Early Childhood

Glenda Ritz calls Pence's preschool decision "bad for children"

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz battled over education policy for years, but they agreed on dumping Common Core and PARCC.

Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz today criticized Gov. Mike Pence for halting the state’s efforts to seek an $80 million federal preschool grant “without warning.”

“Whatever his motivation, one thing is clear: Pence’s about-face with little or no notice to those who had worked in concert with his administration on the grant application is bad for our state and our children,” Ritz said in a statement.

“The governor expressed concern about federal requirements that would have come with this money, but thus far has failed to provide any specifics,” she said.

Ritz wasn’t the first person to weigh in on Pence’s surprising decision. Reaction to his choice, which leaves $80 million in federal funds on the table, has been mixed.

Here’s a roundup of what people have said.

Ritz went on to lay out her view of the grant’s value:

“Here are the facts. First, the grant did not require a state or local match. Funds that we rejected will now be used by other states. Second, the funds would not have resulted in kindergarteners taking tests to qualify to enter kindergarten. But, third, we would finally have had the ability to ensure that our children come to Kindergarten ready to learn and these funds would have helped form the basis for their future educational attainment. We need high quality early childhood education.”

When Pence’s change of direction on the grant was first reported by Indianapolis Star columnist Matt Tully on Thursday, it shocked Indiana’s early education advocates. Chalkbeat quoted Stand For Children executive Director Justin Ohlemiller saying he was caught off guard by Pence’s decision:

“The announcement left us shocked and troubled,” said Stand For Children executive director Justin Ohlemiller, whose organization advocates for change in school districts and at the state level. “Our hope is that there will be a clearer explanation and more detail in the coming days about why the sudden decision to not move forward. Our first reaction is that we’re shocked given the momentum that has been built with multiple parties working toward this goal, not to mention we seemed to be in a very strong position to vie for the funding.”

In a guest column for The Statehouse File on Friday, Pence argued the state should go its own way on preschool. Pence wrote:

“It’s important to note that many early learning programs across the country have not been successful over the years. On behalf of the children the pilot is designed to serve, it is imperative that Indiana get this right. Indiana’s program is based on parental choice and includes the flexibility and accountability needed to ensure children are in programs that get real results.

“It is important not to allow the lure of federal grant dollars to define our state’s mission and programs. More federal dollars do not necessarily equal success, especially when those dollars come with requirements and conditions that will not help – and may even hinder – running a successful program of our own making.

“An important part of our pre-K pilot is the requirement that we study the program so we understand what works and what doesn’t. I do not believe it is wise policy to expand our pre-K pilot before we have a chance to study and learn from the program.”

The state’s move to pass on the grant brought a flood of opinion over the weekend about why Pence made the move and whether it was the right decision.

The Associated Press wrote that social conservatives and tea party groups considered it a victory that Pence was persuaded not to work with the federal government on preschool. The AP’s Tom LoBianco wrote about efforts to scuttle the grant by Hoosiers Against Common Core’s co-founder Heather Crossin:

“Crossin is hardly a stalwart Pence supporter; her group lambasted the governor for formally withdrawing the state from Common Core education standards earlier this year, while replacing them with standards strikingly similar to the federal rules. And a little more than a week ago, her group chastised Pence for his creation of a “data czar” to oversee reams of government data, including student information.

“Many similar groups, long considered Pence’s political base stemming to his years in Congress, have expressed frustration at his decision to seek an expansion of Medicaid using a state-run alternative.

“But Wednesday they were cheering the governor.”

Earlier this month, Hoosiers Against Common Core described the grant as expanding “taxpayer funded day care.” When advocates complained that group’s lobbying cost the state $80 million that could have helped poor children prepare for kindergarten, it responded by arguing Indiana’s chances of winning the grant were far from certain. The group posted on its website:

“The truth is that the categories and eligible award amounts were determined based upon the state’s population of four-year-old children eligible for the program, nothing more.

“The only thing that makes a state more likely to win is to agree to the 18 pages of federal requirements stipulated throughout the grant, such as mandating full day care, extensive testing, and data collection on children who are only four-years-old.”

The Indiana State Teachers Union, which is often critical of Pence, drew a direct line between the activism of Hoosiers Against Common Core and Pence’s decision. On its blog, ISTA wrote:

“Some have also speculated that the governor was concerned that by accepting the federal grant, the state’s preschool program couldn’t be folded into Indiana’s controversial school voucher program. Whatever the backdrop and underlying motivation, one thing is certain: thousands of Indiana’s neediest children will once again pay the price for loyalty to narrow political agendas.”

Over the weekend, the Indianapolis Star reported that the debate over the grant exposed a rift on the political right between those who are pushing hard for more preschool funding in the state and those who are skeptical of state-funded learning before kindergarten. The Star’s Robert King wrote:

“The governor also expressed concerns about unspecified ‘requirements and conditions’ associated with the federal grant that could hinder Indiana’s program.

“But corporate supporters of preschool education say the state has plenty of resources at its disposal — including financial support from the private sector — to move forward more quickly.

“‘Indiana has a unique, but urgent opportunity to seize the moment as the private and public sector are ready to take a bold step to educate our young people,'” said John Elliott, a spokesman for Kroger grocery chain.

“‘We respectfully disagree with the governor’s decision not to pursue $80 million in federal funding and ask that he reconsider his decision,” Elliott said. “There are enough engaged stakeholders focused on this priority to help build upon the administration’s pilot program and ensure rapid, successful and measurable growth in early childhood programs.’

“On the other side of the issue are social conservative groups — another traditional base of political support for Pence.

“His rejection of the federal grant was greeted warmly by American Family Association of Indiana, which is skeptical of the benefits of preschool programs and dubious of putting 4-year-olds into government programs.”

Some of Pence’s critics speculated that the decision was driven more by his presidential ambitions than by Indiana’s needs. (One of his potential primary opponents, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also was criticized for deciding not to apply for the same federal preschool grant.) The Indiana-based blogger Doug Masson wrote:

“The cynical mind, however, immediately jumps to Gov. Pence’s presidential ambitions. Even bearing in mind that our share of this federal money is coming out of our pockets anyway and will now be going to some other state instead, I think we can all agree that forgoing $80 million to improve the education of young Hoosiers is a small price to pay to ease the minds of Iowa and New Hampshire caucus and primary voters.”

The editorial board of the Indianapolis Star joined Pence’s critics, writing in an editorial over the weekend that the decision was “perplexing and disappointing.” It wrote:

“Mike Pence, once a skeptic about the value of early childhood education, has taken major steps forward on the issue in the past two years. He was beginning to lead on the issue in a way that no previous Indiana governor had shown. His sudden step back is a hard blow for the state. And worse, for its children and their families.”

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.”