the youngest learners

Will new standards improve elementary science education?

PHOTO: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report
Malachi Ballinger, 6, laughs at how far he has made his “pinball” travel during a science lesson in his kindergarten classroom in Redmond, Oregon.

This story about science instruction is part of a series about innovative practices in the core subjects in the early grades. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Science could be considered the perfect elementary school subject. It provides real life applications for reading and math and develops critical thinking skills that help students solve problems in other subjects. Plus, it’s interesting. It helps answer all those “why” questions — Why is the sun hot? Why do fish swim? Why are some people tall and other people short? — that 5- to 8-year-old children are so famous for asking.

Young children are “super curious,” said Matt Krehbiel, director of science for Achieve, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students graduate high school ready to start college or to pursue a career. “We want them to be able to harness that curiosity to help them make sense of the world around them.”

But science has long been given short shrift in the first few years of school. Most elementary school teachers have little scientific background and many say they feel unprepared to teach the subject well, according to a national survey of science and mathematics education conducted by a North Carolina research firm in 2012. Just 44 percent of K-2 teachers felt they were “well prepared” to teach science, according to the survey, compared to 86 percent who felt well prepared to teach reading.

Possibly as a result, the average first- through fourth-grade student spent just 2.5 hours per week on science during the 2011-12 school year, the last for which data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And that could be why just 38 percent fourth-grade students performed at or above proficient on the latest National Assessment of Education Progress for science, which was administered in 2015.

That’s a problem because careers in science, engineering, and math are some of the fastest growing (and best paid) sectors of the American economy. Such jobs made up 6.2 percent of all U.S. employment in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and that’s not counting healthcare jobs, which make up another 9.1 percent. If today’s grade school children aren’t science literate, they’ll have a much bigger hurdle to overcome when they try to enter those fields in the early 2030s.

But the Next Generation Science Standards, first released in 2013, could be changing all that. The standards, adopted in full by 19 states and the District of Columbia (another 19 states adopted very similar new standards), are meant to help teachers focus on the importance of learning science by conducting experiments, collecting and recording information, and evaluating evidence. Getting schools and teachers to begin effectively teaching to the new learning goals is a multi-year process.

“The reality of implementation is that it ends up being all over the map for a variety of reasons,” Krehbiel said. “Some [states] are moving forward great guns, others not so much.”

A new national science test and a new national survey, both due out in 2019, will show whether science achievement has improved and whether time spent on science has increased; in the meantime, the standards are definitely spurring some to action.

“When there are new standards, there is new attention put on what the standards are asking us to do,” said Cristina Trecha, director of the Oregon Science Project, an organization that provides science education training to rural and semi-rural teachers in Oregon, which adopted the standards in 2014. “NGSS is going to give us a reason to teach science.”

Related: The next generation of science education means more doing

That’s been true for Redmond, Oregon kindergarten teacher Jennifer Callahan.

“We weren’t doing much at all,” Callahan said. “There was a curriculum, but in the time I’d been here, there was no training. It was whatever we came up with ourselves. It didn’t have as much weight as reading, writing and math.”

It does now.

On a Wednesday in May, Callahan’s classroom at the Redmond Early Learning Center, which houses all of the semi-rural district’s 400 kindergartners, was alive with scientific discovery. Callahan’s students were arrayed in a big circle rolling a ball across the rug to various classmates. After each roll, Callahan asked if it had taken a strong force or a gentle force to move the ball. Kids answered with a hand signal — one hand petting the other for gentle, a flexed bicep for strong — then explained their answer to their partner before Callahan called on a student to say what he or she thought.

Next, students matched images of scenes — a toy car being pushed up a ramp or two people tossing a ball, for example — with the correct word identifying the type of force depicted: strong or gentle. After practicing as a class, kids broke into small groups to sort more images.

At one table, four students worked together to quickly place all their image cards under the correct header.

“He didn’t put that much force,” said Lorenzo Glasser, 6, as he placed an image of a boy juggling a soccer ball with his knees under the word “gentle.” How could Lorenzo tell the boy hadn’t used much force? “It made it [the ball] go not that far,” he explained.

Related: New standards get kids in California excited about science

Lorenzo’s classmate, Scout Simonsen, also 6, said they were old hands at understanding forces. They’d been working on it “a long time, a few weeks,” she said. She threw her hands up in the air, seeming exasperated. “It feels like 5,000 years!”

