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!”

We'll come to you

They started as an experiment in rural areas. Now, mobile preschools are rolling into metro Denver.

PHOTO: Pat Sudmeier
Children attend preschool in Gus the Bus in Garfield County.

In several of Colorado’s rural communities, some children have long attended preschool in specially equipped mobile classrooms with names like Gus the Bus, Magic Bus and El Busesito.

The rolling preschools, which travel to apartment complexes or mobile home parks a couple times per week, are seen as an innovative way to reach children who can’t access traditional bricks-and-mortar preschools.

Now, they’re coming to the Front Range.

Last spring, a mobile preschool rolled into the northern Denver suburbs, and the city itself could eventually get one, too. Officials at Mile High United Way are exploring the concept and Denver school district leaders say they hope to join the project if it moves forward.

“It’s no surprise there is a lack of both affordable and accessible high-quality early childhood education in our community,” said Karla Maraccini, vice president of community impact and strategy at Mile High United Way. “One of the solutions we’re exploring is mobile preschool.”

Such programs aren’t widespread in Colorado or the nation, but the meet-them-where-they-are approach has plenty of precedents. Think bookmobiles or mobile blood drives. Advocates say mobile preschools represent a valuable school readiness initiative for young children cut off from traditional early education experiences.

“Mobile can be used in so many ways. I think of the food trucks, how that’s been kind of a revolution,” said Logan Hood, who manages the Preschool on Wheels program in Garfield County in western Colorado. “When you come to that person’s community and you’re willing to open your doors … it’s lasting.”

Rany Elissa and Alexa Garrido, the husband-wife team that recently launched the mobile preschool program in Federal Heights north of Denver, said they plan to acquire another bus and expand their program to nearby Thornton in 2019. They’re also looking at Denver, possibly in Park Hill or a neighborhood in northwest Denver, and have had discussions with Mile High United Way on the topic.

The pair, which separately run a company that provides tutoring and other services to K-12 students across the state, said seeing the academic struggles of older students convinced them they needed to start earlier. That’s why they spent more than $200,000 to gut a 19-passenger bus and remake it into a preschool space with a bathroom, running water, heat and air-conditioning.

The colorfully painted bus spends most weekdays at the Denver Cascade Mobile Home Park, where eight children attend morning preschool and another eight attend in the afternoon. The children, all English language learners, attend the year-round program four days a week.

Many participating families walk to the bus each day, shut out of local building-based preschools that are full, or that they can’t afford or can’t reach, Garrido said.

Large swaths of Adams County, where Federal Heights is located, are considered child care deserts because the number of young children far exceeds the number of child care and preschool slots, according to a 2017 report from the Center For American Progress.

Parts of Denver have that designation as well and additional city data show fewer than a quarter of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool in certain areas, including parts of north Denver, far northeast Denver, and a few neighborhoods along the city’s eastern border with Jefferson County.

Elissa and Garrido’s program, Right On Mobile Education, is one of four mobile programs licensed by the state, which means it meets basic health and safety standards.

The Magic Bus preschool program in Eagle County, which launched in 2007, serves 82 children for four hours a week with a bus and a motor home. The Preschool on Wheels program, a project of the Aspen Community Foundation in neighboring Garfield County, serves 80 children for six hours a week with two buses — Gus the Bus and the Sunshine Bus. Families there pay $5 a month to participate. El Busesito, or the Little Bus, which operates in both Garfield and Eagle, serves 96 children for five hours a week with three buses.

While Colorado’s mobile preschool operators emphasize the pains they take to ensure quality — using reputable curriculums, incorporating social-emotional learning and employing credentialed bilingual teachers — the programs don’t get a quality rating from the state the way building-based preschools do.

State officials, who only began licensing mobile preschools in 2016, said too many factors in the rating system don’t match up with the mobile preschool model. They said that the rating system, called Colorado Shines, might eventually cover mobile preschools.

Generally, mobile preschool classes run for a shorter time than building-based classes, but leaders say they still help kids make big learning gains.

At that age, “their brains are like little sponges,” said Deb Dutmar, manager of the Magic Bus program for the Vail Valley Foundation. “Even that concentrated time with them singing songs, doing circle time, having a snack, reading a book, having play time … just those two days a week, it’s amazing how they grow.”

