the youngest learners

Will new standards improve elementary science education?

PHOTO: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report
Malachi Ballinger, 6, laughs at how far he has made his “pinball” travel during a science lesson in his kindergarten classroom in Redmond, Oregon.

This story about science 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.

Science could be considered the perfect elementary school subject. It provides real life applications for reading and math and develops critical thinking skills that help students solve problems in other subjects. Plus, it’s interesting. It helps answer all those “why” questions — Why is the sun hot? Why do fish swim? Why are some people tall and other people short? — that 5- to 8-year-old children are so famous for asking.

Young children are “super curious,” said Matt Krehbiel, director of science for Achieve, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students graduate high school ready to start college or to pursue a career. “We want them to be able to harness that curiosity to help them make sense of the world around them.”

But science has long been given short shrift in the first few years of school. Most elementary school teachers have little scientific background and many say they feel unprepared to teach the subject well, according to a national survey of science and mathematics education conducted by a North Carolina research firm in 2012. Just 44 percent of K-2 teachers felt they were “well prepared” to teach science, according to the survey, compared to 86 percent who felt well prepared to teach reading.

Possibly as a result, the average first- through fourth-grade student spent just 2.5 hours per week on science during the 2011-12 school year, the last for which data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And that could be why just 38 percent fourth-grade students performed at or above proficient on the latest National Assessment of Education Progress for science, which was administered in 2015.

That’s a problem because careers in science, engineering, and math are some of the fastest growing (and best paid) sectors of the American economy. Such jobs made up 6.2 percent of all U.S. employment in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and that’s not counting healthcare jobs, which make up another 9.1 percent. If today’s grade school children aren’t science literate, they’ll have a much bigger hurdle to overcome when they try to enter those fields in the early 2030s.

But the Next Generation Science Standards, first released in 2013, could be changing all that. The standards, adopted in full by 19 states and the District of Columbia (another 19 states adopted very similar new standards), are meant to help teachers focus on the importance of learning science by conducting experiments, collecting and recording information, and evaluating evidence. Getting schools and teachers to begin effectively teaching to the new learning goals is a multi-year process.

“The reality of implementation is that it ends up being all over the map for a variety of reasons,” Krehbiel said. “Some [states] are moving forward great guns, others not so much.”

A new national science test and a new national survey, both due out in 2019, will show whether science achievement has improved and whether time spent on science has increased; in the meantime, the standards are definitely spurring some to action.

“When there are new standards, there is new attention put on what the standards are asking us to do,” said Cristina Trecha, director of the Oregon Science Project, an organization that provides science education training to rural and semi-rural teachers in Oregon, which adopted the standards in 2014. “NGSS is going to give us a reason to teach science.”

Related: The next generation of science education means more doing

That’s been true for Redmond, Oregon kindergarten teacher Jennifer Callahan.

“We weren’t doing much at all,” Callahan said. “There was a curriculum, but in the time I’d been here, there was no training. It was whatever we came up with ourselves. It didn’t have as much weight as reading, writing and math.”

It does now.

On a Wednesday in May, Callahan’s classroom at the Redmond Early Learning Center, which houses all of the semi-rural district’s 400 kindergartners, was alive with scientific discovery. Callahan’s students were arrayed in a big circle rolling a ball across the rug to various classmates. After each roll, Callahan asked if it had taken a strong force or a gentle force to move the ball. Kids answered with a hand signal — one hand petting the other for gentle, a flexed bicep for strong — then explained their answer to their partner before Callahan called on a student to say what he or she thought.

Next, students matched images of scenes — a toy car being pushed up a ramp or two people tossing a ball, for example — with the correct word identifying the type of force depicted: strong or gentle. After practicing as a class, kids broke into small groups to sort more images.

At one table, four students worked together to quickly place all their image cards under the correct header.

“He didn’t put that much force,” said Lorenzo Glasser, 6, as he placed an image of a boy juggling a soccer ball with his knees under the word “gentle.” How could Lorenzo tell the boy hadn’t used much force? “It made it [the ball] go not that far,” he explained.

Related: New standards get kids in California excited about science

Lorenzo’s classmate, Scout Simonsen, also 6, said they were old hands at understanding forces. They’d been working on it “a long time, a few weeks,” she said. She threw her hands up in the air, seeming exasperated. “It feels like 5,000 years!”

Sorting done, the class gathered back on the rug to go through the cards as a group and tell each other how they got their answers. Then it was time to continue their ongoing experiment with forces by taking out their “pinball machines” — open cardboard boxes with elastic bands stretched across, which acted as launchers for tennis balls.

“If you pull the launcher back really far, the ball can go a long distance,” Heidi Variz, 6, reminded the class before they got started with the next step in the experiment. What would happen if they used a shoelace, instead of their finger, to activate the launcher?

