building blocks

Why a Colorado researcher believes preschool students should learn — and play — with math

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

What do preschoolers need math for? Doug Clements argues preschoolers use math everywhere from reading to play — and engaging early mathematics instruction can help better prepare young students for later learning.

Clements, the executive director of the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, has spent nearly his entire career studying and advocating for introducing math concepts in early childhood education. He and his wife Julie Sarama, Marsico’s co-executive director, developed preschool lessons and tests for teaching mathematics to early learners. Their hallmark program, Building Blocks, has taken hold in cities such as Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., where both Clements and Sarama have conducted research.

Clements took the helm at Marsico in 2013, where he and Sarama have worked on a new iteration of their math-focused early childhood curriculum that incorporates literacy, social-emotional learning and science.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Clements shared memories from the classroom and the benefits — and fun — of teaching math concepts to preschoolers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you become fascinated with early math education?

I served as a graduate assistant to a math (education) professor because I liked math as a student myself. We drove a big van around with 1960s curriculum from National Science Foundation and showed teachers this stuff.

When I started teaching kindergarten I was very sensitive to the fact that I wanted to do mathematics better, so I was always casting about for curriculum or ideas to teach mathematics. I was just skeptical these kids could do it, so I was hesitant many times to ask them to do these kinds of things. But lo and behold, they took to it. It surprised me. If you talk to (kids) about their strategies and what they’re thinking about the mathematics, it just reveals so much more competence than you’d normally think that really young kids had.

I just became more and more interested in pushing the  envelope of these kind of abilities kids had mathematically. Teachers often will say, “I got into preschool so I didn’t have to teach mathematics.” And instead we tell them, “We don’t want you to give kids the kind of experiences that led you to dislike mathematics.”

Do you have a specific examples or story of a time where you saw the benefits of early math instruction in action?

We were reading a book and the (students) noticed the hexagons in a beehive, and they came up with all these different reasons that bees would make hexagons. The kids had a delightful time thinking of different reasons. For example, one of the reasons was the bees saw the hexagons in the school and thought, “That’s a great shape. We should use that in our beehive.” And this boy happened to say, “I think they chose hexagons because they fit together real well.”

The kind of natural interest and competence they have in mathematics — if given the opportunities, the interactions with the teachers, the intentional teaching that the teacher does — leads to spontaneous use of mathematics throughout their lives.

We know from research kids who come from lower-resource communities don’t have a heck of a lot of those experiences so it’s really important that those schools we are working with, with kids with huge percentages of free and reduced lunch. All kids need better and more mathematics. It’s especially important for equity reasons, for those kids who have fewer resources in their homes and communities, to be able to go to a preschool where their kind of fire of interest in mathematics is provided by the teacher and the curriculum.

What are some of the key findings you have drawn from your research on the link between early math and early literacy?

Doing math with kids actually helps them build the ability to learn and use new vocabulary words even if those vocabulary words were not mathematical in content. They have to dig down deep to explain their own thinking and that really helped them build more complex grammatical structures, and that’s an outcome of the mathematics. And then they were more able to answer inferential questions.

Well-done mathematics doesn’t just teach mathematics, it’s cognitively fundamental and helps kids learn a variety of abilities.

How are these concepts integrated in the classroom?

What’s most effective is to combine methodologies. We don’t just do whole group, we don’t just do small group, we don’t just do learning centers, we don’t just do computer — we do all four of those. We keep it short, interesting. So, for example, kids will stomp around classroom marching and (counting alternately quietly and loudly).

What does it do? It builds, of course, the verbal counting strength. But look at what else — it builds the knowledge of one-to-one correspondence because they’re stamping per each count. Not only that, it builds intuition about pattern because we’re saying one quietly, two loudly. And then lastly they’re building intuition about even and odd numbers, because all the odd numbers are said quietly, all the even numbers are said loudly.

So you don’t have to do, sit down, look at the paper, write the number two, to be doing fundamentally interesting mathematics.

How many preschools are actually integrating early math concepts into their programs the way you think it should be done? Is there anything holding back programs from doing so?

Most people understand that the goal of literacy is to be able to read and write and think, but often people think the goal of math is to be able to compute accurately. That’s such a limited view of mathematical thinking writ large. So we have a lot of work to do to change people’s conception of mathematics as well as their skills in understanding the math, understanding the kid’s thinking and understanding how to teach to develop that kid’s thinking.

But it is coming along — there is more general knowledge and awareness at least, interest in it, and — this is important in early childhood the youngest years, the preschool years — less resistance to doing mathematics (because of the perception) that it’s developmentally inappropriate which it’s not. But still, in some circles (they say), “Kids should play, kids should be kids. Why would they do math? That should wait until later. Math is just school, boring stuff, and kids should be kids and play.”

 

hope on the horizon

With promise of new federal money, more low-income Colorado families could get help with child care

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Thousands of additional Colorado families might be able to pay for child care if a federal spending bill due in March fulfills the pledge of a recently approved budget deal.

