pushing proficiency

Landmark Colorado reading law draws kudos, concerns from teachers three years in

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Kim Ursetta works with a student in her classroom at Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

For Cassandra Ewert-Lamutt, seeing some of her young students crumble from the relentless push to become better readers is heartbreaking.

One little girl—a second-grader whose first language is Spanish—recently broke down crying during a reading test.

“She said, ‘I just know I’m not as good as the other kids. It’s because I speak Spanish, too,’” recalled Ewert-Lamutt, who works with English language learners at Parr Elementary School in Arvada.

To Ewert-Lamutt, the student’s tattered emotional state is an extreme case, but reveals one way the nearly three-year-old READ Act—which has also garnered plenty of positive reviews—can impact Colorado kids.

The law, passed with solid majorities in 2012, is a stronger version of the state’s previous literacy law. It requires schools to identify struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade and create special plans using a list of state-approved approaches to help them improve. Starting next year, the law allows but doesn’t require administrators to hold back third-graders who still struggle with reading.

The READ Act is the only major Colorado education reform of recent years for which the legislature provided funding to districts for implementation.

As with many education policies, how things play out in the trenches depends on a host of factors ranging from district leadership to student demographics. Based on Chalkbeat’s interviews with a half-dozen teachers in urban, suburban and rural districts, educators often see the law as a mixed bag—promising, or at least well-intentioned, but not perfect.

Some educators argue that the READ Act contributes to the culture of overtesting, creates time-consuming paperwork and data entry for teachers, and offers too few resources for helping English-language learners. They also worry the retention provision could be misused.

Others say the law, which has counterparts in about two-thirds of states, has brought more urgency to the plight of struggling readers, helped schools more tightly focus reading instruction and provided critical new funding to help pay for it all. It’s also received plaudits for better informing parents about their children’s reading status and including them in the improvement process.

Part of the reason Colorado and so many other states have passed reading laws in recent years is because third-grade reading proficiency plays a big role in future success. Children who can’t read well by the end of third grade are more likely to drop out of school, which can lead to other problems like unemployment and criminal activity.

“The data is there that shows that third grade reading proficiency is huge,” said Bruce Atchison, director of early learning at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks research and advises state education policymakers.

Overall, he believes the READ Act is a good approach.

“Is it the silver bullet? We don’t know that. We haven’t found the silver bullet.”

Looking at the numbers

Last year, nearly 14 percent of K-3 students in Colorado had a “significant reading deficiency”—READ Act terminology for struggling readers who get reading improvement plans under the law. That’s down from 16.5 percent in 2012.


This decrease—celebrated in a report issued by the business group Colorado Succeeds last summer—comes with a couple caveats. State officials say about 9,000 special education students weren’t initially tested under the READ Act—a factor that may have led to greater gains than if that population had been included. In addition, some districts have been slow to switch from the less sensitive tests used under Colorado’s old literacy law to the ones approved under the READ Act.

Starting July 1, all districts will have to use one of seven READ Act-approved tests.

Alisa Dorman, executive director of the state education department’s Office of Early Literacy, said there’s no similar deadline for including special education students in the testing, but as the state has provided training on the topic districts have been including them more each year.

Dorman said the initial reduction in struggling readers is an early indicator of success, but not definitive because of the data discrepancies.

Even after such wrinkles get ironed out, it’s not clear how much time it will take to see major changes in third grade reading proficiency.

“The truth is we really don’t know if these state legislative efforts are helpful or not because we don’t have enough data over long enough to be able to figure that out,” said Nell Duke, professor of literacy, language and culture at the University of Michigan.

She said when states do see positive results after the passage of laws like the READ Act, it’s hard to isolate which of their many components made a difference.

Grappling with testing

So what’s the READ Act experience like for the five- to nine-year-old students who’ve been living it out for the past few years?

It depends on their school, but frequent assessment—maybe 10 or 15 minutes every week or so—is par for the course for students with READ Plans. For some children, it’s a chance to have one-on-one time with teachers or paraprofessionals—sometimes with the extra bonus of working on an iPad. For others, like Ewert-Lamutt’s tearful second-grader, it can be a regular ding to self-esteem.

Duke said while such state-approved assessments can be useful for certain skills, they typically don’t cover the range of skills needed for reading success. For example, it’s much faster and easier to test whether children knows the ABCs than the thinking strategies they use to make meaning from what they read.

Every student in Kim Ursetta's class regularly checks their personalized reading progress charts. The black line shows where they're supposed to be each month.
Every student in Kim Ursetta’s class regularly checks their personalized reading progress charts. The black line shows where they’re supposed to be each month.

