beyond the marshmallow test

New research on homegrown curriculum “Tools of the Mind” helps pave way for expansion

Preschool students at McGlone Elementary in Denver work on a project together.

There are certain things you won’t see in Anna Hileman’s kindergarten classroom at Denver’s McGlone Elementary School. One of them is any kind of sticker or traffic light chart indicating who’s behaving and who’s not. Although ubiquitous in many elementary classrooms, such devices are absent here, and it’s not because her 26 students are perfect.

It’s because Hileman and her fellow preschool and kindergarten teachers use a curriculum called “Tools of the Mind,” which focuses on developing skills like self-control and attentiveness along with reading and math. The idea is that working early and intentionally on traits that fall under the umbrella of “self-regulation” makes learning more efficient and builds valuable lifelong skills.

The curriculum, which was developed in the early 1990s by two researchers at what is now Metropolitan State University of Denver, has received laudatory mentions in books such as “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough and “The Marshmallow Test” by Walter Mischel.

Still, its footprint has remained modest— this year touching around 50,000 young students in 18 states. Even in Colorado, where it was first piloted in Denver’s University Park Elementary 16 years ago, the program is used in only four districts.

Tools of the Mind basics

  • Created by: Dr. Deborah Leong and Dr. Elena Bodrova
  • Based on: Work of Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky
  • Grades: Preschool and kindergarten
  • Focus: Development of self-regulation at the same time as academic skills
  • Central activities: Mature make-believe play and dramatization
  • Used nationally: In 18 states with 40,000-50,000 students
  • Use in Colorado: Denver, Jeffco, Poudre and Monte Vista school districts

“For the first 10 years … I knew the name of every single teacher in our program,” said Deborah Leong, co-creator of the curriculum and now executive director of the Tools of the Mind non-profit.

In fact, the program, which relies on word-of-mouth publicity, gets many more requests than it has been able to accommodate. But recent changes in the program’s training model, including the launch of an iPad app last month, could boost participation dramatically. In fact, Leong hopes the curriculum will reach one million children nationwide by 2017.

New research on the program may bolster those expansion plans. A study published today in the online journal PLOS ONE, found that Tools had positive effects on kindergarteners’ academic and self-regulation skills. And with bigger impacts found in high-poverty schools, the authors believe the approach holds promise for closing the achievement gap.

New study results
  • Journal: PLOS ONE
  • Authors: Clancy Blair and C. Cybel Raver, New York University
  • Tools of the Mind had positive effects on kindergarteners’ working memory, reasoning ability and math skills, as well as stress hormones that affect attention and emotional regulation.
  • By the end of kindergarten, there were also improvements in reading and vocabulary, which increased into first grade.
  • In addition, positive effects on reasoning, vocabulary and stress physiology were more pronounced in high-poverty schools.

The new results are especially welcome to Leong and her team because in recent years several studies on Tools showed lackluster results. Those studies seemed to contradict earlier research that offered up glowing results and launched the curriculum into the spotlight.

Leong noted that some earlier studies  compared Tools to the instructional equivalent of “business as usual” –mediocre curricula or none at all. The later studies, which were done as the program was scaling up, compared Tools to other high-quality early childhood curricula, she said.

Carrie Germeroth, assistant director for research at the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, said the complex nature of the curriculum and the need for intense training can make implementation tricky.

“If you’re in big school districts where there’s other initiatives going on….If the principal or building leader is not behind it, if the administrative support isn’t there, it’s not going to go well,” said Germeroth, who recently served as project director for a study examining a modified Tools curriculum.

Disappointing though some recent Tools studies have been, they led to a series of tweaks to the curriculum and the accompanying training regimen.

“What we learned from all those studies is you have to grow with fidelity,” said Leong. “We used everything we learned ….to fix what we were doing…. and it’s working much better now.”

Play with a purpose

The emphasis in a Tools classrooms is on play, dramatization and peer-to-peer interaction. It’s easy to see at McGlone, which is one of six Denver schools that uses Tools and one of two Tools lab schools in the metro area.

