big data

Three out of four Illinois kids aren’t ready for kindergarten. Why that’s a problem.

PHOTO: Krisanapong Detraphiphat / Getty Images

Three out of four Illinois children starting kindergarten aren’t prepared. That’s according to data released Monday by the Illinois State Board of Education in conjunction with a power list of early childhood advocates who’ve spent nearly a decade lobbying for a baseline assessment.

Only 16 percent of low-income students, measured by those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, demonstrated readiness in the three core benchmarks: social-emotional learning, literacy, and math. But perhaps more surprising, wealthier districts reported low readiness scores, too, challenging common assumptions that tend to link richer communities with higher test scores.

Statewide, by race, 32 percent of Asian children and 29 percent of white children demonstrated readiness. The percentages of black and Latino children demonstrating readiness were lower, at 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Related: Diana Rauner sizes up the challenges ahead for early childhood education in Illinois 

The Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, aka KIDS, must be completed in the first 40 days of school, so it is not intended to gauge performance of districts or individual schools or teachers, said Jaclyn Matthews, a spokeswoman for the state board.

Rather, said Geoff Nagle, CEO of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago child development brain trust, the survey holds a mirror up to how communities, and our society, fail to prepare children for kindergarten.

“We don’t do that. There’s no system to do that,” Nagle said. “Then the kids enter the K-12 system, they come in at all different capacities. For years, the schools haven’t been able to close the disparities, and we have blamed them.”

“It’s sobering data,” agreed Theresa Hawley, vice president of policy at Illinois Action for Children, an advocacy organization that trains child care providers across the state. “It points to what we’ve known all along: We need to be doing a better job of preparing kids for success across the board.”

More than 100,000 Illinois kindergarteners, or 81 percent of those enrolled in public programs, were observed for the survey, which was developed by San Francisco-based WestEd. There was no pen-and-paper or electronic test; rather, children were asked to perform such tasks as sharing art materials, sorting objects like buttons by shape and size, recognizing multiple letters, and acting out stories. Dual language learners were encouraged to participate in their home language or in English.


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State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith praised districts for undertaking the project. “Illinois’ kindergarten teachers and school and district leaders have shown extraordinary leadership in making the first year of KIDS data collection a success,” said Smith. “The data give families, teachers, and communities a powerful tool to advocate for the resources and supports all children need.”

Statewide, 42 percent of kindergarteners failed to display readiness in any category. And only 24 percent — one in four — demonstrated readiness across all three. Students were more prepared in social-emotional learning — that is, sharing, asking for help from adults, and raising hands to speak in class; nearly half of state kindergarteners met the social-emotional learning benchmarks. But when it came to math, readiness percentages dramatically fell: Only one in three students met the survey’s benchmarks, showing critical need for better preparation in preschool and childcare settings when it comes to numbers, shapes, and patterns.

“Parents are comfortable with the concept of literacy and reading to their kids before they go to sleep,” said ISBE’s Matthews. “But they’re not so comfortable with the activities that you need to build early math skills.”

At this stage in a young child’s life, said Nagle of the Erikson Institute, you don’t expect kids to grow and develop at equal competencies. So it’s not worrisome if a child is strong in one area and weaker in another. But it is troubling that 42 percent of Illinois kindergarteners didn’t demonstrate readiness in any area.

Still, he wasn’t surprised by the data. “We have a K-12 system that is taking steps to (incorporate) pre-K, but we need to create something more: something that starts with paid parental leave and high-quality infant-toddler systems. We have a smattering of services and great ideas, but none of them is currently at a scale that is going to move the needle.”

Related: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is on a high-speed timeline for his universal pre-K rollout

In Chicago, results tracked with state averages, with 22 percent, or one in five students, prepared for kindergarten. That percentage dropped to 17 percent when just low-income students were considered. However, only 68 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ kindergarteners’ evaluations were logged, reportedly due to a technical error. As with the state, a higher percentage of students demonstrated readiness in social-emotional learning (46 percent) and literacy (40 percent) compared with math (28 percent).  

Nine districts reported that 80 percent or more of their students were prepared: Albers, Allen-Otter Creek, Bannockburn, Cass, Community Consolidated District 2014 in Pickneyville, Gardner, Hartsburg Emden, Saunemin, and Vienna.

Conversely, dozens of districts reported that 10 percent or fewer of their students were ready, including the state’s second-largest district, Elgin’s U-46, and Cook County School District 130, which serves south suburban communities of Alsip, Blue Island, and Robbins. Both Elgin and the area around Blue Island are considered “child care deserts,” according to the Center for American Progress. A child care desert is a census tract where three children or more exceed each available licensed slot.   

Ginger Ostro, the executive director of Advance Illinois and a former budget director of Chicago schools, said the gaps in availability between seats and kids in need “absolutely cries out for additional investment.” Her group highlighted those gaps in a report in 2016.

“When you think about how important that connection is to what’s happening in the K-12 system, you want those systems aligned and reinforcing each other,” Ostro said. As kids grow up year by year, families don’t say, ‘now we’re in early childhood, now we’re in K12.’ They live their lives continuously, but we have disconnects in education systems that currently fail to reflect that continuity. The new KIDS data helps inform what we need to be doing to connect those important pieces and link the systems together.”

Hawley, of Illinois Action for Children, said Illinois communities should view the data as a rallying point to unite parents, educators, librarians, police, mental health providers and more over a common cause of better and earlier support for families. “It is not just a school issue.” Policy changes could include pushing more districts to adopt full-day preschool programs — following on the heels of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout — or adopting more widespread home visiting programs for newborns.

Whether states should measure kindergarten readiness, and exactly how to do it, is the subject of debate: According to the New America think tank, 40 states have adopted some kindergarten readiness assessment or are in process. In the vanguard are states such as Washington, which has touted a goal of 90 percent kindergarten preparedness by 2020.

 

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.