Preschool debate

Landmark study sparks question: Do preschool effects stick in Colorado but not in Tennessee?

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A recent landmark study out of Tennessee upended the conventional wisdom about the power of preschool and raised questions nationwide, including in Colorado, about how to leverage early education to produce long-lasting impacts.

The Vanderbilt University study revealed that at-risk students who participated in Tennessee’s publicly-funded preschool program showed significant gains initially, but by third grade performed worse than non-participants on both academic and behavior measures.

Early childhood experts here say the study underscores the need for quality in both preschool and subsequent K-3 instruction, but that the findings don’t match Colorado data showing that academic benefits of preschool do stick.

“You don’t have the same story in Colorado,” said Charlotte Brantley, president and CEO of Denver’s Clayton Early Learning.

Like several early childhood advocates here, she cited longitudinal data showing that students in the state-funded Colorado Preschool Program consistently outperformed non-participating peers on all state tests from third to ninth grade.

But Dale Farran, one of the Vanderbilt study authors, said such data—part of an annual report to the Colorado legislature—doesn’t rigorously match preschool children to comparison group children. Instead of matching them prior to the preschool year, they’re matched after-the-fact in first grade—leaving many unknowns about parent motivation, poverty status and skill levels when the comparison children were 4.

Vanderbilt study highlights

  • Preschool participants had significantly higher achievement than non-participants at the end of the pre-K year.
  • At the beginning of kindergarten, teachers rated preschool participants as better prepared for kindergarten work and as having better work skills and more positive peer relations than non-participants.
  • By the end of kindergarten, non-participants had caught up to preschool participants on achievement measures.
  • By the end of first grade, teachers rated preschool participants as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills and feeling more negative about school than non-participants.
  • By the end of second grade and into third grade, preschool participants were doing worse than non-participants on most achievement measures.

“You can’t claim your program is effective for poor children if you don’t know [the two groups] were the same at the beginning, before the children went to Pre-K,” she said.

Megan McDermott, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Education, said via email, “We acknowledge that it is not as rigorous as an experimental study. We are using extant data because that is what is available to us.”

She went on to say that the 2012 legislative report included a more rigorous regression analysis study that found significant positive benefits of Colorado Preschool Program participation in third grade through sixth grade.

Early childhood advocates here and around the country say Vanderbilt’s findings on the “fade-out” of preschool benefits isn’t surprising given similar findings from an earlier Head Start Impact Study. What’s sometimes missing from the discussion, they say, is that other studies have shown pre-school participants reap significant non-academic benefits later in life. These include things like increased earnings, better health and reduced criminal activity.

“It’s not like this is the first time that a large-scale study has found this,” said Brian Conly, deputy director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood in the Department of Human Services.

“Yes, there may be a fadeout…but there are many, many other benefits to providing pre-kindergarten services.”

The wheels on the bus

Amid the debate about the impact of preschool, a visit to Clayton’s classrooms in northeast Denver offers both a glimpse of how a highly regarded program works and a reminder that it’s not easy to achieve.

The program is part of the national Educare network of model centers serving at-risk children. It’s been deemed a Center of Excellence by the federal Office of Head Start and holds a four out of five on the state’s quality rating system, Colorado Shines. (Currently, there are no programs with fives.)

Preschoolers at Clayton Educare in northeast Denver go on an imaginary bus ride.
Preschoolers at Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning go on an imaginary bus ride.

On a recent afternoon there, six preschoolers boarded an imaginary bus, sitting in two rows of wooden chairs near their classroom door. One girl created tickets for her classmates, writing in orange crayon on slips of paper. A little boy in the front row assumed the role of the driver.

Lead Teacher Christine Holpuch crouched near the three- and four-year olds as they chattered about where they’d stashed their tickets and what errands they would do.

She smoothly eased frustration about the seating arrangement and asked the kids questions about their trip—How do you start the bus? Who’s wearing a seatbelt? Could they go to the grocery store?

Clayton, located in a stately building in northeast Denver, is a warm, inviting place where kids get lots of personal attention from well-trained teachers. On the afternoon of the imaginary bus trip, Holpuch, who holds a masters degree in early childhood education, and her fellow teacher John Quinn were in charge of about eight children.

Both teachers got down on the students’ level and let the youngsters guide the play—Holpuch’s group moved from riding the bus to playing school to building wooden ramps. Quinn sat nearby with two boys who were busy building robots and skyscrapers.

Brantley said Clayton just receiving funding to embark on its own study of longer-term preschool outcomes, following on work done by Educare centers in Chicago and Omaha

“In those programs so far, they’ve got one or two cohorts now of kids who’ve completed third grade. There’s not been a fadeout,” she said.

