the youngest learners

How to help struggling young readers

PHOTO: Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report
A kindergartener re-creates a flashcard word using Unifix cubes — a hands-on way to reinforce reading skills.

This story about early reading instruction is part of a series about innovative practices in the core subjects in the early grades. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

BRONX, N.Y. — The end of third grade is a turning point for young readers; it’s where skilled readers take off, finally able to competently read a variety of texts, and struggling readers teeter off track, often unable to ever catch up. This crucial juncture, and its far-reaching implications for those who don’t meet the mark, is why some educators are focusing their literacy efforts on the school years that come before third grade — hoping through innovation to offset what could be a terrible and lasting deficit in children’s reading skills.

Last year, in tests of the nation’s public school fourth graders, just 23 percent of Hispanic children and 20 percent of African-American children scored “proficient” in reading. Among low-income students in general, just 22 percent of fourth-graders were proficient readers. The repercussions of not learning to read are magnified for poor children: Research shows that low-income children who cannot read at grade level by third grade are six times more likely to become high school dropouts.

“In this country, we have the ability to get 90 to 95 percent of kids reading successfully — if only we’d implement scientifically based methods,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a think tank that advocates tougher teacher evaluation. “Yet we routinely only prepare between 60 and 70 percent of kids to be successful readers.” Teacher-prep programs, she added, bear a large part of the responsibility here: Many teachers-in-training receive just one course in how to teach reading — a teaching task which experts agree is extremely complex — before heading into the classroom.

“It’s a source of deep frustration for a lot of people, including myself, that we fail to adequately prepare teachers to teach reading,” Walsh said. “It’s simply malpractice.”

Children do not come wired to learn how to read: It is an acquired skill. A teacher must be able to synthesize a deep well of research, master a variety of instructional methods and then be able to deploy this knowledge daily to meet each child at his or her own reading ability level.

At P.S. 218 in the Bronx, a high-poverty public bilingual school where nearly 90 percent of the students are Hispanic and 32 percent are English language learners, early-grade teachers have spent the last three years learning how to do a better job of teaching students to read — and they are seeing results.

Related: One reason so many kids in Mississippi fail reading tests?

On a recent spring day, 16 kindergarteners, some sitting on small chairs, others cross-legged on foam mats on the floor, trained their eyes on a large yellow easel pad. Miss T., known outside the classroom as Rosy Taveras, tapped a hand pointer below each word on the pad as, together, they read aloud:

“My New Pet

I wanted a new pet.

A pet that could fly.

So I got out a net

and chased a butterfly.”

Taveras showed flashcards with the words “OUT” and “SO” spelled in large block letters.

“Gimme an O, gimme a U, gimme a T! What’s that spell?” she asked, cheerleader-style.

“OUT!” yelled her students.

“Take a look at these cards,” Taveras said. “Now turn to your neighbor and ask: ‘How did you know it was ‘HOW’ or ‘SO’?’”

The students mumbled to each other for several seconds.

“Now I need a friend to find ‘SO’ and ‘OUT’ in the poem,” Taveras said. Small hands shot up. “Ephraim, you’re up.”

This is shared reading, a finely-tuned teaching practice that offers Taveras the opportunity to model fluent and expressive reading while her students join in. If the practice is done well, kids will feel like successful readers, and be eager to learn more. Although Taveras is the teacher in charge, she is closely monitored by reading coach Xiania Foster, who provides feedback after each chunk of the daily reading lesson.

Taveras has been a teacher for four years, all of them at P.S. 218. “When I went to college [to study teaching], they tell you: ‘Here, this is the lesson plan for reading, for math, etc.,’ but once you get to the classroom, you realize there’s no way this is going to cover everything,” she said. “You can’t just go black and white. You have to differentiate for each student, and always keep in your mind: what movement can I do for the students who don’t know the language, what visuals can I bring so they have a better understanding of the lesson? These are not things they teach you in college.”

Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report.

