prek debate

How a computer program designed for home-based preschool in Utah could get a piece of Indiana’s education budget

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Indiana lawmakers are moving ahead with a proposal that would spend several million dollars over the next two years expanding preschool. But $2 million of that wouldn’t be spent on classrooms, teacher salaries or picture books.

Instead, it would give parents access to software that claims to get kids ready for kindergarten in “just 15 minutes a day.”

The unusual proposal — which might not survive the contentious budget-writing process — is part of an ongoing debate about how to expand education for Indiana’s youngest students. Indiana already grants low-income families vouchers to use at preschools in five counties, including Marion County. But that program serves fewer than 1,600 kids, and demand far exceeds supply.

To help, Senate lawmakers are discussing how to add funding for both traditional preschool and an online program. But educators and preschool advocates say they aren’t convinced that any software will meet the needs of the poor children that Indiana says need preschool most.

“I can see how a good online program, guided by family in the home, can supplement high-quality pre-K, but it certainly is not a substitute,” said Ted Maple, president of Early Learning Indiana, a non-profit child care provider and advocacy organization. “A skilled preschool teacher would design activities that encourage children to work together, learn how to be part of a classroom community.”

Read: What makes a preschool great: 4 things parents should look for

Upstart, a software program developed by the Utah Department of Education and the nonprofit Waterford, is at the center of the proposal. The program’s website claims that Upstart “prepares children for kindergarten in just 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week.”

Parents and children work for a year with the software, which adapts its instruction based on a child’s progress. The focus is on literacy: letters, vocabulary, basic grammar and sounding out words. Upstart also provides people to check in with the family if they have questions or if attendance falls below a certain level.

Utah, South Carolina, and Floyd County in southeastern Indiana already make the software available. Idaho is also considering the program.

According to Utah’s report from 2016, when a little more than 5,000 kids used Upstart, those kids made gains on literacy tests over peers who didn’t use the program. But the children participating were overwhelmingly white, native English-speakers from educated, two-parent households. Half of the Utah families studied made more than 200 percent of the federal poverty rate, which is $48,500 per year for a family of four.

That raises questions about whether its effectiveness will translate to other environments, Maple said, though Upstart says its program has proved effective with a wide range of students. To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four can’t earn more than $30,861 annually, and the state has made poor children its top priority as it began subsidizing early education in recent years.

But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, said the $2 million investment in “in-home education” would allow Indiana to reach 1,000 more students, potentially in rural areas where preschool options are more limited.

Across the state, just 36 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschool at all. And nine Indiana counties do not have a preschool provider that is deemed “high quality,” so residents couldn’t participate in the state voucher program even if it was expanded.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, noted that the online option would also come at a lower cost. If families already have access to computers, the program would cost the state $1,000 per year, or $2,000 if a computer needed to be provided. That’s far less than the $6,800 full-day and $2,500 half-day preschool grants that the state’s current program typically doles out.

But Holdman also said that the online program doesn’t align with Indiana’s specifications for safety and academics for high-quality preschools.

During an impassioned debate on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, voiced extreme skepticism about the online program given research showing the benefits of preschool.

“We’re funding (preschool) at a $4 million increase,” Stoops said. “But then we’re taking $1 million of that and we’re applying that to a really untested, kind of strange, virtual homeschool program.”

Kenley, just as strongly, disagreed.

“Your argument that we have studied this to death and we know with absolute certainty that this is the silver bullet that solves all of our problems,” he said. “I don’t think is a foregone conclusion.”

The Senate’s proposal also comes as schools across the country continue to struggle with online education. Kenley himself acknowledged there were issues with virtual schools when he presented his budget plan late last month, which limited funding for virtual schools serving older students compared to the House’s plan.

Today, the Indiana Senate passed its version of the two-year budget, which will head to conference committee for more debate. If the online preschool plan makes it into a final bill, it’s unclear if it will be opposed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has said he is “open-minded” about the online education option. But he wants to make sure that the state is investing money in traditional options as well, he said.

“This is a worthy discussion that the Senate has put forward, the in-home option,” Holcomb said. “We need to be increasing the quality facilities that we have throughout the state.”

Early readers

Tennessee wants to boost third-grade literacy. Here’s why it’s looking to early childhood education as the answer.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at the University of Memphis about reading and early childhood education.

Calling reading the “equity issue of our time,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that Tennessee will increase its literacy rates when it improves the quality of its early education programs.

The state has been waging war on illiteracy for years but is zeroing in on pre-K and other early education programs as the best vehicles to get 75 percent its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025. Currently less than half of its students are there.

Beginning this year, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding, tying the amount received to the quality of programming instead of the volume of students.

But McQueen said the state still has a lot to learn about developing young readers, and data is key.

“Before kids get to third grade, we have very little information statewide with whether or not those students are on track,” McQueen said. “We have very little data statewide to know where we should be putting investments.”

The state is seeking to fill that void by working with local leaders to better track its youngest students to determine what’s working best. In Memphis, Porter-Leath is taking the lead in that effort. The nonprofit organization opened a major pre-K center this year to serve as a teacher training hub to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Sandra Allen of LeBonheur Center for Children and Parents, Rafel Hart of Porter-Leath, Sharon Griffin of Shelby County Schools, and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

McQueen was part of an early reading panel discussion hosted in Memphis by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education and the PeopleFirst Partnership. The event featured Shelby County Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, state Rep. Mark White, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam, who has championed literacy during her husband’s administration.

