Clayton Early Learning
7Nov/12Off

Coaching to Improve Quality – in Search of the Evidence

Lynn Andrews

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Lynn Andrews

Here at Clayton, we always strive to use “evidence-based” practice, whether we are teaching children, supporting families, training teachers, or developing programs and policy with community partners.  Sometimes, the evidence-base doesn’t yet exist in current research findings and we are helping to create it.  An example of this is our coaching work.  We have been privileged to engage in a number of research projects that use coaching as a key professional development strategy.

To some extent, our coaching work is still an act of faith.  There is a small body of research on coaching in early childhood education that is beginning to shed light on whether it is effective in helping teachers make sustained changes in their practice (generally, so far the answer is yes) but there are still many unanswered questions. Is there a minimum “dosage” to be effective?  How should coaching hours be distributed over time?  Is on-line coaching as effective as face-to-face coaching?  Is there a difference between coaching in a supervisory relationship and coaching from a peer? Is time for shared reflection between the coach and teacher important or is simply giving teachers feedback and recommendations enough? Do the answers to these questions vary depending on what skills or dispositions you are trying to teach?  And of course, the million dollar question, does an approach that works in one situation – teaching specific content related to a specific knowledge and skill base, such as language and literacy, using specific incentives for participants – transfer to a different situation?

These are not just important questions for those of us who are on the giving and the receiving end of coaching, they have important policy implications.  Compared to other forms of professional development and supports to improve teacher practice, coaching is expensive.  Funders and policy makers want to know where they can get the best return on their investment.  At the same time, the randomized control trial studies that are the standard for providing evidence of what works and what doesn’t are also quite expensive and the results often take years to reach publication. So as much as I wish we had the answers to these questions about coaching now, in trying to make a difference for teachers and children now, I have to ask – what are we willing to accept as “evidence”?  Where does our experience – carefully documented and examined – fit in?  And what does it tell us? At Clayton we have been using coaching as a professional development strategy for over 10 years, working with more than 200 programs.  Here are a few things that we believe are true based on our particular experience that I suspect eventually will be supported by further research:

  1. Coaching combined with training is more effective in changing practice than training alone.
  2. It’s important for the “coachee” to trust the coach.
  3. Coaching should focus on specific, well-defined changes in practice, not global concepts.
  4. Coachees need to see examples of effective practice and have opportunities to practice with feedback AND opportunities to reflect on their efforts to implement new practice.
  5. Given the realities of teaching schedules and limited planning time, accomplishing #2-4 requires more than a few hours of coaching over a couple of months time.
  6. What the teacher believes about her work is as important as what she does – changing practice based on values (such as behavior management) takes more time than changing practice based on knowledge (bleach sanitizes better than soap).
  7. The coaching time required to help teachers achieve a desired level of proficiency depends on her starting point and the level of cognitive processing required – supporting children in math reasoning is more complex than figuring out a daily schedule.
  8. If coaching isn’t voluntary on the teacher’s part, creating change will take longer or may not happen at all.

As you can see, these are not sweeping generalizations – our sense is that the answer to the questions about coaching is often “it depends”.

Many states and communities now include coaching in their early childhood Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, and there are numerous, smaller professional development initiatives using coaching paired with training.  If we can gather what is learned from the experience of all these efforts, we will make a huge contribution to the evidence-base for coaching to accompany emerging research findings.  Formal research may be able to inform future professional development efforts with some broad principles for coaching, but I believe we will always need to rely on the evidence of our experience in real-time, in continuously evolving environments, to guide us in deciding how to design effective coaching interventions.  If you have been involved with coaching, what insights can you add from your experience bank?

1Oct/12Off

Closing the Writing Achievement Gap

Lynn Andrews

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Lynn Andrews

Test: Most student writers still not proficient, Denver Post, 9/14/2012

Only 27% of 8th and 12th graders in the U.S. scored proficient last year on a computerized writing test, according to a recent article in the Denver Post. Students who had regular access to computers, and particularly those who were able to use built-in editing tools like spell check, did the best. This makes sense, but it’s also been found that when students have access to computers in the classroom, they write more. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising given how much of our written communication these days happens through text messages, tweets, and e-mail – even for pre-teens.