Preschoolers at McGlone play together in the kitchen center.
Preschoolers at McGlone play together in the kitchen center.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Hileman and one of her students acted out the concept of bartering during a lesson on the Magic Tree House book “Mummies in the Morning.” She pretended to be a penniless scribe who offered the student books in exchange for a snake.

Next door, as fellow kindergarten teacher Jamie Livingston got ready to split the class into two groups, she asked half the class to turn into black cats—in keeping with the “Mummies in the Morning” theme—and head toward the aide who would be working with them. Meowing, they crept playfully on their hands and knees toward the appointed spot.

On the back of this "play plan," the teacher wrote out the student's intention: "I'm going to go to the art center."
On the back of this “play plan,” the teacher wrote out the student’s intention: “I’m going to go to the art center.”

Down the hall in a preschool classrooms, students were completing “play plans,” in which they drew pictures of the center they would go to. Using the curriculum’s scaffolded writing approach, they attempted to write in a description of their planned activity.

Once the plans were complete, the children scattered across the room, planning a party in the kitchen, working on their cars in the garage, and building a road in the block area. While there would be free play later, students were expected to adhere to their plans and stay at the center with the group of peers they had started with.

For Tools developers and the educators who implement it, the curriculum’s play component is unique. At Irish Elementary School, the only school in the Poudre district to use Tools, Principal Lindsey Walton said it’s also popular with parents. Previous kindergarten curriculums seemed to ask the children to behave more like first- or second-graders.

Now, she said, what parents see “is kids playing, but in a really productive way, and it makes them feel good…We get a lot of parents who choice into our school just for kindergarten.”

Reading, writing, self-control

Self-regulation helps kids fight distraction, persist through frustration, or resist the impulse to smack an annoying classmate. But it also has big implications for long-term academic and life success.

“What we’ve found through the neuroscientist evaluations of self-regulation is it’s kind of the new IQ,” said Juanita Regehr, director of staff development/lab schools for Tools.

That’s why Tools classrooms embed skill-building around self-regulation into every lesson and activity. It’s common to hear stories about how Tools teachers no longer hustle around the classroom “putting out fires” or how students gradually learn to solve peer conflicts without tattling to the teacher.

Kristin Steed, principal of Marsh Elementary in the tiny Monte Vista district, said teachers have really noticed a difference since Tools was adopted in 2012.

“It’s amazing how one child will turn and tell another child, ‘Hey that hurts their feelings. You shouldn’t talk to them like that.”

Tools uses visual and audio cues called "mediators" to help children know what they should be doing.
Tools uses visual and audio cues called “mediators” to help children know what they should be doing.

There’s also a sense that Tools helps establish clear boundaries and expectations for students. At Irish Elementary School, the only school in the Poudre district that uses Tools, Principal Lindsey Walton said kindergartners show a sense of responsibility and purpose.

“They know exactly where to go and what to do and what their job is…and the teacher is more a facilitator.”

Irish started using Tools in its kindergarten classrooms seven years ago. There were significant behavior problems among kindergarteners at the time and the former curriculum, “Open Court” didn’t address that issue, said Walton.

Since its adoption she’s seen a decrease in office referrals among kindergartener, though she can’t attribute it to Tools with scientific certainty. This year, the school started using Tools in its preschool classes to better align the preschool-kindergarten span.

While Tools of the Mind staff say the curriculum is effective for students of any income level, many high-poverty schools use it. At McGlone, nearly 93 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. At Irish that number is 82 percent and at Marsh, it’s about 70 percent.

“We often get asked in schools like this…that are harder schools,” said Regehr, during a recent walk-through at McGlone. “We don’t target, but they are often seeking more help and more support, so they target us.”

Complications

While many teachers sing the praises of Tools, there seem to be a few weak points. Anecdotally, math appears to be one of them, with complaints that it’s not as rigorous as it could be and doesn’t lend itself to differentiated instruction for advanced students.

