar screen time provisions, according to a 2012 brief from the National Center for Child Care Quality Improvement.

While Grimes said the new rules may help a little, she’s not sure how effective they’ll be in preventing childhood obesity if there’s no parental buy-in around healthy habits at home.

“I could not tell you when they walk out of this [center] what their meal might look like,” she said.

In addition, the lack of strong physical activity rules in Colorado’s K-12 system could weaken the impact of the new early childhood rules, she said.

“If we do it here, [then] they go to kindergarten and it’s not there, then we go back to the same thing.”

Rule Rundown

The new rules related to obesity prevention will:

  • Ban sugar-sweetened beverages including soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and flavored milk;
  • Allow 100% juice to be served no more than twice a week;
  • Require meals served at child care centers to meet United States Department of Agriculture requirements for the Child and Adult Care Food Program;
  • Require 60 minutes of physical activity a day for preschoolers and toddlers in full-day programs;
  • Require 30 minutes of physical activity a day for preschoolers and toddlers in programs lasting three-five hours per day;
  • Require 15 minutes of physical activity a day for preschoolers and toddlers in programs lasting less than three hours a day;
  • Ban all television or video time for children under two;
  • Allow a maximum of 30 minutes per week of screen time (television, videos, tablets and computers) for children two and over, with exceptions for special occasions;

Gauging the reaction

For the most part, there was little opposition to the new rules on nutrition, physical activity and screen time. A few providers raised objects during the pubic comment process that the meal rules represented unwarranted government intrusion.

Williams said they “prescribe a simple balance between proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables,” similar to the federal school meal program for K-12 students.

To Heather Frenz, who has an 18-month-old daughter, the new rules represent simple steps that will help kids eat better and stay more active.

“I’m just so excited that they passed,” she said.

Frenz, the former director of the Qualistar program Healthy Child Care Colorado, said many parents are in the dark about how much exercise kids get or what types of food they eat at child care. The new rules help eliminate the guesswork.

“I think this will bring some relief to parents,” she said.

Early education

Is Tennessee moving its weakest teachers to early, non-tested grades? New research says yes.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Tennessee’s education insiders have whispered for years that some elementary school principals were moving their least effective teachers to critical early grades, which are free of high-stakes tests. That’s despite clear evidence that those years are the most important for preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

Now a new study has confirmed that the shift is real.

Researchers examining 10 years worth of state data through 2016 found that low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested early grades than their more effective peers.

The findings, released Friday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and Vanderbilt University, may be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out why almost two-thirds of the state’s students are behind on reading by the end of the third grade.

“These trends matter because having effective teachers in the early grades helps establish a foundation for success as students progress into later grades,” the research brief states.

The authors used Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system, including classroom observation scores and student achievement data, to track the reassignment of elementary school teachers by their principals. They found that only a hundred of the lowest-rated teachers were shifted to the lower grades in any given year, making for a relatively small impact across Tennessee. However, the pattern was consistent for all reassigned teachers who scored in the bottom three evaluation ratings on a scale of 1 to 5.

It’s not conclusive, though, whether those teachers remain ineffective when moved to kindergarten, first, or second grades.

“This could be counter-productive, but it could actually be productive if school leaders are finding better fits for their elementary school teachers,” said Sy Doan, who authored the research brief along with Laura K. Rogers.

Another study is in the works to examine whether students’ academic growth is stunted by re-assigning less effective teachers to lower grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t require testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools, and districts.

But research elsewhere has shown that the pressures of such accountability systems for higher elementary grades can unintentionally give administrators incentives to “staff to the test” and move their weakest teachers to the early years.

“The patterns we found in Tennessee are consistent with similar studies conducted in other states,” Doan said.

Advocates of early education say the latest findings — while not surprising — should be a powerful reminder to school administrators that kindergarten through second grade are high-stakes for students’ learning and development, even if those years are free of high-stakes testing.

“I think it’s going to raise some important conversations,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director for Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. “If we want to improve third-grade outcomes, Tennessee has got to start prioritizing investments in the early grades, particularly in the quality of teachers.”

Sharon Griffin, a longtime Memphis school administrator who now leads Tennessee’s school turnaround district, made that point last week during a presentation to state legislators on the House Education Committee.

“When I was a principal …. there was this unprecedented norm where you would put your most effective teachers in grades that are tested,” she said. “Now we know from lessons learned that it’s really pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grades where you need the strongest teachers, so that our kids can be on grade level by third grade and we are not trying to close the gap continuously from third grade on.”

Tennessee has done some serious soul-searching about why most of its third-graders can’t pass the proficiency bar in reading, which is considered the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas.

The frustrations deepened in 2015 when a landmark Vanderbilt study showed that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee’s public pre-K classrooms were fading out by first grade and vanishing altogether by third grade.

Since then, the focus has been on why. Is it the quality of pre-K? Or could it be missteps and misalignment in instruction and curriculum from kindergarten through the third grade?

Upcoming research will dig into those questions as other Vanderbilt researchers visit Tennessee classrooms next school year to observe instructional quality and teaching practice in the early grades.

“We know surprisingly little about the connections among the experiences children have across the early grades of school,” said Caroline Christopher, who will co-lead the work with Dale Farran, director of the Peabody Research Institute.  

Their study will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted through the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a partnership between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education.

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.