Preschool debate

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

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Shelby County government could add an additional $2.5 million for pre-K for the new fiscal year starting on July 1.

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.

 

farewell

A fixture in Colorado’s early childhood scene prepares to step back – but not all the way

Preschoolers play at Clayton Early Learning in 2015.

On a Monday back in 2006, Charlotte Brantley arrived in Denver to interview for the top job at Clayton Early Learning.

She was up for a high-profile job in Washington state at the time, but quickly called the recruiter there and said, “Take my name off the list. I think I’ve found my new home.”

That’s how Brantley ended up at Clayton, where she’s spent nearly 13 years leading one of the state’s most visible and influential early childhood organizations.

“I just had this sense that this institution was poised to go to the next place,” she said.

Now, Brantley is preparing to retire, probably sometime next summer.

In addition to running a highly rated preschool and child care program that are part of the national Educare network, Clayton provides training and coaching to other early childhood providers, runs home visiting programs, conducts research and advocates for early childhood causes.

Brantley, who has two adult sons, started her career as a college instructor and preschool teacher in her native Texas. Soon after, she began working on early childhood policy in Texas state government, and later the federal government, as a Clinton administration appointee.

Brantley, 66, sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about the most difficult decision she made at Clayton, her frustration over lagging public support for early childhood programs, and her thoughts on governor-elect Jared Polis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your first early childhood policy job was for the state of Texas. What was that like?


I didn’t know a thing about policy but apparently the woman who hired me thought I could learn. When I walked in the door I was handed a piece of legislation that had passed, to say that Head Start, child care and Pre-K should learn to play well together from a policy and delivery standpoint. Nobody had any clue how to do it or what to do. I was handed that and told, “You go implement this.”

You’ve worked in many roles during your career. What’s your experience at Clayton been like?

What I’ve loved about being here at Clayton is everything I’ve ever done, it happens here. The advocacy, the policy … we’re part of Head Start. We’re part of the national Educare network. We get to advocate at the Capitol. We do research and training. It’s been a real highlight of my career to be here.

Can you share an accomplishment from your tenure at Clayton?

We didn’t have any positions that were focused on advocacy work when I came here and now we have a team of two plus myself. I would love to be able to put more money into that. I now have a board that gets it, that our being a player in state-level advocacy is highly valuable to the field at large.

In what you describe as the hardest decision of your tenure, Clayton closed a second child care site in 2017 that had opened a few years before in far northeast Denver. What was the fallout like?

Families were furious with us. It was just a firestorm. We actually had to have extra security on the campus for a while. I understood it. I’ve been a parent of babies too when I was working full time. It’s very stressful. People felt betrayed.

What did the closing say about the broader early childhood landscape?

The fact that we had to close that school is like a canary in the coal mine, that we are not investing enough in early childhood education as a country. We could not sustain that second school. We could have reduced its quality significantly and we were not willing to do that. By that, I mean we could have put more kids in each classroom and had fewer teachers and less qualified teachers and paid them less.

You said you hoped public investment in early childhood programs would have increased further by now. Looking ahead, what’s your outlook?

The voters just said no, again [to Amendment 73, a statewide ballot measure for education]. They said no to Amendment 66, [a 2013 ballot measure for education]. There are bright spots of local communities [raising taxes for early childhood], but until the whole TABOR mindset goes away — and maybe it never will go away in this state — people are not willing to have their taxes raised.

It’s disheartening to me, having been in this field as long as I’ve been in it. And there have been tremendous gains with the amount of public money going into early childhood. But the fact that we’re OK as a country with paying our teachers so little they qualify for food stamps — I don’t want to give them food stamps, I want to give them a better wage so they can afford to go buy food. We shouldn’t make them go through a welfare door to sustain their family.

How do you feel about governor-elect Jared Polis’s plan for universal full-day preschool?