But has this technology really helped children learn how to write? A 27% proficiency rate is pretty dismal. Our desire to be efficient and trendy and for “instant messaging” doesn’t lend itself to high quality writing. I have to admit I have a bias as someone who would rather read an elegantly written novel than watch a You-Tube video, but when there are radio ads quoting business leaders who say they can’t find job candidates who can communicate effectively with customers in writing, we have a serious problem. There are wider implications. How much does our ability to write reflect our ability to think – to generate and organize ideas into a coherent and logical whole? If we can’t do that, we can’t invent new solutions to problems, or negotiate conflicts, or change attitudes, or teach.

I’m sure that if it doesn’t already exist, we will soon have technology that really can help students learn how to write well. Even then, for technology to be an effective teaching tool for writing, we would need to address the technology gap that still exists between affluent and poor schools and families. And, as Kathleen Yancey from Florida State University states in the Denver Post article, “Digital technology is a technology. Paper and pencil is a technology. If technology were the answer, it would be pretty simple.”

For those of us in early childhood education, there truly are very simple, low-tech strategies to help children learn how to think, and eventually, how to write. Rich conversations with children and interactive reading can greatly increase children’s oral language skills that are precursors to writing skills. Stringing words together to make full sentences using correct syntax and grammar, and assembling sentences together to make paragraphs that describe and explain and sequence ideas, provides children with models both to think and to communicate. Asking children questions that encourage them to reason things out and to talk about their ideas lays the foundation for organizing thoughts in writing. Seeing words organized in print helps them make the connection between the spoken and written word. And then, of course, encouraging young children to “write” their thoughts using pencil and paper further develops these skills and a comfort level with written expression. I am amazed at how capable children as young as three years old can be in using computers, but let’s not forget what they have to learn to communicate effectively with human beings.

15May/12Off

Early Childhood Educators: Claiming our Name

Lynn Andrews

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Lynn Andrews

Once again, the inability of our field to clearly define itself is getting us in trouble.  This time it’s with the US Dept. of Labor.  Recently, their Wage and Hour Division has been conducting audits on early childhood education programs around Colorado – checking that programs are compensating employees for overtime according to the law.  This includes paying employees for attending required training after hours and evening parent meetings.  This rule assumes that classroom staff in early childhood programs should not be classified as exempt employees because for the most part, they don’t meet the Dept. of Labor’s definition of “professionals.”  Here is what they have to say about Preschool Teachers:  www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs46.htm. (link opens new window)

“Bona fide teachers in preschool and kindergarten settings may qualify for exemption from the minimum wage and overtime pay requirements as “professionals” under the same conditions as a teacher in an elementary or secondary school. Teachers are exempt if their primary duty is teaching in (an) educational establishment. It should be noted that, although a preschool(s) may engage in some educational activities, preschool employees whose primary duty is to care for the physical needs for the facility’s children would ordinarily not meet the requirements for exception as teachers under the applicable regulations.”

In addition, to be considered a “professional”, the employee must make at least $455 per 40-hr. week (about $11.37 per hour), and be doing work that requires “advanced knowledge” gained through a combination of experience and “intellectual instruction” beyond high school.

In programs that have been audited, the two points of contention are whether ECE teachers are really teaching, and if so, whether they are teaching in an “educational establishment.”

Certainly, we know that our teachers are focused on children’s development and learning, not just their physical care.  Of course, we have yet to adequately address the compensation issue for ECE teachers – so many working today would not meet the wage test.  We are however making strides in requiring ECE teachers to have more formal education at the college level.  Despite these attempts to professionalize our field, we are still viewed by many outside as providing primarily custodial care – strike two on the “educational establishment” test.