Reese Homann, 6, wasn’t sure about this new development. She raised her hand. “I don’t understand why we have to use the shoelace to make it different,” she said. “That’s not what was on the video.”

PHOTO: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

“Good question,” Callahan said. The video the class had watched before they built their pinball machines “was just the beginning,” she told Reese. “But as we do new things, we learn more.”

Learning more by trying new things is what Callahan loves about the NGSS-inspired science lessons she’s running in her class this year. Today’s lesson on force comes from Amplify Science, a curriculum developed by educators at Amplify, a curriculum vendor, and researchers at the Lawrence Hall of Science, a public science center at the University of California, Berkeley. It’s one of three elementary school science curriculums Callahan is helping to pilot now that her district decided to re-commit to elementary science education.

Callahan has become a particularly fervent believer in the power of science education in her classroom. In 2016, she was accepted as a trainer for the Oregon Science Project. Along with 200 other Oregon educators, more than half of whom were elementary school teachers, Callahan spent the 2016-17 school year learning best practices for teaching kindergarten science. In the summer of 2017, she passed that training on to 19 of her Redmond colleagues who wanted to learn more about teaching science in their elementary school classrooms.

“I’m thrilled with NGSS because of all the hands-on opportunities,” Callahan said. Her students also learn the value of taking risks, making mistakes, and problem solving. “That higher level thinking … I don’t think we were really pushing that before.”

Getting students beyond activities like memorizing the stages of a butterfly’s lifecycle or learning the parts of a plant is just what NGSS is meant to inspire. The standards list scientific concepts and practices students should understand at the end of each grade level, as well as specific ideas they should know.

Compiled by state leaders, the National Research Council, the National Science Teacher Association, and others, the standards were warmly received by many educators when they were first released. Not everyone loved them though. Critics complained the standards overemphasize skills while relegating factual scientific knowledge to secondary importance. And some conservatives decried the standards’ references to climate change and evolution as so much political maneuvering.

But Achieve’s Krehbiel, formerly a high school science teacher in Kansas, believes the standards can make a positive difference for students.

“It’s all about kids being able to explain the world around them and being thoughtful about scientific information,” Krehbiel said. “If you teach in this way, kids will show an increased likelihood to pursue a career in science, see science as relevant to their lives and show an increased interest in science.”

PHOTO: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

Oregon educators are hoping that proves true here. The state, which ranked dead last for time spent on science in elementary school in 2009, is aggressively trying to get better. The Oregon Science Project was initially funded by a grant from the federal government and will continue with funding from the state and from professional development fees charged to districts. The state also published a science and math education strategic plan in 2016. Among other goals, the plan calls for increasing the time spent on science in elementary school to above the national average.

Trecha, of the Oregon Science Project, said the state’s focus is beginning to make a difference, though she acknowledges there’s still a long way to go. When speaking with teachers from all over the state, Trecha said she heard that some elementary schools don’t have science as part of their weekly schedule and many districts don’t have an up-to-date science curriculum, although having one is required by state law.

“We’ve asked [elementary students] to make things sink or float, but we haven’t asked them to make sense of it or explain it,” Trecha said. She said children should be asked to draw diagrams of floating objects, think about invisible forces like buoyancy, or wrestle with tricky concepts like density to deepen their understanding of why some objects sink and others float.

It’s also important to do a better job reaching all students, Trecha said. Black and Latino students and students from low-income homes tend to perform less well on the national fourth grade science assessment. That pattern holds true in Oregon. Just 14 percent of Latino students, 10 percent of American Indian/Alaska native students, and 23 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of low family income, scored at or above proficient in science in 2015. (Not enough black Oregonians took the test to accurately measure the group’s performance.)

In contrast, 37 percent of Oregon’s entire fourth grade population scored at or above proficient. These disparate outcomes persist through middle and high school, where girls also start to perform less well than their male peers.

Against that backdrop, improving science instruction in districts like Redmond, where 74 percent of K-3 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 18 percent are Latino, is especially important, Trecha would argue.

Back in Callahan’s classroom, Malachi Ballinger, 6, and Alyssa Akre, 6, are tugging on shoelaces now attached to their rubber band launchers and observing how the tennis balls react to the forces they are now exerting on them.

“When we used our fingers [the ball] went off the edge,” Alyssa said. That’s not happening with the shoelace tied to the launcher, so, she concluded, the force is “kind of less now.”

Next, it was time to take notes on their experiment. The notes are important, Malachi said as he carefully drew a diagram of his pinball machine, “because that helps us know stuff — know how forces move.” Besides, he added, taking notes is what scientists do “so they can remember.”

“[Scientists] always say what happens,” Alyssa chimed in.

“They say ‘because’ a lot,” added Kyah Higgins, 5.

So, that’s what scientists do, but what do they look like?

Laughing, Alyssa said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world: “They look like us!”

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”