Foster, Taveras’ instructional coach, has been coming to P.S. 218 for three years, part of a partnership between the school and Early Reading Matters, a teacher-training program. ERM focuses on showing public school teachers who work in New York City’s high-poverty schools how to skillfully get students in the early grades to read at grade level. The program is currently working in 32 schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, with plans to expand to 62 schools by 2021.

So far, results are promising. Averaged across 15 schools during the 2016-17 school year, the nonprofit reports an approximately 11 percent boost in the number of students reading at grade level — from 33 percent reading at grade level in the fall to 44 percent by the beginning of summer. The figures do not include students who missed more than 28 days of class each year.

The program is research-based, said Lynette Guastaferro, chief executive officer of ERM’s parent company, Teaching Matters. If teachers hope to create eager readers, especially among kids who struggle to learn the skill, their chances of success will be far greater if key principals of balanced literacy become second nature, an essential part of their teaching practice. These techniques include how to create strong, guided reading instruction, how to select and appropriately use high-quality texts, and how to assess each child’s reading level to better target guided and independent reading.

Related: Can Common Core reading tests ever be fair?

When Sergio Cáceres became principal of P.S. 218 four years ago, he decided to focus on the school’s youngest students. “If you want to have an impact in the later grades, you need to start with K to 2,” he said. “That’s the foundation of learning.”

After an initial assessment, he determined that early reading instruction was one of the school’s glaring weaknesses. “We have very good teachers but they did not know how to teach reading,” Cáceres said.

In 2014, Cáceres’ first year at the school, just 19 percent of the students tested as proficient on the statewide English Language Arts test, compared to 31 percent statewide. “Early literacy is difficult to teach well, especially when it comes to teaching students who are struggling readers, and unfortunately, it’s a skill teachers don’t come prepared with,” said the principal. “Especially so for kindergarten through second grade.”

Without high-quality and targeted support, research shows, many teachers decide to quit. The rate at which teachers leave the profession — generally about 8 percent nationwide — is 50 percent higher at high-poverty schools and 70 percent higher in schools serving primarily students of color. At P.S. 218, almost 40 percent of teachers have less than three years’ teaching experience.

When the district superintendent asked P.S. 218 to consider implementing the ERM teaching model, Cáceres didn’t hesitate, even though it would clearly mean extra hours and effort for Cáceres and his already overworked teachers. He appreciated ERM’s research-based approach to teaching reading and he was also swayed by the financials: Normally, hiring a reading coach would cost approximately $1,250 per day, but ERM training and three years of in-school coaching won’t cost the school a penny; it is all funded by grants. In addition to the ERM training, the school received a Universal Literacy Coach, part of New York City’s Universal Literacy Initiative, a citywide effort to get 100 percent of all second-graders reading at grade level by 2026.

“So we worked to align Early Reading Matters with the U.Lit coach and, wow, what a powerful combination,” said Cáceres. “It was very rigorous.”

Related: Four tips from a high-poverty school where kindergarteners excel at reading

Back in Taveras’ classroom, Foster, the reading coach, checked in with the teacher. “Your timing: It’s getting much better,” Foster said quietly. Taveras nodded, her eyes scanning the room. Her students were split into small groups, each working at prepared stations where they reinforced their reading skills by playing with objects like play dough to shape out letters, multicolored Unifix cubes to form short words, and a word-based memory game on the rug. “We talked about shortening your lesson to 15 minutes and you nailed it,” said Foster.

Taveras headed to her desk where five children were waiting to do small group work. “Pull out your flashcards with the words ‘IS’ and ‘MY’,” she instructed the group. Foster pulled up a chair to observe. The extra attention helps children deepen their grasp of specific letters and sounds.

As one of ERM’s 10 coaches, Foster works in five schools, each at a different stage in its three-year relationship with the program. After an intensive multi-day training session for teachers and principals at ERM’s headquarters, schools receive 30 days of coaching over the first two years. That number decreases to 15 days in the third year. (P.S. 218 purchased another 15 days this year to provide reading instruction training for new hires and to continue strengthening the skills of existing teachers.)

