Clayton Early Learning

Appropriate Preschool Assessment Doesn’t Take Time Away From Play

Mary Klute

Posted by Mary Klute


Mary Klute

This is a busy time of year for me at work  Every fall, staff in the Research and Evaluation Department here at Clayton Early Learning conduct standardized assessments with over 200 preschool-aged children in our program.  After we finish assessing all the children, we meet to go over individual scores with the classroom teachers, the child-family educator who works with the program, and the mentor-coach for the classroom.  We do all of this so that teachers can use the data we collect in combination with their own observations and assessments of children to guide what they do with each individual child in the classroom.

I had a half-hour between meetings earlier this week and I used the time to catch up on some of the blogs I follow.  I ran across this post about a recent article in Scientific American Mind, that makes the case that play is far more important (and effective) for children’s development than direct instruction.  I’m totally on board with that argument.  You won’t find me advocating for flash cards, lectures and structured seat work for preschoolers….and I love it when the popular press shouts that message from the rooftops!  But then I noticed the title of the preview of the Scientific American Mind article on their website: “Preschool Testing Takes Time Away from Play—And Learningand I thought, “uh, wait a minute…I have 6 appointments on my calendar today to share the results of testing with teachers.”

Scientific American Mind’s website only gives a little snippet of the article, so I quickly bought it and read the whole article, which, by the way, actually has the title, “The Death of Preschool.”   Interestingly, the article makes absolutely no reference to testing in preschool. The only reference they make to testing is a passing reference to the testing required starting in third grade by No Child Left Behind.  What the article does describe is a preschool where children are quizzed on topics like parts of the human skeleton and the geography of Southeast Asia.  It describes a school where children spend their day in an environment that sounds more structured than my daughter’s third grade classroom.

So the title of the teaser on Scientific American Mind’s website is unfortunate and inaccurate.  It prompted at least one sale of that issue of their magazine, so from their point of view, it is probably a success.  However, another benefit of it, I suppose, is that it prompted me to reflect in my free moments in the past few days about why we assess children in our Educare School.  All Educare Schools are guided by 12 Core Features.  One of these core features is “Use Research-Based Strategies,” which includes a commitment to continuous improvement and use of a local evaluation partner and participation in a national, multi-site evaluation.  As we implement this core feature, we engage in the very rewarding, but very hard work of developing a research-program partnership.  We strive to gather rich information about the children and families we work with in our program.  We, as the local evaluation partner, work to bring the information we collect back to the Educare School at multiple times and in multiple ways.  We share individual child scores (as I described above) two times per year with each classroom team.  We share “hot off the presses” aggregate data with program leadership about every other month.  Finally, we share our more thoroughly and thoughtfully analyzed data with program leadership, staff, parents and our Board annually through our Annual Evaluation Report.

We do all of this for two main reasons: 1) to provide information that can be used in combination with many other sources of information (e.g., teachers’ observations, authentic assessments, other data collected by the program, etc.) to guide planning for individual children and for the program as a whole.  2) To tell the story of the great things that happen every day in our Educare School, none of which, by the way, involve the use of flash cards or quizzing children on the location of countries in Southeast Asia.  Our efforts are far from perfect, but we try to learn from our mistakes and missteps and continually improve because we believe that this is an important and valuable use of data and testing that doesn’t take away from play and learning, but actually promotes it.  What do you think?

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Authentic Assessment of Infants and Toddlers: Exciting New Research on the Learning Through Relating System

Mary Klute

Posted by Mary Klute


Mary Klute

Think back to the greatest teachers you ever had.  When I do, I think of teachers who challenged me, rarely presenting me with material or tasks that were too easy for me.  And when they challenged me, they did so by pushing me to achieve things that required real effort, but weren’t so hard that I felt frustrated.  Doing this for every child in a classroom is precisely what educators are talking about when they use terms like “individualization” (in the early childhood world) and “differentiation” (in the K-12 world).  When you consider how varied children are in their abilities in different areas, you can appreciate what a monumental task it is to meet each and every child where they are and support them to get to the next level.

Before a teacher can engage in this monumental task, they have to get some idea of where each child is developmentally.  In a high quality early childhood program, teachers do this via a process called authentic assessment.  Authentic assessment is the process of on-going observation in the context of everyday classroom environments. Teachers make notes throughout the day when they see children display various skills while participating in classroom activities. Using authentic assessment techniques, children are not put in a testing situation, rather, teachers document relevant observations in the form of ‘anecdotes’ that they refer to later when completing a developmental checklist.