All the kindergarten classrooms at McGlone have a treehouse prop to go along with the "Magic Treehouse" books that are used throughout the year. Regehr said besides the books' sense of adventure, Tools developers "love the vocabulary in them. It stretches the kdis."
All the kindergarten classrooms at McGlone have a treehouse prop to go along with the “Magic Treehouse” books that are used throughout the year. Regehr said besides the books’ sense of adventure, Tools developers “love the vocabulary in them. It stretches the kids.”

Given that Tools is a research-based curriculum, ensuring fidelity–careful adherence to specified methods–is another challenge. That’s part of the reason it comes with manuals two inches thick and teachers receive extensive training during the first two years of implementation. Still, for veteran teachers, embracing Tools whole hog can be tough.

“Every teacher comes with their own idea, of course, and experiences with what they think works,” said Regehr, adding that she often hears the questions, “Why isn’t this working?”

“We kind of come in and sit down with them and use the text as the expert.”

Teachers like Hileman, who is in her third year of teaching and her second year with Tools, say they like the explicit sequencing and structure, but it can feel overly prescriptive to some educators. Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools, said Tools doesn’t allow as much content flexibility as “Creative Curriculum,” which is used in the vast majority of the district’s early childhood classrooms.

Still, she said it’s good at teaching rituals, routines and self-regulation–work often squeezed out in other classrooms by the focus on academics and third-grade test scores.

In Jeffco, where Molholm Elementary also serves as a Tools lab school, the curriculum is used at all 38 preschool sites and about 10 kindergarten site. Administrators say its foundation in theory makes it a valuable resource.

“It really does teach our teachers about best instructional practice,” said Sherry Fast, the district’s preschool coordinator.

Plus, administrators say kindergarteners who came from Tools classrooms are easy to spot because of their literacy and self-regulation prowess. But the training demands can make the curriculum hard to sustain, especially in grades where there is high teacher turnover. That’s part of the reason that its use in kindergarten has gradually declined from 25 sites to 10. Another factor is some schools’ addition of subject-specific curricula, which dilute the Tools approach.

Despite such fluctuations, there’s a sense that the Tools philosophy—if not every last detail in the curriculum—fills a major gap in early childhood education sphere.

“I don’t see this going away,” said Steed, who sought out the curriculum after reading about it in the journal Science.

“It meets a need that actually hasn’t been met before and will always be needed.”

Paying for pre-K

To fund pre-K, advocates in Indiana pitch tax credit scholarships, ‘pay for success,’ tax hikes

PHOTO: Scott Elliott / Chalkbeat
Preschoolers at Shepherd Community Center.

Early childhood education advocates are suggesting new ways for the state to fund prekindergarten — by bringing in investments from local communities and corporations.

In a new report released Tuesday by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute and Early Learning Indiana, advocates recommended the state look into tax credit scholarships, social impact bonds, food and beverage tax revenues, or local referendums to pay for expanded pre-K access.

“I don’t think it should be shouldered just by the government or by the private sector alone,” said Madeleine Baker, CEO of the Early Childhood Alliance in Fort Wayne, who co-chaired the report’s advisory board. “I think there needs to be partnership across the board. Everybody has to have skin in the game.”

Tuesday’s report kicks off a renewed campaign to expand early childhood education in Indiana, which is shaping up to be a budget battle in the upcoming legislative session that starts in January.

It could be fairly easy for the state to launch tax credit scholarships for pre-K programs, since Indiana already spends $14.5 million on the school choice strategy. Businesses and individuals receive a 50 percent tax credit on donations to scholarship funds for students from low- and middle-income families to cover the cost of private school tuition in grades K-12.

With social impact bonds — often called “Pay for Success” models — private investors contract with the government to provide money up-front for early childhood initiatives, which is paid back if the programs are successful. Illinois, along with Idaho and Utah, uses the strategy.