Foster works individually with teachers to develop targeted teaching strategies, help create reading lessons, and train teachers and administrators to assess and monitor growth, of both students and teachers. She often starts with a school’s lead teachers — frequently modeling teaching skills and techniques in the classroom — who then share lessons learned with other teachers in the grade.

“Probably the hardest part of my job is changing mindset, because the kids can do a lot, but sometimes teachers and administrators aren’t aware of how much kids — even struggling students — can accomplish,” said Foster. “So part of my work is encouraging teachers to say, OK, I’m going to read this text, even though it’s hard, and the kids can grapple with it.”

Because reading proficiency has such a huge impact on later learning, the challenging task of teaching young children to read must be “job one for elementary teachers,” according to a 2016 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Yet just 39 percent of the nation’s 820 teacher-prep programs cover the essential components of effective early reading instruction.

“Poor teacher prep for reading has been going on a long time,” said Cáceres, the principal at P.S. 218. “Yet I haven’t met a teacher who can’t master it. But the schools that perform well, they all have high-level coaches. After that, success depends on two things: the quality of the coaching and how open a teacher is to receiving professional input.”

Head Start restart

Children left in limbo as Detroit Head Start providers stand to lose federal grants

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat

Four major providers of Head Start programs in Detroit must re-apply for funding after losing their federal grants this year, throwing the future of dozens of classrooms in doubt for the fall.

One of the four providers was forced to re-compete for funding after leaving a 3-year-old outside in freezing winter weather and putting children in unsafe classrooms. The other three were ranked poorly in a federal performance review that scores how students and teachers interact.

Head Start, the federally funded program that provides free preschool and other services to the nation’s neediest children, has long struggled in Detroit. Years of program neglect while under the supervision of a cash-strapped city agency left providers without adequate buildings and a teacher shortage so severe that two years ago, 800 funded seats for the most vulnerable children in the city were going unused.

Since then, the program had expanded, but providers are still struggling to create enough programs to use all of the 5,200 Head Start seats the federal government would fund. As of last spring, 260 seats were going unused, according to Patrick Fisher, spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the federal organization that oversees Head Start.

Thousands of Detroit families rely on these programs for free childcare and meals for ages 0 to 5. Head Start is especially important for low-income families struggling with the skyrocketing cost of childcare. Despite the longstanding issues, these Head Start facilities are many families’ only option for affordable quality early childhood education. Studies on Head Start show the program can influence everything from whether kids succeed in school, to whether they become smokers as adults.

The prospect that programs could be closed or moved if current providers are not able to win new grants has been unsettling to families who might not be able to bring their children to a school that’s farther away.

“It would definitely be a disruption because I would have to travel, and a lot of us don’t have the means to travel,” said Monika Chester, the mother of three children who attend Head Start at the Samaritan Center on Detroit’s east side. “A lot of us are walking, taking the bus, getting a cab, even in the winter, and my baby is five months old.”

“But the worst thing would be for my babies to adapt to new teachers,” she said. “That’s the worst. That’s really bad.”

The four providers that must recompete — Matrix, Starfish Family Services, New St. Paul Tabernacle Head Start Agency Inc., and Metropolitan Children and Youth, Inc. — must divert attention from running facilities to competing for the federal money that allows them to run the programs. 

The process to reapply for one of the five-year grants is significantly easier if providers have no issues with their federal scores, providers say. Meanwhile, providers who score below passing on the federal examinations or have other issues are forced to undergo a multistep process that can take several people a month or longer to complete.

Ann Kalass, whose Starfish Family Services leads the coordination of a large Head Start collaborative called Thrive by Five Detroit, said her biggest concern is how reapplying affects the children and families in the program, rather than the time it takes for staff to reapply.

“What I worry about is that it creates a disruption and they leave our programs in May and June not knowing who to count on in the fall,” said Ann Kalass, who runs Starfish Family Services.

“There is a lot of work going on among many providers to submit quality plans and applications in mid-January, so yes, it’s definitely taking resources for us to do that,” Kalass said. “But from my perspective, we do this work all the time — we’re always competing for grants and new opportunities, so it’s people spending time on writing grants who might otherwise be thinking about the program strategy and implementation.