Many authentic assessment tools are available for the preschool age range and to guide early intervention efforts.  However, few options exist for authentic assessment during the infant and toddler period.  In response to this, the Learning Through Relating system was developed with funding from the Administration for Children and Families.  When this project started, my colleague, Amanda Moreno and I were working at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.  Amanda was working closely with the staff here at Clayton Early Learning Institute, particularly Chris Sciarrino, to create an authentic assessment for infants and toddlers.  When the grant opportunity came along, we were thrilled to obtain funding to further develop the system and to conduct research on it. With this funding, we were able to implement the curriculum in Clayton’s Early Head Start program and provide intensive coaching to support teachers and home visitors to use the curriculum well.

Learning Through Relating is unique in that it is not a downward extension of a preschool curriculum.  Instead, it was created with the key developmental tasks for infants and toddlers in mind.  In addition, the system includes a curriculum that is linked to the assessment.  The curriculum offers caregivers guidance about how to provide meaningful learning opportunities for children that can be customized to meet each child where he or she is.

One of the most frequent questions I’ve heard when I’ve spoken to people about Learning Through Relating has been, “that sounds great, but is it reliable and valid?”  I’m thrilled to now be able to answer that question, “YES!”  A journal article documenting the reliability and validity of the Learning Through Relating Child Assets Record was published in this month’s issue of Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

The development and refinement of the Learning Through Relating System has truly been the result of an ongoing partnership.  Over the years, many people have provided valuable input to refine the Learning Through Relating system including teachers and home visitors in Clayton’s Early Head Start program and Clayton infant-toddler coaches, Shelly Anderson and Laura Rothe.  We are deeply grateful to them for their contributions.


What About the Children?

Geri Mendoza

Posted by Geri Mendoza


Geri Mendoza

You can’t open a newspaper or visit a blog that doesn’t have something to do with educational reform in our country. President Obama has asked that schools show that they are improving outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and boosting high school graduation and college enrollment rates. I am on board with all of that, who wouldn’t be? Where the debate may lie is how do we do this and what budget is there to support it. Right now there is a national wrangling contest to see who we can blame because the achievement gap is not closing. These discussions come to light because our national test scores don’t measure up to those of other countries and some of our schools are failing. Unfortunately, in my view the first person faulted is the classroom teacher. So here we are, heading into the second month of a new school year. This should be a time where the teacher is excited to be setting up optimal learning environments, developing relationships with the children and their families, and planning opportunities to impart new knowledge. Instead, my fear is that well intentioned task force committees designed to assess the education situation only end up creating more accountability systems for the classroom. Well, the pressure is on, Teacher.  There is a lot at stake and your job may be on the line, nothing new I know. If teachers are being asked to learn new skills and teach with new strategies (administering tests, using assessments, engaging with families, learning new technology), how will we help them keep the focus on the children?

According to Ellen Galinsky , commenting on Education Nation, a recent nationally broadcast, in-depth conversation about improving education in America, we should make it our business to put children as our first priority. Here are three recommendations from Galinsky:

1) Plan for child engagement. There will be a need for creative and innovative ideas to jumpstart learning for children and to keep them motivated to learn. Even in high performing schools, children have lost their love of learning. Galinsky points out that our classrooms models for education were based in the agricultural and industrial age. Our children are more connected to technology.  Perhaps we need to find systems of measurement and support for classroom teachers to motivate students using a variety of techniques that expose children to technology.

2) Start early. Include early childhood teachers and parents at the table when discussing what works. I would offer that we tap into the Head Start Centers of Excellence, where early education programs are implementing comprehensive, innovative and targeted approaches to learning, and producing positive, measurable outcomes for children. And then share the information with our local public school system.

3) Develop 21st century thinkers with a focus on literacy, science and math, but give thought to how we teach our children to self regulate and maintain focus, be critical thinkers and problem-solvers so they can apply their new knowledge to change the world. I believe we want children to be literate in higher level thinking, but we want to make sure that they have a strong sense of self in order to be successful.

In my opinion, our work as instructional leaders is to create environments that build individual capacity as a parallel process for teachers and children. Instead of the deficit lens in which we view what’s wrong with our classrooms, perhaps strengthening what is going right and telling that story might work. We could create learning environments where teachers share expertise, while questioning and engaging in critical reflection for the shared purpose of the best learning for children. What a great model for children who are engaged in the same questioning and critical reflection dialogue with their peers and teachers. Perhaps the panel of experts involved in the debate need to participate in the classroom, viewing learning through the eyes of the child. What do you think?