Polis has talked about Pay For Success [financing for preschool]. That’s been done in Utah. I am a little skeptical, I will say. Number one, philanthropy will only agree to pay for something for so long. I don’t know where the money comes to pay them back. I’ll be really interested to see what he does and whether or not, with a [Democratic-majority] state house, he’ll be able to do anything more with that.

What early childhood development do you feel hopeful about?

It’s really the opposite side of the same coin. The fact that we now have a governor who ran on a platform of early childhood. I’m incredibly excited about that. Just the fact that he put that as one of the front-and-center pieces of his platform is awesome because I think it will keep the conversations going until we figure out more viable solutions to all of this.

Why is it so important to ‘figure out’ a way forward on early childhood?

The demographics of the country are changing, both in terms of the backgrounds of people and also the fact that the people who are my age — the Baby Boomers — we’re going to all die out. If you’ve got fewer young people coming into play, what that means is it’s all the more critical that every one of our kids is being given a solid start. A free public education has got to start at birth, for those families who want it.

What do you plan to do after you retire?

I have grandchildren in Florida. I’ll spend more time with them, and I have another son in Houston. Beyond that, I want to go back and learn to do photography again. I have already joined the Rocky Mountain Prep [charter school network] board. There might be another board or two I’m interested in. I’m so passionate about this work, I probably won’t be able to step away 100 percent.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana faces a tight budget in 2019, lawmakers say. Will expanding pre-K be in the cards?

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Preschool and kindergarten students at George Washington Carver School 87, a magnet Montessori school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Nearly every time the state prepares to craft a new two-year budget plan, Indiana lawmakers warn it will be difficult to balance different funding priorities. But 2019 could be especially tough, they say, since the bulk of new revenue could already be earmarked to assist children affected by the opioid crisis.

Extra resources for preschool and teacher raises are among the areas competing for the remaining funds.

“This is going to be a puzzle that we’re going to have to solve together,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma at a panel discussion hosted by the Indiana Chamber on Monday.

Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, said the state anticipates about $325 million to $350 million in new revenue for the next two-year budget cycle, which begins in 2019. But, he said, $275 million could potentially be earmarked for the Department of Child Services to help stem its growing caseload and staffing needs in light of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

That leaves little for new projects, such as raising teacher salaries or improving school safety resources, or expansion of existing ones, such as preschool. Half the state’s budget is generally set aside to fund schools and districts, parceled out based on a formula that factors in a school’s demographics, special education needs, and more. For the past few budgets, lawmakers have given modest increases to schools, around 2 percent.

But that doesn’t include preschool, which is funded separately as a line item. Bosma on Monday expressed some uncertainty that the program can be expanded in the way pre-K advocates have called for — requests that have ranged from adding more counties to pushing it statewide. Known as On My Way Pre-K, the program so far has cost $22 million per year and is available in 20 counties. Currently, about 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families use grants from the program to attend a high-quality pre-K provider of their choice.

“I’m very open to expanding it, as long as the focus is on the people who can’t afford the programs themselves,” Bosma said. “The problem is, this is going to be a more difficult budget year than many are aware of … expanding the program right now might be difficult.”

Republican and Democrat leaders, from the House and Senate, said Monday that they supported an expansion of the state’s preschool program. It’s an issue that has seen broad bipartisan support, with lawmakers approving an increase in 2017.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick have come out in support of expanding access to strong preschool programs, particularly in rural areas and to ensure students are prepared for kindergarten.

In the past, lawmakers have been skeptical about how much to spend on the pre-K pilot program, but each year has seen incremental increases in funding, with the number of counties quadrupling since its start.

Bosma suggested the state might have to look to other funding sources, such as ones at the federal level.

Earlier this year, Indiana applied for a federal Preschool Development Grant, which can be used to conduct a statewide needs assessment and coordinate existing federal, state, and local programs that serve children from birth to age 5, according to the grant description. Up to 40 states and territories will receive awards between $500,000 and $10 million, which are expected mid-December.

Lawmakers have also been in talks about how money could be set aside for raises for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks. Bosma said there’d be more details later this week and when lawmakers come back for session to begin in January.