Early Childhood

Colorado’s low grade on early education report questioned

Colorado earned a D and ranked 44th out of 50 states on a report card measuring early education in Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report. But one expert says the report’s “Early Education Index” doesn’t consider a set of indicators comprehensive enough to make the letter grades fair and accurate.

“If you look at the big picture of everything that’s going on in the [early childhood] space….it’s not a good way to grade the states,” said Bruce Atchison, executive director of policy and operations for the Education Commission of the States. “It’s just a little shallow to me.”

Overall, the top-ranked jurisdictions on the Early Education Index were the District of Columbia, Hawaii and Mississippi. The bottom three were Nevada, Idaho and Utah. The nation as a whole earned a D+ on the index.

“To say Colorado is doing worse than Mississippi or Wyoming, that’s absurd…Wyoming doesn’t put anything into Pre-K yet,” Atchison said.

He also said the index doesn’t consider Colorado’s work to improve child care quality, licensing and professional development. Also unacknowledged are governance changes that created the state’s Office of Early Childhood, legislation requiring kindergarten entry assessments, and the progress being made by the state’s network of early childhood councils.

“I would give Colorado a B- or C+ absolutely,” Atchison said.

A better approximation of how Colorado is doing on the early childhood front is the annual “State of Preschool Report” from the National Institute for Early Education Research. Atchison said. The 2013 report, the latest available, doesn’t give letter grades, but generally gives Colorado middle-of-the pack rankings when it comes to preschool access and spending. For example, the state ranked 22nd on four-year-old preschool access and 32nd on all reported (not just state) spending.

Among the eight indicators included in the Quality Counts’ Early Education Index, Colorado did particularly poorly on those measuring the number of children in full-day preschool (31.2 percent) or full-day kindergarten (59.7 percent) programs, ranking behind all but a handful of other states. It also scored poorly in the “preschool poverty gap” category, which measures the difference between the percentage of poor and non-poor children enrolled in preschool. In Colorado, that gap is 19.4 percentage points, among the highest in the nation.

The index does contain few bright spots for Colorado. The state posted one of the highest gains in preschool enrollment over the last five years—3 percent compared to the national average of -.3 percent. Its overall preschool enrollment rate of 48.8 percent is also relatively high, earning it a ranking of 16th nationally.

One caveat mentioned by Education Week officials about the Early Education Index is that it’s based on federal surveys that asked families to self-report educational information. It does not include actual enrollment figures collected by states, school districts or programs.

On a separate section of Quality Counts focusing more on the K-12 system, Colorado earned a C and ranked 21st in the nation. That grade, the same as the national average, was based on K-12 achievement, school finance measures, and a third indicator called “Chance for success,” which includes early childhood, K-12 and adult outcomes. Colorado earned a B on Chance for Success, a C on K-12 achievement and a D+ on finance.

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.

Threes please

As 4-year-old preschool programs become the norm, Denver looks to reach 3-year-olds next

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

The Denver Preschool Program, most well-known for providing millions of dollars to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool, is expanding its scope.

Starting this month, the nonprofit will put a share of its funding from a citywide sales tax toward improving preschool classrooms for 3-year-olds — something it has long done in 4-year-old classrooms. Those improvements could take the form of teacher training or coaching, teacher scholarships for educational programs, or new blocks and playground equipment.

The $700,000 initiative pales in comparison to the $15 million that the Denver Preschool Program will spend on tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds this year. Still, it’s another sign of growing recognition that investments in younger children help amplify the benefits of widespread and politically popular 4-year-old prekindergarten programs.

The push to serve more 3-year-olds can be seen around the state and nation. Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — both plan to add new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if tax measures for education pass in November.

Last year, New York City school leaders began phasing in free universal preschool for the city’s 3-year-olds, an expansion of the city’s ambitious Pre-K for All program, which served about 70,000 4-year-olds in 2017-18. In 2008, Washington, D.C., passed a major preschool overhaul law, which helped make it one of the few places in the country where a large majority of 3-year-olds attend free preschool.

Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, said when city voters first passed a sales tax in 2006 to fund the program, the ballot language specifically earmarked the proceeds for 4-year-olds. But in 2014, when voters approved a 10-year extension of the sales tax, they also OK’d language that allowed spending on 3-year-olds.

The expanded age range fit with the shifting national policy conversation at the time, which increasingly emphasized the importance of starting with children younger than 4, said Landrum.

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.

That’s part of the reason the Denver Preschool Program will focus its new 3-year-old funding on boosting quality.

“It’s such a logical next step when you can see the gains 4-year-olds can make in that one year of high-quality preschool,” said Landrum. “It just makes sense.”

The improvement efforts will focus on the preschool classrooms of about 3,400 Denver 3-year-olds.

Unlike the city’s 4-year-olds, those 3-year-olds will not get tuition help from the Denver Preschool Program. There’s not enough money for that, said Landrum.

In Colorado, a fraction of 3-year-olds attend publicly funded preschool through Head Start or the Colorado Preschool Program, a statewide program that pays for preschool for young children with certain risk factors. Some 3-year-olds also qualify for free preschool because they have disabilities.

Denver district officials say they hope to add 500 new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if the statewide ballot measure, Amendment 73, passes in November. Right now, there are long waitlists for that age group.

In Jeffco, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds together in the same classrooms, expansion plans also hinge on the outcome of November’s election. A proposed district bond measure would help renovate 70 classrooms for the preschool set, for a total of about 1,100 additional seats. Currently, the district serves about 3,500 preschoolers — about half of them 3-year olds.

And if Amendment 73 or the district’s mill levy override  — or both — pass, district officials say it would allow them to convert more half-day preschool slots to full-day slots, hike teacher pay, and improve the qualifications of early childhood staff.