Head Start: Are We Accountable?

Rebecca Soden

Posted by Rebecca Soden


Rebecca Soden

It’s back to school time here at Clayton Early Learning. We just held our annual all staff meeting at Park Hill Golf Course to start off the new school year.  We had the opportunity to watch a documentary about Sargent Shriver, the founder of Head Start and his dedication to the War on Poverty.  Ironically, during our session break, the TV in the clubhouse was playing a report on CNN about Head Start Fraud. For many of us, it was difficult to see the report from the Government Office of Accountability stating that some Head Start programs had enrolled children who were not eligible for the program based on federal guidelines.

Hearing this report, led me to reflect on the work that I’ve seen in our Head Start program and the value of our services for children, families and the Denver community.  I can say with experience that accountability for the Head Start Performance Standards and responsibility to fulfill the mission of closing opportunity gaps for low-income children has been a constant focus of our collective work for the fifteen plus years that I’ve  worked with Head Start.

“Accountability” is certainly the buzz word of the times, but at Clayton Early Learning, we’ve been living this term for over a decade.  A pioneer in using child and program data for accountability and continuous improvement purposes, we’ve been consistently invited to present at national Head Start meetings and conferences.  Sharing our story with other Head Start programs does not mean much however if we aren’t able to make the tough choices everyday that lead to excellence.

That day, at the staff meeting, we shared some of the outcomes of those tough choices:

  • Teachers here at Clayton Early Learning are implementing expansive care giving strategies with babies and toddlers.  They have extended conversations with children and create well organized classroom environments with stimulating materials and activities.  Child outcome measures indicate that our infants and toddlers are communicating at above average levels with their caregivers and are maintaining these high levels over time.
  • Preschool children tend to come to us with rather low vocabulary scores. However, the data suggest that our program has been successful in supporting children to increase their vocabulary scores. Children, on average, increase approximately 5 standard score points during the course of one year, indicating that their rate of vocabulary growth substantially exceeds the typical rate of growth in vocabulary.
  • Children heading to Kindergarten are leaving our program prepared for success, with readiness scores on or near the national average.  Kindergarten-bound children who attend both EHS and HS at Clayton tend to have higher scores on school readiness measures, echoing results from the Bounce Learning Network that children who enter earlier leave more prepared for kindergarten.

Our appreciation for the depth and breadth of outcomes created by the dedication and diligence of Head Start staff may not be measurable for years to come, but our eyes remain fixed on measuring our impacts in the ways that we can and in tailoring our resources to realize the mission of Head Start to promote school readiness for low-income children.  Please share your Head Start success stories with us by posting a comment.


Paths to Quality in Child Care-Which one are you on?

Brenda Hoge

Posted by Brenda Hoge


Brenda Hoge

Getting classrooms to sustain quality over time is a concern many of us have. Quality can and should happen in every classroom, every day. Well, maybe not every day-because everyone periodically has one of “those days,” but it should be just about every day. So what are some of the roadblocks to quality, and how do classrooms manage to avoid them and achieve quality?

Roadblocks to Sustaining Quality

Some of the larger roadblocks for classrooms that are unable to sustain quality are high staff turn-over, funding issues, lack of professional development opportunities for staff, and just overall organizational chaos. Some of the smaller challenges may be that teachers do not know what a “quality” classroom should look like,  a belief that their curriculum/philosophy can never match Colorado’s definition of “quality,” based on the Qualistar rating, or that having a quality classroom is important only for their “observation window." A classroom struggling with roadblocks may look like this:

                “On the morning of their Qualistar observation, the teachers were busy putting up pictures on the wall because they had heard from teachers who were there last year that displays are important. Because the program knew their “observation window” was next month, they quickly ordered new materials for their classrooms. Teachers put them on the shelves- some still in their wrappers. The children, being excited by all of the new things, were having more peer problems that day. The children seemed confused by their teachers who had changed the schedule that day to allow more free play.  They were also requiring the children to wash their hands, when they had never done it before. The teachers were stressed by the “rater” and felt like they were under a microscope. They were looking forward to this day being over and hoped that they did well enough so that their Director wouldn’t fire them."