Now, I realize that advocating for our teachers to be recognized as professionals, and therefore eligible to be classified as exempt employees, doesn’t come without its challenges.  Many programs do not have sufficient income to pay teachers the required minimum salary, or to give teachers the paid time off that generally comes with a professional position. We need to continue to work on this issue. But there is a lot of energy going into how to legitimately work around the issues identified in the audits – such as making ongoing training requirements the responsibility of the individual rather than of the program that employs them.  But what message are we sending to our teachers, to the government, and to the public with this approach?  Do we not want our programs to be considered educational establishments?  Do we not want families, and other educators, and policymakers to see us as professionals?  Is our best defense to try to change our system to fit ourselves into the current definitions, or should we be working to change the rules - to define ourselves in a way that truly reflects the value of the work we do?

23Sep/11Off

What Does the Economy Have To Do With Continuity of Care?

Rebecca Soden

Posted by Rebecca Soden

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Rebecca Soden

Research on optimal early learning environments seem to converge on the finding that ongoing, consistent and stable relationships (attachments) between teachers, children and families are critical to school readiness.  Anyone working within community based early childhood programs understands the impact that a financial crisis has on continuity of care.  When a family runs into a financial crisis, children often experience an emotional crisis by losing the supportive attachments and friendships that programs like ours provide.  While the Federal government, state and local communities are working together to develop safety nets for children whose families undergo sudden financial changes, gaps in funding or funding restrictions still exist.

Charlotte Brantley, President and CEO of Clayton Early Learning, testified earlier this month at a Senate hearing on the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which provides child care subsidies for needy families, and described it as “the glue that holds multiple funding streams together”.  Ed Week ran a summary of her testimony for anyone interested in reviewing it.  In the real world of ECE programming,  it is difficult to count on these funds to ensure continuity of care for the child because family circumstances such as a parent’s work hours, or a small raise in income can disrupt services.  This results in children who are eligible for quality childcare one month and then suddenly not eligible the next month.  What ends up happening is that children suffer as early attachments and meaningful relationships are disrupted when funding to attend a high quality program is no longer available.

We want to hear your thoughts on this topic.  How has the financial crisis and funding eligibility guidelines impacted your child, your family or your school?

20Jan/11Off

New Report on Child Care Instability: What Role does CCAP play?

Mary Klute

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Mary Klute

When life gets chaotic, it isn’t good for kids or the adults that care for them.  For many working families, child care is a key ingredient in their efforts to balance work and home life.  Sadly, for a large number of families, instability in child care makes this balancing act difficult.  A recent report by The Urban Institute examines the issue of child care instability.  The authors of the report examined causes of child care instability, and particularly the role the subsidy system plays in instability.  The authors also made some policy recommendations to promote stability in child care.

The report describes how changes in child care arrangements can happen for a variety of reasons.  For example, parents’ might experience a voluntary or involuntary change in their employment or child care providers might decide to stop providing care.  Sometimes parents may feel the need to change an arrangement because they are dissatisfied or because they feel it is time for their child to move on to a new setting because they are getting older.  Parents also sometimes face financial (e.g., can no longer afford care) or logistical issues (e.g., transportation issues) that force them to change their child care arrangements.

The authors report that the subsidy system (i.e., CCAP) can promote both stability and instability in child care arrangements.  When everything goes smoothly, it promotes stability by helping to make child care affordable for families and helping families maintain stable employment.  However, when everything doesn't go smoothly, certain aspects of the subsidy system can promote instability.  For example, receipt of the subsidy is tied to factors that can change quite a bit over time (e.g., employment, income, family size), making the subsidy unstable for families.  A family that needs to move to another county or a parent that experiences an unexpected change in the number of hours they are scheduled for a work can lose their subsidy, even if these changes are temporary.  With more families needing subsidies than can possibly be served by the funds available, states are under pressure to tightly monitor eligibility, which makes it harder for families to obtain and keep their subsidies.  Here in Denver, the demand for CCAP far exceeds the funds available, resulting in a very long wait list for families.  As of November 2010, over 3000 families were on the waitlist in Denver.

