Little learners

Most states, including Colorado, invest less in kindergarten than other grades, report says

Roots Elementary students hold iPads as they stand in line to go into one of the school's mini-classrooms.

Even with a major push in Colorado and the nation to capitalize on the early childhood years so that kids are reading well by third grade, kindergarten still gets short shrift.

Most states, including Colorado, don’t require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten and don’t fully fund the program even when it’s offered. In addition, about half of states, including Colorado, allow full-day kindergarten to be fewer hours per day than other elementary grades.

These are a few of the findings in a new report from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks research and advises state education policymakers.

Still, there are signs of change, albeit very gradual. The report found that 14 states now mandate that districts offer full-day kindergarten, up from 11 in 2013.

Although there is no such requirement in Colorado, demand for full-day kindergarten is relatively high, with about three-quarters of the state’s kindergartners attending full-day programs last year, according to the state education department.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning for Education Commission of the States, said he expects the number of states mandating full-day kindergarten to continue to tick up, mirroring the trend that ratcheted up state-funded preschool programs over the last several years.

“As the economy recovers and legislators and governors are prioritizing their agendas, we’ll see more and more full-day kindergarten programs being offered,” he said.

Atchison believes efforts to improve third-grade reading proficiency will be a key driver. To date, such efforts have been reactive, with state laws, including Colorado’s READ Act, focusing on mitigating the problem after it’s been identified. Full-day kindergarten represents part of a more proactive approach, he said.

Some states, such as West Virginia, require districts to exclusively offer full-day kindergarten, while others, such as Oklahoma, require districts to offer it but also allow families to choose half-day kindergarten, according to the report.

The hurdle that many states face in offering expansive full-day kindergarten programs is funding. Historically, the half-day class required half the spending of other grades. But as full-day options were phased in, funding didn’t always catch up.

In Colorado, for example, state funding for full-day kindergarteners is only 58 percent of what it is for other grades. School districts that offer full-day kindergarten typically cover the gap by using other funding sources or by charging parents tuition.

There have been multiple legislative efforts to ramp up state funding for full-day kindergarten in recent years, including two bills that died during the 2016 legislative session.

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds receive some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English language learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

Enrollment and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student-to-teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English learners is permitting bilingual instruction in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.

 

Starting early

Colorado’s state preschool program doesn’t serve English learners well, report finds

PHOTO: energyy | Getty Images
Preschool children doing activities.

Colorado’s public preschool program fails to meet most targets for effectively serving young English learners, according to a new state-by-state report released today.

Besides having just two of nine recommended policies in place for serving such youngsters, Colorado also doesn’t know how many of the 22,000 preschoolers in its state-funded slots speak a home language other than English.

These findings come from the “State of Preschool 2017” report put out by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University. This year, in addition to the organization’s usual look at state preschool spending, enrollment, and quality, the report includes a section on how states are serving English learners. Nationwide, 23 percent of preschool-aged children fall into this category.

Colorado fared about the same as last year — average or below average — on the criteria examined annually in the preschool report. It ranked 25th among 43 states and Washington, D.C., for 4-year-old access to preschool, 10th for 3-year-old access and 39th for state preschool funding. It also met only five of 10 benchmarks measuring preschool quality, worse than most other states.

Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, called the the Colorado Preschool Program, provides half-day preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds who come from low-income families, have parents who didn’t finish high school, or other risk factors. Seven states, mostly in the West, have no public preschool programs.

Colorado isn’t alone in having few provisions focused on preschoolers learning English. About two-dozen other states also met two or fewer of the report’s nine benchmarks, which include policies such as allocating extra funding to English learners, and screening and assessing them in their home language.

Only three states met eight or nine of the benchmarks: Texas, Maine, and Kansas.

Colorado education department officials said the NIEER report could help spur changes in the Colorado Preschool Program.

“This actually might be an opportunity for us to look at these more specific indicators of high quality practices [for] dual-language learners, to help drive improvements in our program,” said Heidi McCaslin, preschool director at the Colorado Department of Education.

To alter the program or its data collection requirements, she said the state legislature would have to change the law or the State Board of Education would have to change rules.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

Colorado earned credit for two of the study’s English-learner benchmarks: for allowing bilingual instruction and having policies to support families of young English learners. Those policies include providing enrollment information and communicating with the child’s family in the home language.

McCaslin mentioned one Colorado preschool initiative focused on dual-language learners. It’s a training to help preschool teachers distinguish between children who have speech problems because of a disability and those who have speech delays because they are learning English and another language at the same time.