That’s because the deal, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump earlier this month, promised new money for a subsidy program that helps low-income parents pay for child care. In Colorado, the program is oversubscribed with more than 1,300 children on waitlists statewide.

While the spending bill won’t be finalized until March 23, advocates in Colorado say they think there’s a good chance the new child care money — $2.9 billion for the whole country over two years — will survive the negotiation process.

“I think that we will see this go through,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“I don’t think that child care and the block grant will be the major point of contention,” he said, referring to the federal grant that helps fund the subsidies.

(Trump’s own budget proposal, released three days after he signed the budget deal, doesn’t include increased child care block grant funding, but some observers say the budget deal holds more sway.)

If the two-year spending bill passes with the new child care funding included, Colorado could gain around $35 million, according to an estimate from the national anti-poverty group CLASP. That’s on top of the $150 million Colorado would get over the two-year period if the program’s funding simply stayed flat.

Practically speaking, the additional $35 million could mean child care subsidies for an additional 2,700 Colorado children over two years, according to a separate CLASP analysis.

State officials declined to comment on the federal budget proposal, saying in an email, “It is possible that, if approved, we could see an increase in services, but right now it’s all theoretical.”

Low-income parents who are working, looking for work, or in school make up the largest chunk of people eligible for child care subsidies, which are offered through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program and administered by the state’s counties. About 31,000 children were served through the program last year.

In addition to child care subsidies, the federal block grant helps pay for a number of other programs, including child care licensing and the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

El Paso County officials say the new federal money could help them eliminate the waitlist for subsidies they had to start for the first time in January. There are 196 children on the list, and it’s growing steadily.

Julie Krow, executive director of the county’s human service department, said some parents may opt for unlicensed child care if they can’t get a subsidy, sending their children to stay with relatives or neighbors during the workday.

The quality of such care varies widely and is mostly unregulated by the state.

“We don’t want to see kids left in unsafe situations because of this,” Krow said, referring to the shortage of subsidies.

When early childhood programs are underfunded, she said, child abuse and neglect cases, which are also in her department’s purview, can rise.

The new federal child care dollars would help reduce or eliminate subsidy waitlists across Colorado, but wouldn’t completely satisfy the need. That’s because the number of children on waitlists represents only a fraction of those eligible for subsidies but not served.

For now, Krow is hopeful the new money will be approved and sent quickly to states and then to counties.

“It’s a program I really believe in,” she said. “As soon as those federal dollars come out, I’m hoping the state has a plan and they are out the door.”

testing ground

A giant leap: How one Colorado community plans to double its child care spots in three years

It sounds a little like a car race, but it’s more like a care race.

Child Care 8,000 is one Colorado county’s ambitious new effort to create thousands of new licensed child care slots and significantly improve the quality of its child care programs over the next three years.

The initiative in Mesa County has drawn interest and praise from early childhood leaders around the state, with some hoping it could serve as a model for other Colorado communities. At the same time, there are questions about the feasibility of such a lofty plan in a county that has lost scores of child care slots over the last year and that isn’t enjoying the same economic surge as the state’s Front Range.

One thing everybody agrees on is that child care is hard to find in the western Colorado county where Grand Junction is the county seat.

A national group that has examined child care supply in 22 states, including Colorado, has designated large swaths of Mesa County as a child care desert. That means the number of small children far exceeds the number of licensed child care slots.

For local leaders, Child Care 8,000 is also a way to tackle other pressing problems in the 150,000-resident county — everything from low elementary test scores and high suicide rates to workforce churn. The fix, they believe, is high quality early education.

On one hand, it makes sense. Some of the most respected researchers in the field have found that top-notch early childhood programs yield a better return than the stock market by improving children’s long-term education, health, and employment outcomes.

“This is a community that’s stepping out and saying we need to address this now,”
said Kathryn Harris, president and CEO of the Denver-based nonprofit Qualistar Colorado. Harris has worked with project leaders to develop the plan.

“I think a big county push like this that is putting quality at the forefront … is critical,” she said.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said, “Boldness attracts enthusiasm, and it’s certainly a bold goal.”

Practically speaking, Child Care 8,000 is a heavy lift. Half of its two-part goal is to increase licensed child care slots from the current 4,200 to 8,000 by the end of 2020. That means hundreds of new providers must be enticed into a field known for low pay, high turnover, and a raft of regulation.

While the project’s current focus is on creating new slots for children from newborns to 5 years old, creating new slots for school children ages 6-12 is also part of the plan. About half of the 3,800 new slots envisioned will be for the older age group.

Jeff Kuhr, executive director of the Mesa County Public Health department and a chief architect of Child Care 8,000, said the 8,000 slots represent about 60 percent of the county’s population of children ages 0-12 — the approximate proportion who need child care either because both parents work or their household is led by a single parent who works.