The Urban Institute report suggests several policy changes that might increase child care stability for families.  Not surprisingly, several of their recommendations focus on the subsidy.   These recommendations are timely since the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which funds the federal subsidy, is up for reauthorization.  They suggest reworking policies to promote stability, which could mean viewing eligibility more broadly, rather than depending so much on current work status.  This could include lengthening authorization periods for families or instituting policies that allow families to keep their subsidy during employment gaps.  They also suggest examining the impact of the current subsidy policies on child care providers who accept the subsidy.  This represents an important recognition that child care will not be stable if providers can’t stay in business.  In sum, the Urban Institute report suggests that the issue of child care instability “should be a priority as policymakers consider how to help the CCDF support parental work, parent choice of providers, and healthy child development” (p. viii).

If you receive the subsidy or work with families who do, what are your ideas about how the subsidy could better support families and the child care programs that serve them?

Filed under: Policy 4 Comments
8Dec/10Off

Who sends their children to preschool? What difference does it make?

Mary Klute

Posted by Mary Klute

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Mary Klute

I’ve come across a few reports in the news recently about the tendencies of certain demographic groups to send their children to preschool (or not).  For example, I read this recently: “In Illinois, Latino children were half as likely to enroll in preschool as white and African-American students, a disparity that threatens to widen the academic divide between them, according to a new report out Tuesday.”   There were also the recent reports about the shockingly huge achievement gaps between African-American boys and White boys on the National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment in fourth grade.  Most reports that I read on these NAEP results highlighted the idea that these gaps start well before children enter kindergarten.

I was pondering these two news reports when the latest issue of Child Development arrived in my mailbox.  Included was an article by Daphna Bassok entitled “Do Black and Hispanic Children Benefit More From Preschool?  Understanding Differences in Preschool Effects Across Racial Groups?”  Using a nationally representative sample of over 7000 children, she examined differences in the effect of preschool for different racial and ethnic groups after first taking into account a wide variety of child and family characteristics that might be related to choosing to put a child in care and to child development.  She found that, among children living in poverty, there were no racial or ethnic differences in the impact of preschool.   Poor children who attended preschool scored about a quarter of a standard deviation higher on a literacy assessment, on average, than their peers who did not attend preschool, regardless of their racial or ethnic background.  Among the non-poor sample, the effects of attending preschool were much larger for Black children and Hispanic children whose families primarily speak Spanish than for White children and Hispanic children whose families primarily speak English.

These findings are interesting, but they leave me feeling unsettled.  As I pondered these results, I came to the conclusion that this research cannot be used to inform policy and practice until we really understand why we see this pattern of results.  All of my academic training was heavily influenced by the ideas of Urie Bronfenbrenner and his students (one of his students was my advisor in graduate school).  Bronfenbrenner argued that it is impossible to understand child development without examining the context in which children develop.  Groundbreaking at the time, these ideas are well-known and accepted now.  Bronfenbrenner also warned against too much reliance on what he called “social address variables” in research.  These are demographic characteristics (e.g., race, ethnicity, poverty status) that are often related to differences in development, but they tell you absolutely nothing about why such differences exist.  Social address variables are useful as a starting point for researchers because they are easy to collect.  It is a lot easier to ask someone their race than it is to delve deeply into every aspect of what their culture means to them.  However, Bronfenbrenner argued that we should always strive to go a step further to understand the processes or mechanisms that produce differences that we see among social address groups.  For example, there could be differences is parenting beliefs or the quality of preschool that are associated with race that might, in part, explain the differences we see in child outcomes.  Bassok’s study used data from a large-scale study that was simply not designed to go much beyond the social address.  However, we as a community have an opportunity to generate hypotheses about why she found what she did.   What do you think is going on in children’s everyday lives that might explain why these differences exist?  And perhaps more importantly, what hypotheses do you have about how our ECE policies and practices could be shaped to meet all children where they are and prepare them well for school?