Sorting done, the class gathered back on the rug to go through the cards as a group and tell each other how they got their answers. Then it was time to continue their ongoing experiment with forces by taking out their “pinball machines” — open cardboard boxes with elastic bands stretched across, which acted as launchers for tennis balls.

“If you pull the launcher back really far, the ball can go a long distance,” Heidi Variz, 6, reminded the class before they got started with the next step in the experiment. What would happen if they used a shoelace, instead of their finger, to activate the launcher?

Reese Homann, 6, wasn’t sure about this new development. She raised her hand. “I don’t understand why we have to use the shoelace to make it different,” she said. “That’s not what was on the video.”

PHOTO: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

“Good question,” Callahan said. The video the class had watched before they built their pinball machines “was just the beginning,” she told Reese. “But as we do new things, we learn more.”

Learning more by trying new things is what Callahan loves about the NGSS-inspired science lessons she’s running in her class this year. Today’s lesson on force comes from Amplify Science, a curriculum developed by educators at Amplify, a curriculum vendor, and researchers at the Lawrence Hall of Science, a public science center at the University of California, Berkeley. It’s one of three elementary school science curriculums Callahan is helping to pilot now that her district decided to re-commit to elementary science education.

Callahan has become a particularly fervent believer in the power of science education in her classroom. In 2016, she was accepted as a trainer for the Oregon Science Project. Along with 200 other Oregon educators, more than half of whom were elementary school teachers, Callahan spent the 2016-17 school year learning best practices for teaching kindergarten science. In the summer of 2017, she passed that training on to 19 of her Redmond colleagues who wanted to learn more about teaching science in their elementary school classrooms.

“I’m thrilled with NGSS because of all the hands-on opportunities,” Callahan said. Her students also learn the value of taking risks, making mistakes, and problem solving. “That higher level thinking … I don’t think we were really pushing that before.”

Getting students beyond activities like memorizing the stages of a butterfly’s lifecycle or learning the parts of a plant is just what NGSS is meant to inspire. The standards list scientific concepts and practices students should understand at the end of each grade level, as well as specific ideas they should know.

Compiled by state leaders, the National Research Council, the National Science Teacher Association, and others, the standards were warmly received by many educators when they were first released. Not everyone loved them though. Critics complained the standards overemphasize skills while relegating factual scientific knowledge to secondary importance. And some conservatives decried the standards’ references to climate change and evolution as so much political maneuvering.

But Achieve’s Krehbiel, formerly a high school science teacher in Kansas, believes the standards can make a positive difference for students.

“It’s all about kids being able to explain the world around them and being thoughtful about scientific information,” Krehbiel said. “If you teach in this way, kids will show an increased likelihood to pursue a career in science, see science as relevant to their lives and show an increased interest in science.”

PHOTO: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

Oregon educators are hoping that proves true here. The state, which ranked dead last for time spent on science in elementary school in 2009, is aggressively trying to get better. The Oregon Science Project was initially funded by a grant from the federal government and will continue with funding from the state and from professional development fees charged to districts. The state also published a science and math education strategic plan in 2016. Among other goals, the plan calls for increasing the time spent on science in elementary school to above the national average.

Trecha, of the Oregon Science Project, said the state’s focus is beginning to make a difference, though she acknowledges there’s still a long way to go. When speaking with teachers from all over the state, Trecha said she heard that some elementary schools don’t have science as part of their weekly schedule and many districts don’t have an up-to-date science curriculum, although having one is required by state law.

“We’ve asked [elementary students] to make things sink or float, but we haven’t asked them to make sense of it or explain it,” Trecha said. She said children should be asked to draw diagrams of floating objects, think about invisible forces like buoyancy, or wrestle with tricky concepts like density to deepen their understanding of why some objects sink and others float.

It’s also important to do a better job reaching all students, Trecha said. Black and Latino students and students from low-income homes tend to perform less well on the national fourth grade science assessment. That pattern holds true in Oregon. Just 14 percent of Latino students, 10 percent of American Indian/Alaska native students, and 23 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of low family income, scored at or above proficient in science in 2015. (Not enough black Oregonians took the test to accurately measure the group’s performance.)

In contrast, 37 percent of Oregon’s entire fourth grade population scored at or above proficient. These disparate outcomes persist through middle and high school, where girls also start to perform less well than their male peers.