Fast and furious

So why do the Tennessee results look so different?

Responses to the Vanderbilt study

Some believe preschool quality suffered there because of a rushed statewide expansion. The 18,000-student program ramped up far faster than the similarly sized Colorado Preschool Program, launching statewide in 2005 compared to 1988 for Colorado.

Leaders here say several efforts to promote preschool quality have been going on in Colorado since the 1990s. These include the creation of the voluntary Qualistar rating program, which helped pave the way for the new mandatory Colorado Shines program. There also have been state grants to improve preschool quality, the creation of quality standards for Colorado Preschool Program classrooms and ongoing work by regional early childhood councils.

Kathryn Harris, executive director of Qualistar Colorado, said of Tennessee, “I don’t think they had the same vision around quality in early learning.”

Some early childhood leaders in Tennessee agree, saying practices varied wildly from classroom to classroom leading to spotty quality overall. But Farran has pushed back against that explanation. She rebutted such criticisms in a recent Brookings Institution report, writing that while the Tennessee program “has ample room for improvement, there is simply no convincing evidence that it is a program of distinctly lower overall quality than other statewide programs.”

In fact, Tennessee does have several well-regarded policies in place.

It meets nine of 10 preschool quality benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIERR. These include requiring preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, and having class sizes of 20 or lower and staff-child ratios of 1:10 or better.

In comparison, Colorado meets just six of the 10 benchmarks.

Although Colorado falls short on four benchmarks—including the one requiring teachers to have a bachelor’s degree—it exceeds benchmarks on class size and staff-child ratio. The maximum class size in the Colorado Preschool Program is 16 and the maximum staff-child ratio is 1:8.

The director of NIERR, W. Steven Barnett, addressed the disconnect between model policies and quality classrooms in a recent blog post about the Vanderbilt study.

He said the NIERR benchmarks “are not, in themselves, guarantees of quality…they are primarily indicators of the resources available to programs, not whether these resources are used well.”

Financial resources

Many states, including Tennessee and Colorado, face preschool funding restraints that hinder their ability to meet the 10 quality benchmarks, according to the annual NIERR report. Both also lack the funding to serve all eligible at-risk children.

Clatyon building

Tennessee, which spends about $85 million on preschool, would need to spend an additional $3,200 per child to fully implement the benchmarks. Colorado, which spends about $75 million on preschool, would need to spend an additional $1,000 per child.

The average Colorado Preschool Program slot, which typically covers a half-day class, cost about $3,400 in 2013-14.

In contrast, consider an exemplary center like Clayton, which offers families a full complement of services along with child care and preschool. Each full-day, full-year seat costs $15,000-$18,000—typically paid for with money from various sources, including Head Start, Colorado Preschool Program, state child care subsidies, grants and private money. All told, there are nearly 200 preschoolers at Clayton’s main site and a second location in far northeast Denver.

While there are a small number of tuition-based slots at Clayton, most families either pay nothing or a small fee determined by the state’s child care subsidy program. Generally, children with the most risk factors receive priority in admission.

Conly said while every Colorado child doesn’t need a program as intensive as Clayton’s, adequate funding is a constant challenge.

“At the state level, there’s just so many competing priorities for the money,” he said.

No silver bullet

Aside from fresh discussions about what defines preschool quality, the Vanderbilt study has put new focus on the responsibility of the K-3 system to capitalize on preschool gains.

That’s because the Tennessee preschoolers studied did in fact show show up to kindergarten ahead of their peers in literacy and math, and were rated more highly by teachers on work skills and peer relations.

Some experts say that public schools tend to focus on the stragglers, leaving the more prepared preschool alums repeating lessons they already know until their non-preschool peers catch up.

In the same vein, Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colordo Children’s Campaign, said that nine months of preschool can’t be expected to inoculate kids from the effects of attending underfunded, low-performing schools in kindergarten and beyond.

But in states like Colorado and Tennessee—where K-12 funding is far below the national average—what are the prospects for a robust K-3 experience for at-risk children?

Take class size, which is strictly regulated in CPP programs but not in most public schools,  Jaeger said.

“These kiddos walk into kindergarten,” he said, “and we’re hearing stories about kindergartens with 27, 28, 32 in a classroom.”

The following is from the 2015 Legislative Report on the Colorado Preschool Program:

A co-author of the Vanderbilt study questions whether this data from the 2015 Colorado Preschool Program Legislative Report valid methodology.
A co-author of the Vanderbilt study questions whether this data from the 2015 Colorado Preschool Program Legislative Report valid methodology.

 

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”