Deadlines

90 days until no paycheck: Time running out for Illinois child-care providers in subsidy program

PHOTO: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Daycare children on a long leash and their caretakers enjoy a walk through a Chicago park

It’s hard to dispute the importance of training child-care providers on how to administer CPR or how to properly report suspected child abuse.

But Illinois officials are taking a no-holds-barred attitude toward enforcing the state’s latest round of safety training requirements, threatening to stop paying providers who don’t complete its to-do list in the next 90 days. Advocates worry that the state’s approach threatens a subsidized child-care program that serves 120,000 low-income children. The risk, they say, is further erosion of an already fragile and shrinking web of care, despite growing recognition and campaign pledges by Gov. Bruce Rauner that quality early education is crucial.

“It has been confusing — every letter they send out is confusing,” said Brenda McMillon, who runs a small, licensed center out of her Auburn-Gresham home and moonlights as a health and safety trainer for other independent providers. “I think it is great training, but I don’t like the way it was forced on people. You have to give it time to get it done and make it easy to get done.”

Three years ago, Rauner’s administration forced off tens of thousands of children from public child-care rolls when it rejiggered income eligibility criteria. The state ultimately reversed that decision, but many of those children never returned to the program.

Now Illinois could be headed toward further contracting subsidized child care if it cuts off providers who fail to comply with training rules.

The state began communicating the training protocol in January 2017. The original deadline to comply was Sept. 30.

As of July, only one-quarter of providers had completed the training, according to data provided to SEIU Healthcare, the union representing some of the providers. The state health services department, which administers the program, asked for an extension on a public records request from Chalkbeat for updated numbers and did not provide the request by deadline.

Meghan Powers, a spokesperson for that department, said her agency has sent 10 communications to providers in the last 19 months.

We have also promoted trainings on our website, social media and our child care phone line,” she said. The state also worked through a network of referral agencies to send email blasts and direct mailers.   

“Any privately funded child care center would be expected to be trained in these basic health and safety skills,” Powers said in a written response to questions, “and it’s only fair that children receiving child care through public funding receive the same level of care.”

Illinois’ last communication was dated Sept. 21. The state started verifying providers and gave them 90 extra days to submit any missing proof of training. After 90 days, the state’s letter read, “payments may be withheld.”

Brynn Seibert, the director of the child care and early learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, said the letters and what have been continually moving deadlines are stirring up confusion and disruption.

“We’ve tried to engage the state about what that training looks like and how the training has been offered to providers, but what we’ve seen is that the state has moved forward without input,” said Seibert. “We’re concerned it is going to result in real chaos in the program and families and kids getting forced out.”

The state’s vast network of early childhood providers was rocked three years ago when Rauner’s administration changed income eligibility requirements for families seeking subsidized care then changed them back.

“That decision had a devastating impact on participation in the program,” said Dan Lesser, the director of Illinois policy and economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

As of August, the state was serving about 122,600 children monthly, down 31 percent from 2015, when the income eligibility requirements changed.

Last year, to qualify for a state child-care subsidy, a family of five had to include a working adult and earn an annual household income of less than $51,000 or include a parent enrolled in a college or certification program.  

The number of participating providers plummeted, too. They’re down 56 percent from 2015 to 37,530 in June 2017, the latest public data available. Chalkbeat asked for an updated provider count but did not receive it by deadline.

Illinois developed its new training regimen to comply with a 2014 federal law.

But the way Illinois drafted its latest round of training requirements will harm the program, said Maria Whelan, who runs Illinois Action for Children, the state’s largest referral agency.

“This activity is going to have a dramatically compounding effect in terms of the shrinkage of this critical program,”  said Whelan, whose group administers the program in Cook County, trains providers, and helps connect families with child-care options.  

Whelan says that, beyond shifting deadlines, the reporting system is hard to navigate and requires providers to have access to a computer and internet. Many providers live in rural areas, access the Internet on their phone and only have computer access through public libraries. Or they are grandparents and not technologically savvy.

To qualify for the subsidy, providers also must undergo a home visit by a monitor. The biggest percentage of providers in Illinois’ program — 54 percent in 2017— are license-exempt family members who care for children in the child’s home and whom the state pays about $16 a day. But the state still demands they take the safety training and be visited by a monitor.

“We absolutely support improving quality in terms of care that children receive in all settings, and we have been advocating on that agenda for almost 50 years,” Whelan said. “But we think there is an element of intrusiveness in terms of sending monitors into children’s own homes.”