Against that backdrop, improving science instruction in districts like Redmond, where 74 percent of K-3 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 18 percent are Latino, is especially important, Trecha would argue.

Back in Callahan’s classroom, Malachi Ballinger, 6, and Alyssa Akre, 6, are tugging on shoelaces now attached to their rubber band launchers and observing how the tennis balls react to the forces they are now exerting on them.

“When we used our fingers [the ball] went off the edge,” Alyssa said. That’s not happening with the shoelace tied to the launcher, so, she concluded, the force is “kind of less now.”

Next, it was time to take notes on their experiment. The notes are important, Malachi said as he carefully drew a diagram of his pinball machine, “because that helps us know stuff — know how forces move.” Besides, he added, taking notes is what scientists do “so they can remember.”

“[Scientists] always say what happens,” Alyssa chimed in.

“They say ‘because’ a lot,” added Kyah Higgins, 5.

So, that’s what scientists do, but what do they look like?

Laughing, Alyssa said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world: “They look like us!”

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.

Head Start restart

Children left in limbo as Detroit Head Start providers stand to lose federal grants

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat

Four major providers of Head Start programs in Detroit must re-apply for funding after losing their federal grants this year, throwing the future of dozens of classrooms in doubt for the fall.

One of the four providers was forced to re-compete for funding after leaving a 3-year-old outside in freezing winter weather and putting children in unsafe classrooms. The other three were ranked poorly in a federal performance review that scores how students and teachers interact.

Head Start, the federally funded program that provides free preschool and other services to the nation’s neediest children, has long struggled in Detroit. Years of program neglect while under the supervision of a cash-strapped city agency left providers without adequate buildings and a teacher shortage so severe that two years ago, 800 funded seats for the most vulnerable children in the city were going unused.

Since then, the program had expanded, but providers are still struggling to create enough programs to use all of the 5,200 Head Start seats the federal government would fund. As of last spring, 260 seats were going unused, according to Patrick Fisher, spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the federal organization that oversees Head Start.

Thousands of Detroit families rely on these programs for free childcare and meals for ages 0 to 5. Head Start is especially important for low-income families struggling with the skyrocketing cost of childcare. Despite the longstanding issues, these Head Start facilities are many families’ only option for affordable quality early childhood education. Studies on Head Start show the program can influence everything from whether kids succeed in school, to whether they become smokers as adults.

The prospect that programs could be closed or moved if current providers are not able to win new grants has been unsettling to families who might not be able to bring their children to a school that’s farther away.

“It would definitely be a disruption because I would have to travel, and a lot of us don’t have the means to travel,” said Monika Chester, the mother of three children who attend Head Start at the Samaritan Center on Detroit’s east side. “A lot of us are walking, taking the bus, getting a cab, even in the winter, and my baby is five months old.”

“But the worst thing would be for my babies to adapt to new teachers,” she said. “That’s the worst. That’s really bad.”

The four providers that must recompete — Matrix, Starfish Family Services, New St. Paul Tabernacle Head Start Agency Inc., and Metropolitan Children and Youth, Inc. — must divert attention from running facilities to competing for the federal money that allows them to run the programs. 

The process to reapply for one of the five-year grants is significantly easier if providers have no issues with their federal scores, providers say. Meanwhile, providers who score below passing on the federal examinations or have other issues are forced to undergo a multistep process that can take several people a month or longer to complete.

Ann Kalass, whose Starfish Family Services leads the coordination of a large Head Start collaborative called Thrive by Five Detroit, said her biggest concern is how reapplying affects the children and families in the program, rather than the time it takes for staff to reapply.

“What I worry about is that it creates a disruption and they leave our programs in May and June not knowing who to count on in the fall,” said Ann Kalass, who runs Starfish Family Services.

“There is a lot of work going on among many providers to submit quality plans and applications in mid-January, so yes, it’s definitely taking resources for us to do that,” Kalass said. “But from my perspective, we do this work all the time — we’re always competing for grants and new opportunities, so it’s people spending time on writing grants who might otherwise be thinking about the program strategy and implementation.

“The real concern for me at a system level is that we’re trying to rebuild and reinvest and it feels like taking a step back to move a step forward,” she added.

The federal auditors grade facilities in three categories: emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Providers are compared against one another nationally, and the lowest scoring 10 percent must automatically rebid for the federal money that pays for  the program.