Passing a local property tax increase or an option income tax is an increasingly popular option for funding early childhood education with long-term revenue. But raising taxes is a tough sell in Indiana, and likely more so in the state’s rural areas.

An effort to pass a local referendum for early childhood education in Indiana has failed before. In Columbus, voters refused to back a referendum in 2012 that would have supported a public-private partnership widely pointed to as a success.

The other new ideas for funding streams — tax credit scholarships and social impact bonds — also come with trade-offs, said Bruce Atchison, principal of early learning for the Education Commission of the States.

“If you have a big corporation that’s going to put half a million dollars into that, that’s great,” Atchison said. “But when the corporation moves from the state or has a downturn in profits, it might not be so willing. So the long-term sustainability of the social impact bond piece becomes a concern.”

While the report did not include a big-picture estimate for how much more money the state should spend on pre-K, it did put a price tag on the cost of not investing in early childhood.

Employers in Indiana lose $1.8 billion each year from workers taking time off or leaving their jobs because of child care issues, the report said. Those absences are equivalent to losing 31,000 full-time employees and result in costs to businesses for paying for parents’ time off, hiring and training new workers, and paying for overtime or temporary workers.

The report also said the state loses $1.1 billion in economic activity each year from people reducing their spending if they lose out on wages because of child care issues.

It’s a popular argument in support of pre-K: Early childhood education benefits the workforce, both this generation and the next. Advocates say increasing high-quality pre-K seats helps parents stay or get back into the workforce while preparing young children with essential skills.

“Economic development speaks to Republicans,” said former Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican himself who championed pre-K and co-chaired the advisory board. “I’m hoping they look at these figures and say, hey, maybe that’s something we should be looking at.”

He added that he hopes the ideas for public-private partnerships — which he used to launch Indianapolis’ pre-K program — will also speak to the Republican lawmakers who dominate the legislature.

“I don’t think there’s yet a general understand that this should be done for many reasons, not the least of which is economic development,” Ballard said. “It’s just not in our psyche yet that this is part of who we are as Hoosiers.”

The state’s pre-K program, known as On My Way Pre-K, is in the fourth year of its five-year pilot. At a cost of $22 million per year, it is available in 20 counties and pays for roughly 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families to attend the high-quality pre-K provider of their choice.

If the state is to continue funding the pre-K program, advocates’ best shot for securing money is in the upcoming session, when lawmakers craft the state’s two-year budget.

Expanding pre-K is likely to have the support of Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who pushed in 2017 for an earlier expansion of the program to more rural areas of the state.

The issue has already won the support of Republican state schools chief Jennifer McCormick, who said earlier this month that too many Hoosier children enter kindergarten unprepared.

Advocates cite research showing the long-term returns on investment of pre-K and a study showing the success of pre-K in Oklahoma. They even point to research showing where Tennessee’s pre-K program fell short as an example of how important it is to maintain high quality standards for pre-K.

A recent report also showed that universal preschool in Washington, D.C., helped more mothers return to the workforce.

But funding is still likely to be a sticking point: How much money will lawmakers be willing to invest in pre-K?

“In a budget year, everyone has a request for something,” said Tim Brown, general counsel and director of policy for the Indy Chamber, in an interview last month with Chalkbeat.

Advocates say they are still struggling to convince people that pre-K is a worthwhile investment that amounts to more than daycare.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, said he believes pre-K has already proved its worth. Researchers have been studying the early outcomes of the state’s pilot program, which is showing both academic gains for children, and an increase in work and education opportunities for parents.

“I think the results of those programs are self-evident, that they do make a critical difference to get our young people off to a great start in life,” Hogsett told Chalkbeat recently. “So I hope that those results will speak volumes as the legislature crafts its next biennial budget.”

In the Classroom

How Memphis students came face to face with the painful history in their school’s backyard

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School examine a historical marker meant to share a more complete story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

A few yards across from the parking lot of an all-boys Memphis school lies a small, tree-lined courtyard, where a class of eighth-graders studies a large historical marker.