The second part of the Child Care 8,000 goal calls for 30 percent of providers caring for young children to earn ratings in the top three tiers of the state’s quality rating system. This means dozens of providers — both existing and new ones — will need to undertake an improvement process that has been described as time-consuming and onerous by some who’ve gone through it.

Currently, only 10 percent of Mesa County providers have ratings in the top three levels of the rating system, Colorado Shines.

Kuhr said his vision for the project grew out of a longtime interest in the potential for child care to improve many aspects of child and family well-being, and by extension, community well-being.

The project, “is truly addressing social determinants,” he said. “This ends up in a healthier community.”

Having spent the last few months pitching the project, Kuhr knows there are some doubts.

“We have some people say, ‘Well, that’s an impossible goal,’” he said. “You can always adjust, but you have to start somewhere … In my book, if you’re making progress, the goal is secondary.”

Word of the project is still trickling out. Some early childhood providers in the county said this week they hadn’t heard about it.

One of them was Kathy Laro, a licensed provider who watches four children in her Clifton home and leads the Mesa County Family Child Care Home Association. When told about the initiative, she laughed and said, “I didn’t know what that’s even about.”

A few minutes later, she said, “If they want more of us, they’re not doing their best to encourage it.”

Laro cited the red tape of licensing rules and what she and other veteran providers sometimes feel is disrespect from licensing specialists or other authorities.

At its heart, Child Care 8,000 is a collective impact effort — an approach to complicated social problems that relies on collaboration by numerous public and private groups. In Mesa County’s case, partners include county agencies, the school district, the local university, the early childhood council, community groups, businesses, and some statewide leaders.

Kuhr and other local leaders plan to deploy a wide range of strategies to increase child care slots and raise quality. These include expanding and subsidizing training for prospective providers, streamlining the licensing process, increasing provider wages, and making back-office tasks, such as purchasing and accounting, easier for providers. While some of these efforts are underway, many are still in the planning stages.

What’s not clear is how much it will cost to jump-start a large crop of what are essentially new small businesses. Leaders will apply for some grants, but for now, they say there are no plans to pursue the kind of voter-approved tax measures that have underpinned efforts to support early childhood programs in Denver, Boulder, and San Miguel County.

For years, a Denver sales tax has funded preschool subsidies for 4-year-olds, and a Boulder County property tax has funded a variety of safety net programs, including child care subsidies for low-income families. Last November, voters in San Miguel County in southwestern Colorado approved a property tax that will create new slots for infants and toddlers, fund child care scholarships, and boost pay for child care workers.

Mary Anne Snyder, who leads Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood, said in an email that state officials are excited about Child Care 8,000 but can’t provide financial resources to support it. (Some state early childhood funds already flow to Colorado’s counties, including Mesa.)

A big slice of Child Care 8,000 hinges on getting local businesses to invest in child care — possibly by subsidizing child care for employees, creating on-site child care facilities, or donating money to communitywide child care efforts.

This kind of push for business community involvement has gained traction in Colorado and elsewhere as child care is increasingly framed as a critical cog in employee recruitment, retention, and productivity.

Bernie Buescher, a former Colorado attorney general who is working with Kuhr and other local leaders on the project, said business owners are feeling the effects of the county’s child care shortage.

“They are coming to the realization that in Mesa County one of the things their employees struggle with is their kids not having child care, and that means sometimes parents can’t make it to work,” said Buescher, who leads the Mesa County chapter of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children.

But Buescher and other project leaders also know that recognizing the problem isn’t enough.

Tracey Garchar, director of the county’s human services department, said getting active involvement from business leaders will be a major challenge.

It’s critical to find partners who are “willing to see the value in this and step forward from the business community,” he said. “If we’re successful in this, it could help everybody. There’s nobody who loses from having adequate, accessible child care in Mesa County.”

Since Kuhr came up with the concept of Child Care 8,000 about a year ago, the county has lost more than 100 licensed child care slots.

A few child care centers have closed, but more troubling to some early childhood advocates is a new state law governing how many children unlicensed providers can legally care for in their homes. The 2017 law raised the cap to four, prompting some home-based providers to let their licenses lapse, allowing them to continue doing what they’re doing mostly free of state regulation.

Holly Jacobson, co-coordinator of the early childhood council in Mesa County, said at least a half-dozen home-based providers have not renewed their licenses in recent months or are considering it specifically because of the new law.

Laro, the provider who cares for four children in Clifton, considered letting her license lapse but decided against it because moving to unlicensed status would reduce the daily payment she receives for one of her charges — a child in foster care who Laro watches more than 10 hours a day — from the current $32 to as little as $9.

While the number of licensed providers in Mesa County who have decided not to renew because of the new law isn’t large — a handful of providers representing maybe two dozen slots — it’s unclear whether the problem will intensify.

Despite such obstacles, Jacobson said Child Care 8,000’s aspirations are necessary.

“We’re shooting high” she said. “But we need to shoot high because there is significant need in our community.”