“The real concern for me at a system level is that we’re trying to rebuild and reinvest and it feels like taking a step back to move a step forward,” she added.

The federal auditors grade facilities in three categories: emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Providers are compared against one another nationally, and the lowest scoring 10 percent must automatically rebid for the federal money that pays for  the program.

In the category of classroom organization, Matrix, Starfish, and New St. Paul all scored in the bottom 10 percent range nationally.

Kalass said teacher turnover played a role in why the scores were so low in that category.

“Classroom organization looks at the routines and the structures of learning in the classroom,” Kalass said. “It talks about routines in the classrooms, the overall management of what’s happening in the classroom, and we have a high level of teacher turnover in the city, and some of the highest rates of teacher turnover in the country.”

The median salary for a preschool teacher who works full-time in Michigan is less than $30,000 a year, according to one study, making it hard to retain teachers. A report from the Kresge and Kellogg foundations pointed to the shortage of qualified preschool teachers as one of the challenges to improving early education in Detroit.

The next category, instructional support  — how children are taught — “involves how teachers promote children’s thinking and problem solving, use feedback to deepen understanding, and help children develop more complex language skills,” according to a guide to understanding the scoring metrics.

Nationwide, providers struggle to meet the federal standards for this category. The passing score has a low threshold — it is only about 2.31 out of seven. In Detroit, all three providers had low scores, but New St. Paul fell below the threshold for passing in that category.

In the emotional support category, all of the providers in Detroit scored above the minimum. This area measures how teachers “help children resolve problems, redirect challenging behavior, and support positive peer relationships.”

The federal Office of Head Start, which conducts the reviews, has proposed a change to the bottom 10 percent rebid rule and other scoring guidelines, but it won’t have an effect on the current process.

Providers in Detroit support the change. They believe comparing the city with providers outside of the area isn’t right. Last year, 32 percent of grantees nationwide had to recompete for grants. In Detroit, that number is higher as providers struggle with crumbling buildings, high teacher turnover, and a Head Start program that has endured years of turmoil.

But the other issues submitted to the federal office by the facilities themselves are harder to debate.

At the Samaritan Center, a Matrix facility on the east side near Chandler Park, on Jan. 8, 2018, a teacher was terminated after kicking a 2-year-old who fell asleep in a chair, according to the federal report released in February. The Samaritan Center had another violation in October of last year, when a 3-year-old was told to walk back to class unsupervised and was later found by personnel “alone, lying on the floor in a classroom crying,” according to a May report. The teacher was terminated.

The Eternal Rock Center, another Matrix facility located in Southwest Detroit, was given a violation after a 4-year-old was left in a classroom unsupervised for a short time in January. The teacher was terminated in this case as well.

Matrix Family Services declined a phone interview to speak on the low facility scores, rebidding for contracts, and the offsite reports from this year.

A report on the Metropolitan Children and Youth, Inc.’s facility was enough to trigger the contract rebid process. In winter of 2014, at the Harper/Gratiot Center on Detroit’s east side, a 3-year-old was left outside on a playground and later found by a parent crying and knocking on the door of the building. Neither the center’s investigation nor a review by the federal office was able to determine how long the child was outside in freezing temperatures.

Only Metropolitan Children and Youth is forced to rebid because of the offsite reports.

“Reviewers examine documentation sent by the grantee to identify program strengths or weaknesses, deficiencies, or that an issue has been remediated,” said Patrick Fisher, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the federal office that oversees Head Start.

In Detroit’s Head Start classrooms, reported treatment like this is rare but not out-of-the-blue: underpaid teachers working in buildings struggling to keep the heat on sometimes results in poor conditions.

If the four providers don’t manage to win contracts, families could  be forced to find new centers and forge new connections with teachers. Moving locations can be hard on families and children alike, and requires a concentrated effort between the old and new provider to successfully transition students and staff.

A transition occurred last year after Southwest Solutions abruptly shuttered 11 Head Start centers. Luckily for the 420 children affected, Starfish Family Services was able to transition the children and many of the teachers to other agencies, allowing many to remain in their existing facilities.

