stars in the making

New rating system on the way for preschools and child care

Children in the "3s" class at Promise Christian Preschool in Lafayette line up before circle time.

The three- and four-year-olds at Promise Christian Preschool in Lafayette were busy playing at the water table, painting letters, and pretend grocery shopping on a recent Tuesday morning.

Terri Stowell was just as busy, madly writing notes on a sheaf of papers as she examined toys and books, monitored hand-washing routines and observed teachers as they talked and played with students. Stowell, lead quality rating specialist for the non-profit Qualistar, spent more than three hours at the preschool collecting much of the information she would need to award the center a rating of one to four stars.

It was the first time the center had sought a Qualistar rating, which is a well-respected but voluntary program that costs providers about $1,000 per classroom. Director Leana Zlaten, who secured grant money to pay the fee, was hoping for at least two stars, and maybe three. In May, she will get her answer.

And then in July, everything will change.

That’s when the state is expected to launch a free mandatory rating program to replace Qualistar’s 14-year-old system. While Zlaten’s stars should transfer seamlessly into the new five-level rating system, the vast majority of the state’s preschool and child care providers will find themselves in a place they’ve never been before.

That is, with a public rating indicating their facility’s quality.

What’s the point?

Until now, child care providers, whether “centers” or “family child care homes,” were required to be licensed by the state but nothing else. Unless they pursued a Qualistar rating on their own or parents did a lot of legwork, there wasn’t much to distinguish one from another.

On a national level, “Quality Rating Improvement Systems,” often called QRIS, have been the trend over the last decade and experts herald them for improving the quality of early childhood programs and better informing parents how local child care facilities stack up. In Colorado, there is both excitement and confusion about the new system, which has been in the works since 2010.

Lead teacher Cristina Maginot squirts soap and water on the children's hands so they can lather up before rinsing. Hand-washing procedures were one of the many items that will figure into the center's Qualistar rating.
Lead teacher Cristina Maginot squirts soap and water on the children’s hands so they can lather up before rinsing. Hand-washing procedures were one of the many items that will figure into the center’s Qualistar rating.

“We are all in favor of continuing to march toward quality,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County.

Still, like other early childhood advocates interviewed, she said the new system represents a huge undertaking with an ambitious timeline.

“People are definitely concerned because there’s a lot of unknowns,” she said. “It’s still a system in flux.”

With less than three months to go before the launch, many questions remain. For example, it’s unclear whether the system’s name will change from its working title, “Next Generation Quality Rating Improvement System,” or whether child care providers will earn stars, numbers or something else.

Another unanswered question is which contractor—Qualistar or Simplydigi.com Inc. —the state will choose for a $2.5 million contract to conduct some of the new ratings. With these and several other decisions pending, there’s also a possibility the launch date could be pushed back.

While state officials at the Colorado Department of Human Services, which has authority over the new system, agree that there still many unknowns, they are taking an optimistic tone.

“I am feeling so excited at the moment,” said Karen Enboden, child care QRIS manager for CDHS. “I think this is absolutely the right step for Colorado.”

Racing to the top

The Next Generation system, which is being funded with part of a $44 million federal Race to the Top grant, will roll out in two phases. Starting in July, center-based programs will be the first group of providers to earn ratings. These programs, which include non-profit and for-profit preschools and child care centers as well as early childhood classrooms run by school districts, represent 86 percent of licensed capacity for children 0-5.

Learn more

Possible ratings: Level 1-5

Components: (for levels 3-5)

1. Workforce Qualifications and Professional Development

2. Family Partnerships

3. Leadership, Management & Administration

4. Learning Environment

5. Child Health

6. Optional (includes points for home language, additional professional staff, professional leadership)

 

Possible ratings: Provisional and 1-4 stars

Components:

1. Learning Environment

2. Family Partnerships

3. Training and Education

4. Adult-to-Child Ratios and Group Size

5. Program Accreditation

Family child care homes, defined as home-based sites serving two or more unrelated children at the same time, will have the option to participate in the new system this year, but it won’t become mandatory until July 2015.