Of course, this is just an example but you can see how some of those roadblocks mentioned above may have prevented this classroom from being successful. Even if they were able to achieve a quality score on the Environment Rating Scales (ERS) that day, it is doubtful that they could sustain that level of quality throughout the year. The classroom would need more support to achieve that.

The Road to Sustaining Quality:

So what are the characteristics of classrooms that have been able to sustain quality over time? Are they just great teachers? Or is it something more? For those classrooms that sustain quality, providing a quality ECE classroom is a priority for the program. And no, quality is not solely defined by the Environment Rating Scale tools. Teachers have learned about quality, they are supported by their Directors, and they regularly use outside resources, such as coaching, for additional support. The program is functional and additional funding is sought out for Quality Improvement. An observation in this classroom may look like this:

"On the day of their Qualistar observation, the teachers have prepared a follow-up science activity for the children because they were exploring the different kinds of rocks. This topic was brought up by a child who had asked “why are there so many different kinds of rocks?” on their playground. During free play, children had a choice of materials, some new, some pertained to the theme, and some of the materials were their favorites. Teachers joined in the play activities with the children and asked questions about their play. Knowing that they hadn’t worked real hard on hand washing, the teacher knew that they probably wouldn’t get a high score in Personal Care Routines. The teachers were still stressed by the “rater” but felt that they did the best they could for their children."

Again, this is just another example but as you can see, it has a very different feel from the classroom that is still struggling with roadblocks. Is this classroom perfect? No,  but that's fine. The teachers did what they normally do every day, which is providing meaningful experiences for their children rather than a “cookie cutter” approach to what they think quality should be. This meaningful experience is partly what sustains quality over time.

Stakeholders in Colorado are in the process of taking a close look at our QRIS to examine how it might be modified to better support programs.  So as we begin this process, how can we best support programs to achieve quality every day? How do we support programs and teachers to move beyond “performing for the rating?”  How do we achieve this knowing that some form of quality has to be measured? These are our challenges, so what should we do?


Teacher-Child Interactions: The ticket to effective teaching?

Rebecca Soden

Posted by Rebecca Soden


Rebecca Soden

Picture your favorite teacher as a young child.  What was it about this person that connected you to them and makes you remember them today?

I’m going to guess that you didn’t list anything about the teacher’s level of education, ongoing professional development that she received or the literacy curriculum that she used in her classroom.  While these surely shaped her teaching, what you likely remember are the more subtle, moment-to-moment interactions and conversations that she had with you.  It was the way these interactions made you think and feel that have kept them in your memory for so long.

After years of trying to figure out what qualities of a teacher have the most impact on student learning, researchers (like those working at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning) are discovering that if we want to improve children’s academic and social development, we need to focus on how teachers use their daily interactions to instruct and relate with each child in their classroom.  Great teachers create play environments that engage, motivate and stretch children into becoming ‘thinkers’ and ‘learners’.  Identifying, naming and describing these interactions has helped teachers become more effective (which is good for kids) and feel more satisfied in their jobs (which is good for all of us).

Consider Miss Helen and Miss Angel.  Miss Helen is a preschool teacher.  She is implementing the “best” evidence-based curriculum (one that has been shown to lead to significant changes in children’s ability to read).  She is always prepared with the activities and the students all know what to do.  However, she teaches the curriculum without shared joy, mutual respect, sensitivity or encouragement.  She doesn’t incorporate the student’s ideas and interests into her lessons or involve the children in planning and leading activities.

At the preschool down the street, Miss Angel doesn’t use a specific literacy curriculum, but she asks ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions of the children to build their analysis and reasoning skills.  She brainstorms with them, connects ideas and relates new information to things the children already know and understand.  Miss Angel asks the children to explain their thinking.  She extends their language and uses a variety of new words.  She points out the sounds of letters and plays with rhymes and songs throughout the day.  There is enthusiasm and laughter as the children explore lots of hands-on and interesting materials.

The above scenarios demonstrate what we are discovering about the nuances of effective teaching.  It is a teacher’s facilitation of learning – not simply the curriculum – that most impacts children’s development. At Clayton Educare, we are embarking on a journey to better understand how we can improve our interactions with children.  We are using an evaluation and quality improvement tool called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS Pre K) to measure, reflect on and refine our teacher-child interactions.  We hope to share our story with you as we go.  Please let us know if you are on this path.  We would love to learn and grow together!