“An important piece for Colorado to grapple with is are we assessing and providing instruction in all the skills?” Duke said.

The meat of the READ Act are the tools used to help kids catch up. Sometimes, these don’t feel much different than the usual school fare. For example, all kids may head off to reading groups for a half-hour in the morning. Other times, the extra help is more obvious— computer-based reading activities, extra literacy groups, tutoring or summer school.

Dorman said finding the right kind of instruction is where schools need the most help.

“They need to know what to do next to really impact the change,” she said.

These charts show how many high-frequency words kindergarteners in Kim Ursetta's class know. For some, it's dozens and others a couple.
These charts show how many high-frequency words kindergarteners in Kim Ursetta’s class know. For some, it’s dozens and others a couple.

But teachers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on that goal. Students themselves often know what marks they have to hit to stay on track.

Kim Ursetta’s Spanish-speaking kindergarteners at Denver’s Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy monitor their monthly reading progress using small charts tucked inside red folders. On a recent afternoon, when Ursetta asked how many sight words they’d gotten correct that day, each quickly piped up with their personal best. One little girl in pigtails said two, the boy to her right said 15, and the boy to her left said 52.

At North Elementary School in Brighton, kindergarten teacher Rachelle Matossian tells her students to visualize a red, yellow and green stoplight to understand their path to reading success.

“We’re trying to get to the green zone,” she’ll tell the children, most of whom started the year far below grade level—in the red zone of a common reading test.

Teacher views run the gamut

Teachers’ feelings about the READ Act vary widely. For some, it depends on the path their school or district was on before the law.

Micah Evans, a first grade teacher in Greeley, said the READ Act didn’t require a major shift in practice because her district had already overhauled its elementary literacy program years earlier after it was placed on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance. Many of the district-initiated changes aligned with those in the READ Act.

“I think the READ Act is a positive thing for kids,” said Evans, a self-described data freak. “For us, it’s the normal way of life.”

For other teachers, the law feels more onerous—adding a new degree of chaos to daily schedules, requiring teachers to hit certain compliance marks and cutting into instruction time.

Matossian, who has seven students with significant reading deficiencies, estimated that she spends two to three hours a week giving some type of assessment, though not just for the READ Act.

Ursetta, who has about 10 students with reading troubles, has similar worries, both about testing time and the extra work she does to record the data—sometimes in four different places.

“I do think that there needs to be some sort of accountability,” she said. “It’s just a lot on your plate.”

Discrete skills versus the joy of reading

One blessing-and-a-curse aspect of the READ Act seems to be its emphasis on determining the very specific reading skills  students struggle with and targeting instruction to those skills.

Ten of 27 students in Kim Ursetta's classroom have major struggles with reading. Seven of them are boys.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Ten of 27 students in Kim Ursetta’s classroom have major struggles with reading. Seven of them are boys.

Some teachers said they appreciate the intentional and systematic approach favored under the READ Act, but others fear it fragments the reading experience and sucks the joy away.

“I just don’t want the skills to kill the desire to read….I guess that would be my one worry,” said Rita Merigan, a reading interventionist at Gunnison Elementary School. “Reading is so much more than these targeted pieces.”

Ewert-Lamutt, from Jeffco, has related concerns, worrying that few of the state-approved strategies address the literacy needs of English learners.

“Most of the interventions really focus on discrete ideas: This is a ‘t’ and it makes this sound ‘ta, ta, ta ta’….It’s not going to do it for them,” she said. “They need connections to real text.”

Dorman agreed that finding good materials for English learners is a challenge, but said it’s a supply and demand issue.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of selection in the market for that,” she said.

The specter of retention

In the first couple years of the READ Act, relatively few schools recommended that struggling readers be held back—a controversial strategy because some research suggests it’s ineffective.

State READ Act data reveals that just over 3,000 students—or 1.2 percent of the K-3 cohort—were recommended for retention and only 927 of them, or .4 percent, were actually retained in 2013-14.

“That is not an intervention strategy or a path that very many have chosen,” Dorman said.

A few teachers said they’ve recommended holding back students who were chronically absent or had across-the-board problems, but in the end it’s been up to parents.

That changes next year for third-graders. Although parents can still request advancement to fourth-grade, principals or other administrators will make the final decision. Exemptions from the provision are available for students who’ve already repeated third grade and some English learners and students with disabilities.

All told, 16 states and Washington, D.C. require holding back students who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade, according to a 2014 report from the Education Commission of the States.

While the READ Act doesn’t go that far, some educators are nervous about the stricter retention provision.

“It kind gives you pause to wonder what that will look like,” Merigan said. “I don’t want to see a bunch of children held back.”

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.”

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