The new marker tells them that children were sold as slaves in this spot. An older, nearby marker had failed to tell the whole story — Nathan Bedford Forrest, the subject of the marker, made Memphis a hub of the slave trade near that busy downtown corner.

The boys at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School, who are nearly all black, earlier learned about the painful legacy while watching an episode of “America Divided,” a documentary series featuring celebrities exploring inequality across the nation. The episode featured the Memphis campaign that eventually removed a nearby statue of Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School students visit county commissioners Tami Sawyer and Van Turner (back row), who were key in the city’s campaign to remove Confederate statues.

Being so close to such upsetting history that only recently has bubbled to the surface of public display was a lot for eighth-grader Joseph Jones to take in.

“I can’t believe that this history is right outside our school,” he said. “I think I barely know what happened in Memphis. So many things that I don’t know, that I need to know, and that I want to know, happened in this very city.”

Lately, Memphis — along with several other cities in the South — has been grappling with how tell the complete stories of historical figures who many felt were war heroes, but who also contributed to the enslavement of black Americans.

The new and larger historical marker about Forrest was erected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. He was killed two miles from the all-boys charter school. City leaders vowed and succeeded in taking down Forrest’s statue, which had loomed downtown for more than 100 years, before honoring King’s legacy.

From the archives: Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Teacher Tim Green travels to several schools to teach students how to express their emotions in a healthy way.

Tim Green, a teacher at Grizzlies Prep, prompted discussion among students about how to use their newfound knowledge about history in positive ways to improve their city. It’s part of Green’s larger effort to teach students how to express their feelings on difficult topics.

Recently, that has meant delving into the city’s racial history, which is fraught with tragedy that has not been fully reckoned with in public discourse.

“Me forming this class was a way to talk about some of things we deal with and one of those things is our past,” he recently told students. “As African-American men — and African-Americans in general — we don’t have a clear understanding of where we came from.”

Students said their initial feelings after watching the documentary included anger, sadness, and fear.

“It kind of makes me feel scared because you know your parents and your teachers say history repeats itself,” said student Sean Crump. “So, we never know if it’s going to happen again because some things that people said are going to stop have came back. … That makes me feel scared of when I grow up.”

Watching the documentary was the first part of the class’ history exploration before meeting with two key people who organized the removal of Forrest’s statue at the county government building about two blocks from the school.

The documentary shows actor Jussie Smollett interviewing the younger brother of Jesse Lee Bond, a 20-year-old black sharecropper. He was killed in a Memphis suburb in 1939 after asking for a receipt at a store owned by a prominent white family that depended on the credit balances of its black customers.

The brother, Charlie Morris, said he was ready to go on a revengeful rampage after learning his brother had been shot, castrated, dragged by a tractor, and staked to the bottom of a nearby river. He said he still carried the trauma, but doesn’t carry the hate he felt nearly 80 years ago.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students watch as Charlie Morris, the brother of lynching victim Jesse Lee Bond, explains the racism that led to his brother’s murder in an episode of “America Divided.”

“The first step to equal justice is love. Where there’s no love, you can forget the rest,” he said in the documentary. Morris died in June at the age of 98.

After the episode ended, the class was silent for a moment. The first question from a student: Were the people who lynched Jesse Lee Bond ever convicted?

The answer made one student gasp in shock, but was predictable for anyone familiar with the history of lynching in America during the Jim Crow era that legalized racial segregation. Two men were charged and tried for Bonds’ murder, but were quickly acquitted.

Students seamlessly tied the past to racism and violence they see in their city today.

“I feel sad because there’s lynchings and people — mostly white Americans — they know there’s lynchings and they know what the Confederacy did to cause those,” said student Tristan Ficklen.

“I would have felt the same too because all he asked for was a receipt,” student Jireh Joyner said of Morris’ initial reaction to Bond’s death. “And now these days there’s still police brutality and it’s hurtful.”