Data drives Livingston GSC kindergarten study

Understanding the exact skills students are lacking when they start kindergarten and finding ways to fill those gaps has been an important part of the Great Start Livingston’s work over the past three years.

What began as conversations among a few teachers and school administrators in 2009 has grown into a survey tool for kindergarten teachers countywide and new outreach materials for parents, care givers and preschool teachers to better prepare students for school.

“Every year we are seeing the ripple effect of this work,” said Great Start Livingston Director Robin Schutz. “The more we get developed and put together and adapt this information into our partners’ programs, the further we can reach out to help all the children in our community and to help parents and providers know what works to develop the skills necessary to make sure children are ready for success in school and in life.”

The effort began with a few teachers and school administrators asking each other what they thought were important skills for school readiness and whether their students had those skills.

Recognizing that the information they were gathering in the conversations was purely anecdotal, Schutz said they decided to survey kindergarten teachers. They created the Early Childhood and Community Partners Committee of Great Start Livingston with 10 members, including directors from private preschools, kindergarten teachers, the director of Early Childhood Programs and the director of Child Connect for Family Success.

In the fall of 2010, the committee created the survey for kindergarten teachers, beginning with a couple of schools as a pilot in what has become known as the Kindergarten Observation Study.

“We asked the teachers to observe their students and gave them close to 30 questions to use while observing the students,” Schutz said.

Data from that first study confirmed what they had learned in the more casual conversations with teachers and administrators. Students might know colors and letters, but many were lacking social-emotional skills.

Examples of a child’s social-emotional development are demonstrated by learning to share, cooperate and take turns. Also how a child relates feelings of frustration or distress. A child’s ability to pay attention and focus are instrumental in maintaining an effective learning environment.

“Teachers are telling us that they are less concerned about students coming in knowing their numbers, shapes and colors,” Schutz said. “The problem is that children need to learn to stay focused, follow directions and control impulses. This lack of social-emotional skills impacts learning in the classroom.”

Refining the Tool

The next step was to gather the information formally and across the county’s five school districts. Teachers who used the first study provided feedback, and suggested fewer questions. The committee worked with curriculum directors, tweaked the study and condensed it to 15 questions.

In the fall of 2011, four out of five school districts participated in the observation study.

The results were unchanged.

“Same indicators at the bottom, same least developed skills,” Schutz said.

Feedback was positive, with teachers appreciating the effort and offering suggestions for improvement. The input helped the committee develop a rubric to provide consistency in survey answers.

In the study, teachers are asked to rate proficiency with a scoring of 3 (proficient), 2 (working on it), and 1 (not yet). Schutz said they learned that what one teacher might consider “working on it” another might call “proficient.”

The Collaborative held a countywide workshop in the summer 2012 to create the rubric to determine the criteria for each rating. Kindergarten teachers, principals, curriculum directors and child care providers helped define the ratings.

“It was nice to have multiple viewpoints,” Schutz said. “Everyone was so excited. That was the first time countywide that we had brought this group of people together.”

Margo Dichtelmiller, an assessment trainer at Eastern Michigan University, used the new criteria to create the rubric and presented it to the Great Start Early Childhood Committee, which sent it to all five school districts.

“Every year we’ve taken a step to make this observation stronger,” Schutz said. “And we’re continuing to see the same results: low indicators for social-emotional and approaches to learning; staying focused; following directions; controlling impulses.

But, Schutz said, “There has always been two parts to this work. There is the observation survey, and making it the best tool possible with support to be provided to teachers so they can complete the survey and we can get strong data.”

Naomi Norman, director of Achievement Initiatives at Washtenaw Intermediate School District and Livingston Educational Service Agency, input the findings into the LESA Data Director program to give teachers and administrators access to the research.

Noting some differences between districts, Norman suggested sending the statistics to Hanover Research in Washington D.C. for analysis.

“We wanted to confirm that differences between questions and between districts were statistically significant before we were going to use this data to make any decisions or draw any conclusions about the students or programs,” Norman said.

Hanover provided a report to LESA in February. It notes the mean rating for each of the five school districts, in each of the 15 indicators. Differences in some of the ratings between school districts are called out in the report. The committee is discussing whether the differences are significant or a matter of tweaking the rubric.

Using the Data 

Identifying the trouble spots of social-emotional skills has led the team to focus on this area for improvement first. The team has partnered with the school districts to create a school readiness handout sheet for parents and early learning teachers that highlights the importance of social-emotional skills.

“This means we now have one sheet from the whole county to distribute at kindergarten enrollment and roundup at preschools,” Schutz said.

The county will distribute the sheet at its Kindergarten Summit held every February, and all schools have agreed to distribute it at kindergarten roundup. The committee is proud that all five school districts in the county support the effort and each agreed to put its logo on the sheet.

The Great Start Parent Coalition will make the handout available online, and plans to launch a media campaign to share information about parent trainings and the connection to school readiness.

The goal is to have the information to parents and providers in time to make a difference before the child’s start of school. The team also is looking at activities that will directly address the low indicators and offer parents and providers examples for building social-emotional skills.

“We really want to push that piece out to our parents and early childhood providers to help connect positive behavior with school readiness. It’s about so much more than numbers, colors and letters,” Schutz said. “Having everybody on board, all five districts using the same message on school readiness is a great accomplishment.”

Next steps with the data will be to provide assessment training for teachers. The training should address some of the differences between districts noted in the report and help teachers define proficiency even further.

Finally, the team would like to offer positive behavior training and support for early childhood providers and parents. The committee is discussing opportunities to hold trainings in the schools. That part, Schutz said, “is still in the works.”