28Nov/10Off

Is Family Engagement a Key Ingredient in the “Academic Cake?”

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thouse@claytonearlylearning.org

Is Family Engagement a Key Ingredient in the “Academic Cake?”

 President Obama released his Blueprint on Education in March 2009. Now there is a new congress with different ideas for education, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is on the minds of educators, administrators, and parents alike who are eagerly watching to see how the 45 year-old law will be reformed. The Blueprint focuses on five key elements: college and career ready students, great teachers and leaders in every school, equity and opportunity for all students, raising the bar and rewarding excellence, and promoting innovation and continuous improvement.

While these are great goals, the devil is in the details. It is striking that in spite of recent research there is no mention of family engagement in the Blueprint. Research tells us that family engagement in children’s education has a ton of protective factors and results in students who are better behaved, attend school more regularly, are more likely to enroll in higher level classes, and get better grades and test scores. While we know  that family engagement is not the only factor that will ensure a student's success, as Dr. Karen Mapp points out when she likens education to baking a cake, good instruction is the flour, and family engagement is the baking soda. Without family engagement, the “Academic Cake” will not rise.

In the past, schools have struggled with how to engage families in ways that will benefit students. We have certainly come a long way since parents were expected to bake brownies or make copies in the office, but we have a long way to go. For many years Federal legislation has required that families participate in meaningful ways in schools that receive Title I funding.  When I work with school and districts, I notice that they really want to provide “good” parent involvement, something that is not just an event and a check off, but that schools still don't understand the best ways to do this.  The U.S. Department of Education encourages state educational agencies (SEAs) and local educational agencies (LEAs) to use Title I funds to support family and community engagement as a key strategy to improve the performance of struggling schools. Under current law, at least 1% of Title I funds must be used to support parent engagement activities and research-based practices.  However, history shows that schools tend to spend money on “Random Acts of Parent Involvement” paying for events that bring families together, but are not linked to student achievement. 

There is so much information on promising programs and practices and how districts can support schools with parent involvement policies and plans that are linked to student achievement. The National PTA, in partnership with National United Way, Harvard Family Research Project, and the Coalition for Community Schools presented a webinar on using Title I funds to support family and community engagementBased on best practices, they recommend:

  • Training school staff to partner with families to improve student learning, including helping staff clearly communicate about school programs and individual student progress and fostering involvement in school activities and decision making.
  • Supporting home visits, family nights, and parent training that help families make informed decisions about their children's academic program, request needed services, assist with homework, and support learning in other ways.

In this webinar, Heather Weiss and M. Elena Lopez from Harvard Family Research Project and Deborah Stark, Commissioner of First 5, Alameda County revisit the new definition of family engagement—as a shared responsibility across multiple settings, from cradle to career—as applied to student data use. They discuss how data can effectively bring families, teachers, and administrators to the table and engage everyone around student learning and performance and how this fits within  the principles of family engagement in concrete and practicable ways.

  • Is a shared responsibility. School districts and schools communicate student performance with families, enabling teachers and families to work together to support student learning goals.
  • Is continuous. As student data becomes available across grade levels, families are equipped with the information to support academic progress throughout a child’s school years.
  • Occurs across multiple settings. Technology advancements are making it possible for families to access student data, as well as tips and resources for supporting their child’s progress, through web-based formats. Schools are also joining hands with community partners to provide computer kiosks for parents and students in convenient locations, thus enabling anytime, everywhere family engagement.

 There is so much data and information on promising programs and practices  and even how to follow-through.  The fact that the proposed blueprint contains no language around family engagement is troubling – and it sends the wrong message to schools and to families.

Now that there are good resources to support schools in forming meaningful partnerships with families, will they still make the effort if it is no longer a requirement?  We need to let policy makers know that we can’t leave families out when planning for children’s education.