Are New Orleans Toddlers Getting Quality Instruction?

Dec 22, 2017

In part one of WWNO's series on early child care and education in Louisiana, we heard about how costs are keeping many families from accessing quality early childhood education. But costs are also having an impact on child care centers themselves.  In part two, we look at whether children are getting quality instruction when families can afford to send them to licensed centers.

At Kids of Excellence, a childcare center in a converted double in the Ninth Ward, a group of three-year-olds are sitting in a circle around their teacher, Tyra Crump. She hasn’t even opened the book they’re reading today, and already the conversation is taking off about the subject: jumping on the bed

"Has anybody ever jumped in the bed before?" Crump asks her class.

"Me!" Several students shoot their hands in the air. One girl in purple polka-dot leggings launches into a story about an injury she got jumping off the couch. Crump encourages the discussion, and the group ends up talking about going to the doctor, broken bones and about what casts are made out of.

While Kids of Excellence did pretty well on new state ratings, New Orleans early education centers are rated an overall "unsatisfactory" when it comes to instructional support - that’s a measure of how well teachers are helping children build language and new concepts.

"We have in our childcares, Headstarts, and pre-Ks, a long way to go in terms of the cognitive development of our children: asking them questions, modeling language," State Superintendent of Education John White says. 

White says child care centers are undergoing a major cultural shift.

"You’re talking about childcares that have long been thought of a place where mom and dad can have the child be safe and healthy when they go to work - now they’re being called educational institutions," he says. 

"If we're changing teachers every year, it's almost impossible." - Child care center owner Kristi Givens

White says the state is trying to help centers make the shift from care to education by providing training opportunities for teachers, and helping them pick quality curriculums. But Kids of Excellence owner Kristi Givens says what would really help improve instruction, is if she could keep her teachers longer.

"At least if we can get 2 to 3 years out of them, you know, that’s usually what they do," Givens says.

After that, Givens says, she usually loses them to jobs with higher pay and benefits  - often that’s the public school system. And Givens is not alone. Statewide turnover for early childhood education teachers is 40 percent. Givens, says that makes it hard to improve instructional quality.

"If we're changing teachers every year, it’s almost impossible to do because you’re retraining teachers," she says.

Givens says she’d like to offer higher wages and benefits. Her employees are making about the state average for a child care worker: about $19,000 a year. But to pay them more, Givens says she would have to charge parents much higher rates - something like $10,000 to $12,000 a year per child. That’s way out of reach for many families already struggling to pay average child care costs of about $5,600 a year.

"You're talking about childcares that have long been thought of a place where mom and dad can have the child be safe and healthy when they go to work - now they're being called educational institutions." - Supt. John White

"We need as a country to be more realistic about what it costs," Louisiana Policy Institute for Children executive director Melanie Bronfin says. 

She argues the state should be funding early education for more low-income and middle-income families to increase access - and quality.

"We need to improve the quality in these centers, and the only way we’re going to do it: we need to increase the funding that we’re giving these centers to be able to serve these children," she says. 

Superintendent White says there’s no guarantee that child care centers would increase wages or benefits for their employees if the state increased funding for them. Most are for-profit and privately operated, after all. And he says the state can improve teaching without a lot more funding simply by giving teachers and centers more feedback.

"With the talent that we have in the classroom right now, with teachers being paid as they are, we can improve," he says. 

The Louisiana department of education says experts are already working with childcare centers like Kids of Excellence to improve instruction.