While many experts laud Qualistar for being one of the pioneers of early childhood quality improvement, they also note that the organization never was able to capture a critical mass of the child care sector because its ratings are costly. Currently, less than 10 percent of licensed providers in Colorado have Qualistar ratings, according to Gladys Wilson, the organization’s executive director.

“They never reached that tipping point,” said Thurber.

Many providers with Qualistar ratings receive funding from foundations or other funders to cover the fees. Not many providers raise the money themselves.

It was clear from Stowell’s half-day visit, which she planned to follow with a return visit to meet with Zlaten the next day, why ratings aren’t cheap. They represent a complicated and time-consuming process, well beyond the more basic considerations of licensing. They weigh student-teacher ratios, teacher credentials, parent surveys and even questions like how the walls are decorated, whether toys reflect age, race and gender diversity and whether teachers use language to help children develop reasoning skills.

Terri Stowell, right, interviews lead teacher Cristinia Maginot about the preschool's schedule, materials and practices during her recent visit.
Terri Stowell, right, interviews lead teacher Cristina Maginot about the preschool’s schedule, materials and practices during her recent visit.

Enboden said ratings will be free under the new system, at least until the federal grant expires at the end of December 2016. In addition $7-8 million of the grant funds will be available to help providers improve their facilities and practices so they can obtain better ratings.

Under the current Qualistar system and perhaps under the new system as well, the motivation to improve often comes before the rating as well as after. For example, Zlaten and her staff made several changes before Stowell’s visit, which occurred unannounced during a one-month window. They moved furniture around the large classroom, opening up a sunny area near the windows for free play and circle time.

At the same time, there were some things they couldn’t easily improve. They knew the playround, which Stowell said is a problem area for many facilities, would cost them some points. While it appeared perfectly acceptable to a casual observer, Stowell found several issues as she measured equipment spacing and looked for hazards like easy-to-open gates, protruding bolts and wide gaps between rails.

“The inside, that’s what we focused on,” said lead teacher Cristina Maginot.

Overall, the facility, which provides scholarships to about a quarter of its students, had much to recommend it — small class sizes, conscientious teachers and a lots of engaging activities.

Enboden said the goal is for 20 percent of the state’s licensed child care facilities to earn a rating of three, four or five by the end of 2016. A state-run parent portal where families can look up Next Generation ratings could be up by January 2015.

Qualister rater Terri Stowell measures the slide height as part of her assessment of the playground.
Qualister rater Terri Stowell measures the slide height as part of her assessment of the playground.

“My hope is that parents will have more information so they can make informed decisions,” said Wilson.

Like many early childhood advocates, she said most parents decide where to send their children based on cost, convenience and word of mouth recommendations, not necessarily provider quality.

The City and County of Denver, which has hundreds of Qualistar-rated facilities, may be somewhat of an exception. That’s because the Denver Preschool Program, which provides preschool subsidies to families of four-year-olds, has put a premium on preschool quality and pays for Qualistar ratings as well as improvement measures.

“Denver’s far ahead of the rest of the state,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early education for Denver Public Schools.

Embedded in licensing

One of the biggest differences between Qualistar and the Next Generation QRIS is that the rating system will now be embedded in licensing. In other words, all center-based and family child carehome providers with a valid license, which requires basic health and safety measures, will automatically get a rating of one.

There will be no requirement to pursue a two, three, four or five, but some observers believe providers won’t want to settle for the lowest score once they see their competition attaining higher levels of quality.

“Peer pressure,” said Thurber.

Providers will be able to advance to a level two if their staff members complete state-approved online trainings and enroll in the state’s professional development information system. In addition, providers will have to complete a self-assessment of their program and create an improvement plan. The Department of Human Services will oversee awards of ones and twos.

The "ECERS" manual is the environmental rating scale that Qualistar raters use during preschool visits. A related tool, called the "ITERS," is used during visits to facilities that care for infants and toddlers.
The “ECERS” manual is the environmental rating scale that Qualistar raters use during preschool visits. A related tool, called the “ITERS,” is used during visits to facilities that care for infants and toddlers.