Since launching its Read to be Ready initiative last year, Tennessee has invested $30 million in summer reading camps and another $4.2 million in a coaching network to support teachers with literacy instruction.

The stakes are high because reading is foundational to lifelong learning — and is critical to closing the achievement gap.

“When kids are not reading on grade level by third grade, they are four times less likely graduate high school,” McQueen said. “Kids scoring in the lowest proficiency level on literacy almost never catch up. Guess who is in that bottom level? Students who are African American. Students who are Latino. Students with disabilities. Students who are English language learners.”

(Very) early education

Bank Street heads to East New York to help child care providers play to their strengths

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sherease Alston sings along with children at her child care center, Little Minds at Work.

One little girl would simply repeat anything that was said to her, rather than answer basic questions like, “How are you?” Another toddler seemed more active than the other children — maybe too active. But Sherease Alston, who has run a child care center from her living room for the past six years, was often met with skepticism when she would share her observations with parents.

The hard part isn’t noticing when a child may have a developmental issue, she explained. It’s getting the child’s parents to recognize it, too.

“It’s hard for parents to see sometimes because they’re in denial,” she said.

A cold call from a leading education school helped change that. With the help of the new Guttman Center for Early Care and Education at the Bank Street College of Education, Alston came up with a strategy to help parents see what she sees. Now, she asks them to log their children’s behavior at home, so those logs can be compared against ones kept by the daycare, Little Minds at Work.

“It was easy to see once it was all documented,” Alston said. “It was an easy tool to use to open that door for our parents.”

New York City is in the midst of a massive push to expand access to early childhood education — and to make sure quality keeps up. Site evaluations and teacher training have been a centerpiece of the city’s free pre-K program, which now serves 70,000 4-year-olds and is expanding to enroll 3-year-olds, too.

The city is slated to bring its pre-K model to children as young as six weeks old, with plans to transfer responsibility for publicly funded childcare programs from the Administration for Children’s Services to the education department. Making that shift will require the city to turn its attention to a vast network of providers like Alston — those who are already working with infants and toddlers in their communities.

That’s where the Guttman Center is focusing its attention. Working with providers on the ground in low-income neighborhoods, the Center wants to help them solve problems and improve their care.

“We really wanted … to have the input of the community, acknowledge the exceptional range of abilities that already exists, and partner with them,” said Director Robin Hancock. “The beauty of having all these perspectives in the classroom is people are constantly hearing from other corners in the field.”

Across the country, early childhood advocates have taken a similar approach, working to meet providers where they are — and build on their strengths. In Colorado, for example, community organizations have trained the aunts, neighbors and other caregivers who form an often invisible network of care. The state has also paid special attention to helping Spanish-speaking providers earn early childhood credentials.

In New York City, the scale of the challenge is huge. ACS currently oversees programs that serve about 20,000 children ages 3 or younger. A recent report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that home-based providers especially struggle with a labyrinth of safety and compliance requirements, understanding what is developmentally appropriate for very young children, and enduring long hours for low pay.

Guttman’s work represents one step in helping child care workers navigate those issues. The first cohort of providers was drawn from East New York — one of two neighborhoods (along with the South Bronx) where the city is launching its pilot for free pre-K for 3-year-olds this fall. The Guttman program was created for even younger children, from infants to 2-year-olds.

Providers meet on Saturdays every other week for a semester, and coursework centers on topics like building partnerships with families and caring relationships with students. Group discussions are paired with on-site coaching.

“The goal really is for them to be able to look at their own practice and to understand what’s working and what is not,” said Margie Brickley, a program director for the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, who helped develop the Guttman curriculum.

Ultimately, the program hopes to create a community of support for providers who often find themselves working in isolation. Already, some have opened up their sites to visits from other providers to observe good practices in action and share ideas.

“The first 36 months of life are critical for cognitive development and we’re building the foundation for learning,” said Johannah Chase, then an associate dean at Bank Street. “It’s part of the reason why we’re putting so much of our energy into child caregivers.”

Kiara Dash, an assistant at Little Minds at Work, reads to Thravis Ealey. (Photo: Christina Veiga)

On a recent morning at Little Minds at Work, five squirmy toddlers and an infant gathered on a rug made of giant foam puzzle pieces. Sunlight streamed in through two windows facing a quiet residential street. The group sang about their feelings and assistant Vanesha Mayers playfully wiggled one boy’s fingers and toes as they counted to 20.

Before joining the Guttman program, Alston said she took a more academic approach to working with the very young children in her care — which often led to frustration for both her and the kids. Guttman helped her refocus her curriculum around play and building relationships.

“That was an eye-opener,” she said. “They helped me understand their needs.”

Brickley said Alston’s struggle is common. Often, providers simply “water down” programs meant for older children even though infants and toddlers have very different needs.

On the other hand, Alston said she is adept at juggling the business and regulatory aspects of her business — something she can help other providers learn.

Hancock, the center’s director, said the program was built to recognize providers’ different abilities and fill gaps as needed. That tailored approach respects the knowledge providers already bring to the table, she said, and helps create a culture of trust.

“We really want to make sure to help providers build confidence that they are experts,” she said. “They know their environments and they know their children best.”

Correction: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Johannah Chase’s name.