Early Childhood

A year after new child care rating system rolls out, two centers nab top scores

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A toddler at Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center, draws on an outline of his foot.

The Early Excellence Program of Denver shares a large brick building in the city’s Cole neighborhood with several other nonprofit organizations. Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center is housed in a modest cream-colored building in a residential neighborhood in Loveland.

They are not the largest, wealthiest or biggest-name child care centers in Colorado. But they are the first two to earn the highest possible rating on Colorado Shines, a new mandatory state child care rating system meant to lift the quality of early education programs and better inform parents.

The centers earned the hard-won distinction by not only following best practices on everything from teacher-student ratios to financial record-keeping, but by completing an even more arduous task: proving it.

Childcare providers—and the coaches enlisted to help them—say that producing the detailed evidence required for the higher rating levels is tedious and time-consuming. Jennifer Luke, executive director at Early Excellence, said she felt like a lawyer preparing a big case as paperwork piled up in her living room in advance of the center’s rating last fall.

“It’s a huge audit, is what it is,” she said.

Despite the hard work required by the new system, Luke said, “Definitely, everything in Colorado Shines is beneficial for children.”

State officials say it’s only a matter of time before more centers nab the top rating—Level 5.

“I know we’ll see more eventually,” said Karen Enboden, manager of the Quality Rating and Improvement System in the state’s Office of Early Childhood.

A growing push to gauge quality

In the works since 2010, Colorado Shines launched last February and is mandatory for the state’s nearly 4,600 licensed child care providers—both child care centers and home-based providers. It replaces a voluntary system called Qualistar that was never widely used.

Childcare_providers_by_-Colorado_Shines-_rating_Number_of_Providers_chartbuilder (1)

“It’s a time of massive change and it’s exciting to see it come to fruition in programs getting these higher ratings,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County.

On a national level, Quality Rating and Improvement Systems have been the trend for more than a decade and experts laud them for incentivizing providers to make improvements and helping parents compare child care options based on a consistent standards.

In many states, including Colorado, such efforts have been paid for by Early Learning Challenge grants, part of the federal Race to the Top program.

Unlike the old Qualistar ratings, Colorado Shines ratings are free for providers. State officials say they plan to keep it that way even after Race to the Top funding runs out next December, or if the state receives a funding extension, December 2017.

Teacher Rosa Figueroa plays with a child at the Early Excellence Program of Denver.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Teacher Rosa Figueroa plays with a child at the Early Excellence Program of Denver.

In the first year of the program, the focus was on rating programs that had expiring Qualistar ratings as well as those serving the largest numbers of high-needs children, Enboden said.  Early Excellence and Teaching Tree, as well as nationally known programs like Clayton Early Learning in Denver, serve many children from low-income families.

The lowest Colorado Shines rating is Level 1, which indicates only that a provider is licensed by the state and meets basic health and safety standards. The highest rating is Level 5, which means the provider has gone through an intensive process to demonstrate quality in everything from teacher-child interactions to business practices. Ratings through Colorado Shines are good for three years.

Providers that had Qualistar ratings were able to transfer into Colorado Shines with the same ratings. However, since the highest Qualistar rating was only four stars, no programs entered as a Level 5 in Colorado Shines.

That new level, along with various changes as program officials ironed out wrinkles in the new system, left even the highest caliber centers wondering if they could make the cut.

In fact, Teaching Tree didn’t earn a Level 5 rating at first. It came out as a Level 4, barely missing the top tier.

“We were so close to that 5. We were like a point away,” said Anne Lance, executive director of Teaching Tree, which also has a Fort Collins location that is now undergoing the rating process.

Last fall, state officials reviewed the scoring framework and made changes that helped put Teaching Tree over the top. The re-scoring process will also bump up ratings of other providers, though it’s not clear how many.

“There was some stringency in there that just didn’t make sense,” Enboden said. “We relaxed some of that.”

Burden of proof

On a recent Friday morning at Teaching Tree, lead toddler teacher Jodi Bell outlined the feet of her one-year-old charges on white sheets of paper.

Jodi Bell, lead toddler teacher at Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in Loveland, outlines a child's foot.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Jodi Bell, lead toddler teacher at Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in Loveland, outlines a child’s foot.

For the youngsters, who then used markers to scribble on their outline, it seemed like a fun thing to do. But it was much more.

With a steady stream of questions and encouragement from Miss Jodi, they were practicing taking their shoes on and off and balancing on one foot. They were also starting to recognize their names and the personal animal symbols she drew on their papers. Finally, with its resemblance to a shoe-buying experience, the activity tied in with their unit on stores.

This type of engagement, also visible in the classrooms at Early Excellence, made administrators at both centers confident that they’d score well on the portion of Colorado Shines that examines learning environment.
However, there was more uncertainty around the other four standard areas: workforce and professional development; family partnerships, leadership management and administration and child health.

Colorado Shine’s 5 Standard Areas

  • Workforce and professional development
  • Family partnerships
  • Leadership, management and administration
  • Learning environment
  • Child health

Partly it’s because having high-quality practices isn’t enough in Colorado Shines. Providers must provide detailed evidence in highly specific electronic formats.

“I’ve lost count of people saying, ‘I’m doing this…but I can’t prove it,’” said Soren Gall, an infant, toddler and family specialist with Denver’s Early Childhood Council.

Gall, like coaches at the the other 30 early childhood councils throughout the state, provides help to child care providers as they tackle the rating process.

Sometimes, securing the necessary evidence under Colorado Shines requires a small tweak— something as simple as instituting a sign-in sheet for parent events. But for other indicators providing adequate proof is more laborious—a major hurdle in a field where directors are often poorly compensated and stretched thin with day-to-day responsibilities.

In addition to offering one-on-one coaching to providers, state officials said many early childhood councils are also making technology equipment available to them in their offices or mobile labs.

Gall said while the new system is a struggle for some providers, particularly those who aren’t tech-savvy, he believes it represents a step forward for the field—getting away from the long-held stigma that childcare is just babysitting.

“This allows people to show that it’s a profession. It’s a business. It’s worth the time and energy and funding,” he said.

What the future holds

With Colorado Shines approaching its first birthday, state officials say the system is in good shape, even after the course corrections of the first year.

Enboden noted that 25 percent of the state’s providers have earned a Level 2 rating or higher—in other words they’ve made some effort above the basic licensing requirements. In contrast, only about 10 percent of the state’s providers chose to seek a Qualistar rating, all of which exceeded licensing requirements.

“Of course, with those statistics we’re feeling great,” she said. “Generally speaking, we are getting really good feedback from providers.”

Educating parents about the system is one of the key goals for the coming year. In addition to updating the existing English-language Colorado Shines website, the state will launch a Spanish version. It will also continue statewide print, radio and television advertising about the program.

“Parents are still not fully informed about Colorado Shines,” Thurber said, “but I fully expect over time parents will understand more about how to judge quality.”

 

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.