Her group unsuccessfully lobbied the state to exempt relatives from the requirements, which is permissible by federal guidelines.

Now Rauner is in a tough position, since he has pledged to increase the quality of programs but faces a long list of providers who haven’t met the state’s high bar.

Ireta Gasner, the vice president of policy at the national early childhood advocacy Ounce of Prevention, which is run by Diana Rauner, said other states have run into the same problems with their training requirements. Directors of established child-care centers can make a plan to arrange time out of their day to comply; but that same flexibility isn’t always conferred upon smaller, self-employed providers — particularly those who care for family members at the last minute or for children whose parents work third shift or weekends.

“As states try to formalize more of the child care roles and provide trainings and support, you tend to see some dropoff of people who don’t want to participate in the system,” Gasner said of national trends.

The risk, however, of those states casting a wide net is that advocates then lose contact with families and providers who drop out off the rolls.  

“When their providers are being paid through (the Child Care Assistance Program), we can send information to them about trainings and supports and connect them with other supports for their care,” Gasner said. “But when we don’t know where where they end up, we lose our line of sight into the services they have.”

McMillon, the trainer who runs a center out of her Auburn Gresham home, said that 13 providers signed up for her last scheduled training session, which was set for four hours on September 30. When she arrived that day, only five showed up. “One lady — she just quit,” McMillon said. “She’s a grandmother, and she told her daughter, ‘I just can’t do this.’”

First Person

We’re college counselors in Chicago. We want our district to stop steering students to colleges where they probably won’t graduate.

Chicago Public Schools recently unveiled personalized “College Readiness Guides” for high school sophomores and juniors. The district hopes the reports will help continue to boost high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Andrew Johnson

As college and career advisors at Chicago high schools, we hope the guides will help, but we’re less optimistic. Some critical blind spots might make them a significant missed opportunity.

Ryan Kinney

For one, there are a number of data problems in these new reports. Student grade point averages and number of credits earned are eight months out of date — a period long enough for high schoolers to get off track or regain momentum. The reports also don’t account for whether students have even had the opportunity to meet some of the graduation requirements yet, unwittingly creating the impression that some of our students are off track when they may be doing just fine.

But perhaps the most glaring omission is not about students’ current performance, but about the success rates of the colleges they are on track to attend.

Students examining the reports will see the names of several dozen colleges color-coded according to whether each school, based on their GPAs and test scores, should be considered a “match,” a “reach,” or “unlikely.” That tells students what schools they could go to, but by itself is little help for determining which colleges a students should go to. The missing ingredient is specific guidance about identifying and comparing the colleges’ graduation rates.

Read more about Chicago’s new “College Readiness Guides.”

The significance of considering institutional graduation rates in college advising was cemented by groundbreaking research from the University of Chicago in 2008, and CPS has been wise to partner with the University’s school research arm ever since. This partnership makes it all the more surprising that the new reports fail to capitalize on the researchers’ key finding: Regardless of high school GPA, students graduate from college at higher rates when they attend more selective institutions. In other words, generally speaking, the harder it is to gain admission to a school, the more likely students are to succeed there.

So the absence of colleges’ graduation rates on CPS’s new reports represents a troubling missed opportunity. Graduates of Chicago Public Schools have been enrolling in college at increasing rates over the last decade, but there hasn’t been a meaningful increase in students’ college graduation rates since at least 2011. A powerful response to this phenomenon would be to examine more closely where CPS graduates have been enrolling, to identify colleges where our students have been less successful and where they might continue to be less successful in the future. Instead, the reports replicate the list of CPS graduates’ recent college destinations, threatening to reproduce the pattern of college enrollment without graduation.

Meanwhile, the guides place such a wide range of colleges in a student’s “match” category that they obscure the meaning of the concept. A “match” in college counseling refers to a college that is appropriately selective given a student’s academic profile. It helps a student distinguish what’s possible, but also, just as crucially, what might be ill-advised.

Yet the district’s new report often lumps together both the University of Illinois at Chicago and, for example, Harold Washington College, as “matches.” This implies that the two schools might be roughly equivalent options. Yet most college access professionals could quickly tell you that UIC admits students with an average GPA of 3.25 and has a six-year graduation rate of 58 percent, just under the national average. Harold Washington College, on the other hand, requires entering students only to have a high school diploma, and its students graduate at a rate of 18 percent.