To earn a level three, four or five, providers will go through a process similar to the current Qualistar process, which includes a site visit like the one Stowell recently conducted. Depending on the outcome of the contract award, it’s possible that Qualistar’s ten rating specialists will continue to rate programs seeking one of the highest three ratings.

One differences between the Qualistar system and the Next Generation system will be the scoring methodology for the three higher ratings. In addition, while Qualistar raters look at every classroom in a facility, the new system will look at 50 percent of classrooms. Finally, Qualistar ratings typically last for two years while Next Generation ratings will extend for three.

 Grandfather me in

While some center directors are no doubt nervous about their new obligations under the Next Generation system, some can rest easy during the first year or two. That’s because providers with existing Qualistar ratings will keep their existing numerical rating under the new system. In addition, providers that are accredited by yet-to-be-determined national bodies, as well as Head Start sites that have undergone federal reviews, will also transition into the new system with scores of either three or four depending on whether they meet certain criteria.

Children play at the water table during free play at Promise Christian Preschool.
Children play at the water table during free play at Promise Christian Preschool.

The grandfather provision, officially called “Alternative Pathways” in the new system, is part of the reason some providers are choosing to get Qualistar-rated this spring. Not only will they avoid the uncertainty of a new system in its roll-out phase, they have the opportunity to come in with high rating from day one.

Thurber said a number of providers in Larimer County have worked to get Qualistar ratings this year for that very reason. In Zlaten’s case, it helped that the Qualistar system was a known quantity.

“We know what Qualistar is like. We don’t know what the state’s [rating system] is like, so we thought, ‘Let’s do Qualistar,’” she said.

 

 

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.

early childhood discipline

New Colorado bill aims to keep young students in school — even after they misbehave

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Colorado’s public schools handed out nearly 6,000 out-of-school suspensions to young children. 

This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation that could reduce those numbers — the latest push in a four-year effort to get early childhood discipline reform across the finish line.

The bill introduced Wednesday would limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through second grade to certain circumstances, including if they bring weapons or drugs to school, or are deemed a safety threat. It would also require schools to exhaust other alternative discipline options before removing students from school. Finally, the bill would limit suspensions to three school days.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2020.

While the bill would apply to all public K-12 schools, it would apply to only some preschools — those housed in school districts or charter schools, as well as community-based programs serving children eligible for certain kinds of public funding, such as state preschool dollars.

The behavior that gets little kids suspended varies, but can include biting, kicking, fighting or causing frequent classroom disruptions.

Across the nation, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

In Colorado, the disparities are pronounced. Last year, for example, young boys received 86 percent of K-2 suspensions though they made up only half of the K-2 population.

Black students, who made up just 5 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received nearly 12 percent of K-2 suspensions last year. Students with disabilities, who made up 10 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received 37 percent of K-2 suspensions.

The Colorado Department of Education tracks suspension data for public schools, but not for preschools that operate outside of public schools.

Opponents of suspensions and expulsions say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

But school district leaders who’ve pushed back against discipline legislation have argued that limiting suspensions takes away one of their few tools for addressing disruptive and violent behavior. They’ve also expressed frustration about the lack of staff and resources, especially in small rural schools, to handle students’ mental health needs.

This year’s early childhood bill is similar to one that was defeated in 2017, but allows schools a little more leeway in doling out suspensions and expulsions. For example, the earlier bill would have allowed expulsions only when young students brought guns to school. Now, there would be several reasons a young student could be expelled.

Likewise, the previous bill would have allowed suspensions only if a student endangered others, but didn’t specify that bringing drugs, controlled substances, or weapons to school could also be grounds for suspension.

The earlier bill faced sharp opposition from rural school district leaders, among other groups. It ultimately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the coalition of groups that worked on the latest bill tried hard to incorporate feedback from critics while staying true to their goals.

“We’ve done our best all along the way to be responsive,” he said.  

Besides broadening the grounds for out-of-school discipline, the latest version of the bill delays implementation by a year.

Jaeger said that delay will allow state-level mental health and funding initiatives in the works now to trickle down to school districts and give districts more time to adapt local discipline practices.

K-2 Suspensions by District

This chart shows the number of suspensions given, not the number of students suspended. In some districts, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year.