In the category of classroom organization, Matrix, Starfish, and New St. Paul all scored in the bottom 10 percent range nationally.

Kalass said teacher turnover played a role in why the scores were so low in that category.

“Classroom organization looks at the routines and the structures of learning in the classroom,” Kalass said. “It talks about routines in the classrooms, the overall management of what’s happening in the classroom, and we have a high level of teacher turnover in the city, and some of the highest rates of teacher turnover in the country.”

The median salary for a preschool teacher who works full-time in Michigan is less than $30,000 a year, according to one study, making it hard to retain teachers. A report from the Kresge and Kellogg foundations pointed to the shortage of qualified preschool teachers as one of the challenges to improving early education in Detroit.

The next category, instructional support  — how children are taught — “involves how teachers promote children’s thinking and problem solving, use feedback to deepen understanding, and help children develop more complex language skills,” according to a guide to understanding the scoring metrics.

Nationwide, providers struggle to meet the federal standards for this category. The passing score has a low threshold — it is only about 2.31 out of seven. In Detroit, all three providers had low scores, but New St. Paul fell below the threshold for passing in that category.

In the emotional support category, all of the providers in Detroit scored above the minimum. This area measures how teachers “help children resolve problems, redirect challenging behavior, and support positive peer relationships.”

The federal Office of Head Start, which conducts the reviews, has proposed a change to the bottom 10 percent rebid rule and other scoring guidelines, but it won’t have an effect on the current process.

Providers in Detroit support the change. They believe comparing the city with providers outside of the area isn’t right. Last year, 32 percent of grantees nationwide had to recompete for grants. In Detroit, that number is higher as providers struggle with crumbling buildings, high teacher turnover, and a Head Start program that has endured years of turmoil.

But the other issues submitted to the federal office by the facilities themselves are harder to debate.

At the Samaritan Center, a Matrix facility on the east side near Chandler Park, on Jan. 8, 2018, a teacher was terminated after kicking a 2-year-old who fell asleep in a chair, according to the federal report released in February. The Samaritan Center had another violation in October of last year, when a 3-year-old was told to walk back to class unsupervised and was later found by personnel “alone, lying on the floor in a classroom crying,” according to a May report. The teacher was terminated.

The Eternal Rock Center, another Matrix facility located in Southwest Detroit, was given a violation after a 4-year-old was left in a classroom unsupervised for a short time in January. The teacher was terminated in this case as well.

Matrix Family Services declined a phone interview to speak on the low facility scores, rebidding for contracts, and the offsite reports from this year.

A report on the Metropolitan Children and Youth, Inc.’s facility was enough to trigger the contract rebid process. In winter of 2014, at the Harper/Gratiot Center on Detroit’s east side, a 3-year-old was left outside on a playground and later found by a parent crying and knocking on the door of the building. Neither the center’s investigation nor a review by the federal office was able to determine how long the child was outside in freezing temperatures.

Only Metropolitan Children and Youth is forced to rebid because of the offsite reports.

“Reviewers examine documentation sent by the grantee to identify program strengths or weaknesses, deficiencies, or that an issue has been remediated,” said Patrick Fisher, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the federal office that oversees Head Start.

In Detroit’s Head Start classrooms, reported treatment like this is rare but not out-of-the-blue: underpaid teachers working in buildings struggling to keep the heat on sometimes results in poor conditions.

If the four providers don’t manage to win contracts, families could  be forced to find new centers and forge new connections with teachers. Moving locations can be hard on families and children alike, and requires a concentrated effort between the old and new provider to successfully transition students and staff.

A transition occurred last year after Southwest Solutions abruptly shuttered 11 Head Start centers. Luckily for the 420 children affected, Starfish Family Services was able to transition the children and many of the teachers to other agencies, allowing many to remain in their existing facilities.

There’s no guarantee that relocation of families could happen so smoothly in the future, but the Detroit providers are keeping lines of communication open.

“I think there are a lot of encouraging signs for early childhood programing in Detroit,” Kalass said. “Providers are meeting monthly to problem solve together — around workforce, facilities, and about better connecting with families.”

“We’re in a place of rebuilding and I’m optimistic that we won’t see a situation like this again. We won’t be in this place a few years from now.”

Scroll down to read some of the reports that led to one Head Start agency being asked to reapply for funding.