For most students who qualify for UIC, then, it could be critical to their success to see Harold Washington as being not a “match” but an “undermatch” — a school less selective than they should aspire to. And while students and families may ultimately have valid reasons for choosing either one of these institutions, a conversation about graduation rates is critical.

Such an absence also explains why the report can list obviously high-risk opportunities like Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis as a “match” for almost every student receiving this report. While this institution reports an average GPA for incoming students of 2.69, it also maintains the dubious honor of a graduation rate of 5.6 percent. The presence of this college’s name on a district publication, and its accompanying label of “match,” clearly suggests that CPS thinks that Harris-Stowe can be an appropriate destination for our students. Given the price and the risk involved, we would never recommend such a school to our students.

The nonchalance with which CPS has presented 40,000 students with a troublesome list of college options is disappointing. While much productive work has been spent over the years in supporting our students’ college enrollment, it is clear that we must pay more attention to where we are helping students enroll than ever before. We know the district can do better, and we hope it will.

Andrew Johnson is a National Board-certified social sciences teacher. Ryan Kinney is a professional school counselor who has previously served as a CPS master counselor. Both are credentialed college and career access advisors at Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park.

Early education

Is Tennessee moving its weakest teachers to early, non-tested grades? New research says yes.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Tennessee’s education insiders have whispered for years that some elementary school principals were moving their least effective teachers to critical early grades, which are free of high-stakes tests. That’s despite clear evidence that those years are the most important for preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

Now a new study has confirmed that the shift is real.

Researchers examining 10 years worth of state data through 2016 found that low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested early grades than their more effective peers.

The findings, released Friday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and Vanderbilt University, may be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out why almost two-thirds of the state’s students are behind on reading by the end of the third grade.

“These trends matter because having effective teachers in the early grades helps establish a foundation for success as students progress into later grades,” the research brief states.

The authors used Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system, including classroom observation scores and student achievement data, to track the reassignment of elementary school teachers by their principals. They found that only a hundred of the lowest-rated teachers were shifted to the lower grades in any given year, making for a relatively small impact across Tennessee. However, the pattern was consistent for all reassigned teachers who scored in the bottom three evaluation ratings on a scale of 1 to 5.

It’s not conclusive, though, whether those teachers remain ineffective when moved to kindergarten, first, or second grades.

“This could be counter-productive, but it could actually be productive if school leaders are finding better fits for their elementary school teachers,” said Sy Doan, who authored the research brief along with Laura K. Rogers.

Another study is in the works to examine whether students’ academic growth is stunted by re-assigning less effective teachers to lower grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t require testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools, and districts.

But research elsewhere has shown that the pressures of such accountability systems for higher elementary grades can unintentionally give administrators incentives to “staff to the test” and move their weakest teachers to the early years.

“The patterns we found in Tennessee are consistent with similar studies conducted in other states,” Doan said.

Advocates of early education say the latest findings — while not surprising — should be a powerful reminder to school administrators that kindergarten through second grade are high-stakes for students’ learning and development, even if those years are free of high-stakes testing.

“I think it’s going to raise some important conversations,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director for Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. “If we want to improve third-grade outcomes, Tennessee has got to start prioritizing investments in the early grades, particularly in the quality of teachers.”

Sharon Griffin, a longtime Memphis school administrator who now leads Tennessee’s school turnaround district, made that point last week during a presentation to state legislators on the House Education Committee.

“When I was a principal …. there was this unprecedented norm where you would put your most effective teachers in grades that are tested,” she said. “Now we know from lessons learned that it’s really pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grades where you need the strongest teachers, so that our kids can be on grade level by third grade and we are not trying to close the gap continuously from third grade on.”

Tennessee has done some serious soul-searching about why most of its third-graders can’t pass the proficiency bar in reading, which is considered the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas.

The frustrations deepened in 2015 when a landmark Vanderbilt study showed that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee’s public pre-K classrooms were fading out by first grade and vanishing altogether by third grade.

Since then, the focus has been on why. Is it the quality of pre-K? Or could it be missteps and misalignment in instruction and curriculum from kindergarten through the third grade?

Upcoming research will dig into those questions as other Vanderbilt researchers visit Tennessee classrooms next school year to observe instructional quality and teaching practice in the early grades.

“We know surprisingly little about the connections among the experiences children have across the early grades of school,” said Caroline Christopher, who will co-lead the work with Dale Farran, director of the Peabody Research Institute.  

Their study will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted through the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a partnership between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education.