There’s no guarantee that relocation of families could happen so smoothly in the future, but the Detroit providers are keeping lines of communication open.

“I think there are a lot of encouraging signs for early childhood programing in Detroit,” Kalass said. “Providers are meeting monthly to problem solve together — around workforce, facilities, and about better connecting with families.”

“We’re in a place of rebuilding and I’m optimistic that we won’t see a situation like this again. We won’t be in this place a few years from now.”

Scroll down to read some of the reports that led to one Head Start agency being asked to reapply for funding.

 

sunset

Victim of its own success: Qualistar, pioneer in rating Colorado child care, to close

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

With efforts to measure and improve child care quality in Colorado now ensconced in state government, the nonprofit organization that laid the groundwork for that system will close next month.

Leaders at Qualistar Colorado said the state’s recent progress in prioritizing quality in child care centers and preschools makes it the right time to end operations as a stand-alone entity.

“That’s always the best story you can have for a nonprofit, where it puts itself out of business,” said Kathryn Harris, Qualistar’s president and CEO.

One of Qualistar’s chief accomplishments over its 20-year history was pioneering a rating system for preschools and child care centers well before the state took on the task with federal dollars in 2014.

Unlike the mandatory state system, called Colorado Shines, Qualistar’s system wasn’t widely used among providers because it was voluntary and expensive. Still, it was a respected tool at a time when many states had no mechanism at all for letting parents, providers, or the public know whether children were in good hands at preschool or child care.

Most states now have quality rating systems, which evaluate everything from teacher credentials to classroom set-up and parent engagement efforts. High quality child care helps children develop skills they need to start school and over the long term is associated with better health, education, and economic outcomes.

Qualistar has 30 employees and a $3.7 million annual budget.

More than one early childhood advocate said Qualistar’s decision to close wasn’t a complete surprise, given the evolution of the rating system from a privately funded initiative to a statewide effort scaled up with government dollars.

Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said while Colorado hasn’t yet achieved universal quality in its child care centers and preschools, Qualistar has achieved a key part of its mission by elevating discussions about quality.

“What Qualistar set out to do is becoming the norm,” he said.

Anna Jo Haynes, co-chair of the state’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission, helped found Qualistar in 1999 following the release of a multi-state study that gave Colorado low marks for child care quality.

“Boy, did we say, ‘Enough of this,’” recalled Haynes, who sat on Qualistar’s board during its early years.

Qualistar, which was originally named Educare, drew substantial philanthropic support to create and advance its four-star rating system. Those efforts, Haynes said, along with constant advocacy at Colorado’s capitol, helped convince lawmakers that measuring and improving child care quality was important.

Now, that Qualistar’s era is ending, she said, “I think they can take a bow and say, ‘We did a good job.’”

After Qualistar closes, some projects will continue under the auspices of other local early childhood organizations or, in one case, a spin-off group.

Clayton Early Learning, which does research, training and runs a well-respected child care center in northeast Denver, will take over Qualistar’s state contract to conduct on-site assessments for the Colorado Shines system. Child care centers and preschools seeking one of the top three of Colorado Shines’ five ratings must have an on-site assessment.

State officials said Qualistar’s closing will not affect any providers’ current ratings and that they’re working to ensure there will be no delays in upcoming ratings as the hand-off to Clayton unfolds.

The Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance, which works on behalf of Colorado’s 31 early childhood councils, will take over administering a scholarship program for early childhood providers pursuing college-level classes in the field.

One Qualistar initiative, Healthy Child Care Colorado, will spin off into its own nonprofit. It will continue to provide training and technical assistance to child care providers on health, wellness and safety topics. It will also continue making grants for playground and building improvements.

Harris said the groups taking over Qualistar initiatives will have authority over staffing, but she’s hopeful a number of Qualistar employees will land jobs with them.

Harris, who took the helm of Qualistar four years ago, said she’s not sure what she’ll do next, but it will be something related to education.

Contemplating Qualistar’s legacy, she said, “Colorado and the people who led this organization before me were trailblazers and I think that’s something to be very, very proud of.”