But mobile programs, which include parent workshops and home visits, aren’t cheap. Plus, they usually don’t qualify for government dollars that support traditional preschools, and families pay nothing or only a tiny fee to participate. In other words, they require lots of grants and donations to stay afloat.

The Magic Bus program costs $280,000 and Preschool on Wheels costs $350,000 a year. Hood, manager of the Preschool On Wheels program, said she spends lots of time fund-raising and, when she fields calls from other communities, emphasizes the need to find sustainable funding.

Both Hood and Dutmar say they routinely get calls from all over the country — Hawaii, Maryland, Louisiana, California and elsewhere — from people wanting to hear more about mobile preschools.

It’s important to consider community needs in developing such programs, Hood said, “It’s not saying, ‘This is cute. Let’s do this.’”

Beyond finances, mobile preschools present logistical challenges, too.

One mobile preschool program in Oakland, California, thought to be the first in an urban setting during its pilot phase in 2015, was discontinued a year later.

Elise Darwish, who was an administrator at the charter school network operating the bus when the program launched but not when it ended, said she believes the amount of regulation and red tape involved in running the program led to its demise.

Ensuring basic sanitation can be a stumbling block, too. Since Dutmar has one Magic Bus without a bathroom, it must be parked near a public restroom. Especially in the winter, bundling up wiggly children just for a bathroom break eats up a lot of time, she said. The good news is the foundation just finished its fund-raising campaign for a second Magic Bus motor home, which will arrive bathroom-equipped next summer.

Elissa and Garrido faced their own share of logistical headaches when they decided to launch their mobile program. They quickly realized that most city zoning rules don’t easily accommodate mobile preschools.

“No one knew what to do with us,” Elissa said. “We were not a food truck. We were not selling anything.”

Eventually, they found a passionate advocate in the mayor of Federal Heights and successfully navigated the city’s zoning ordinances. By next summer, they hope to add a second bus that will offer preschool at the Woodland Hills mobile home park in Thornton.

Denver, they hope, won’t be far behind.

the youngest learners

Most of Indiana is a licensed child care ‘desert’ for infants and toddlers, new report says

PHOTO: Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

Most of Indiana has a severe shortage of licensed child care for infants and toddlers, meaning the state’s youngest children potentially lack options for early learning during a critical time in their development, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for American Progress.

In Indiana, the capacity of licensed child care centers and homes only covers 12 percent of the state’s 245,000 infants and toddlers, the report said. Or, to put it another way, there are more than eight infants and toddlers for every licensed child care spot.

The shortages are more pronounced in rural and lower-income areas, according to the report from the left-leaning, Washington, D.C.-based public policy research and advocacy organization.

“It’s the most important time for these kids in terms of their development and in terms of their ability to set themselves up for quality learning environments later on in preschool and elementary school,” said study co-author Rasheed Malik, senior policy analyst for early childhood policy.

One of the most severe shortages outlined in the report is in Adams County, southeast of Fort Wayne along the Ohio state line, where licensed child care providers have only 18 spots for the county’s 2,058 infants and toddlers.

Not every infant and toddler needs child care, and not every family will choose a licensed option. But these “child care deserts,” as the report calls them, can limit families’ access to early childhood programs where children’s interactions with caregivers “have long-term effects that lay the groundwork for healthy socio-emotional regulation, learning ability, and resilience,” the report said.

For working families, the shortage can also make it difficult to find child care while parents are at their jobs.

The report, which uses state data on licensed child care providers, doesn’t include small, unlicensed in-home providers, arrangements with family members, or church preschools.

Still, Malik said even though the report doesn’t capture the full scope of child care in Indiana, it’s a measure for the market that shows a need for more child care options for young children.

Numbers from the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee also illustrate a shortage in high-quality programs for the youngest children: While an estimated 160,000 children ages 0 to 2 need care, only 16,000 infants and toddlers are in high-quality programs.

Infant and toddler care can be much harder to find and more expensive than early childhood options for 3- or 4-year-olds, costing about $10,000 to more than $11,000 per year, according to the committee’s estimates.

The high costs of providing care for infants and toddlers is likely what fuels the shortage of options, Malik said. In contrast, he said, options for 3- and 4-year-olds are on the rise because of increasing state and local investments in prekindergarten.

Among the Center for American Progress report’s recommendations is greater public investment in child care for infants and toddlers.

“These are our most precious resource, and research has told us every dollar spent there is well rewarded for society,” Malik said.