As discussed last week, there are multiple entry points for understanding Lowell’s Birth-Third work—the Leadership Alignment Team, the use of the CLASS tool, the emerging school readiness agenda—but a good place to start is with Lowell’s communities of practice. Supporting family childcare providers is a logistically more challenging and less common component of Birth-Third initiatives. The communities of practice are a direct form of professional development that reaches both family childcare providers and community-based centers using the FCCERS-R and ECERS-R tools. They show that even within the boundary-spanning work that Birth-Third improvement requires there is a critical role for tailored work within sectors on improving quality.
Lowell’s communities of practice bring to life and make real the well-known challenges associated with supporting family childcare providers and small community-based preschools. We often refer to the egg crate nature of teaching in schools. School teachers are separated in classrooms and work independently and thus are isolated, or were traditionally. Now many K-12 schools are much more deliberate about creating opportunities for teachers to work together in teams or professional learning communities. In the case of family child care providers, however, the isolation is even more extreme. Rather than in a crate, each egg is packaged individually. There is simply no egg in the dimple next door. Likewise, many teachers in small center-based programs lack opportunities to collaborate with teachers and coaches outside their center.
The child care providers in Lowell’s communities of practice explicitly acknowledge the isolating nature of their work (“we don’t network enough”). They also make it palpably clear—through their responses to the meetings—how valuable it is for them to come together in a structured way to work on their practice. They describe the experience as “eye-opening,” revelatory in some cases, and according to some it has impacted every aspect of their classrooms and their teaching.
The communities of practice are led by Teresa Harrison, who is trained in the ECERS-R, FCCERS-R, and CLASS tools and does a range of work related to the Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS) for the Lowell Public Schools. Ten family childcare providers began by meeting monthly with Harrison in the community of practice and then asked to increase the meetings to twice a month. Recruiting centers to participate in the work in the middle of last year proved more difficult, and thus the partnership took the opportunity to work intensively on a monthly basis with one center that was requesting support with the QRIS system. The teachers in this center are now better prepared to work with other centers, and the plan is to add teachers from more centers this coming year.
The ECERS-R tool includes 43 criteria organized into 7 subscales, such as “space and furnishings,” “language-reasoning,” and “program structure.” Using the ECERS-R or FCCERS-R tool as a framework, the communities of practice participants discuss a wide range of topics, including play, centers, math, science, hygiene, gross motor activities, art, drama, and dance.
A good example of a community of practice conversation took place in one of the meetings with the center-based teachers. Through visits to the center and previous discussions with the participants, Harrison identified best practices in discipline and staff-child interactions as topics of interest for the participants and had begun to provide related support. At this meeting Harrison discussed staff-child interactions, drawing on the approach of the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). Lowell Public Schools has provided extensive professional development on CSEFEL for its pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers and advocates its use throughout the community.
Clearly the center teachers understood the importance of their relationships with their students, yet they also appreciated the opportunity to come together off-site and think through how they could do their best in this regard. Harrison shared CSEFEL materials and a video and discussed research on the importance of the teacher/child relationship. She then did an activity using the metaphor of “relationship banks.” When teachers have positive interactions with a child, they are adding to the child’s piggy banks, making a deposit. Negative interactions are withdrawals. When a child’s bank is empty, it is harder to deal with challenging situations. The teachers thought of all the things they could do to make deposits (e.g., “listening,” “following through,” “validating their feelings,” “really listening,” “getting down to their level,” “talking calmly,” and “showing you care”) and withdrawals (“taking things personally,” “showing frustration,” “using a loud voice,” “not being sensitive to their needs,” and “nagging or controlling them”). The discussion served as a forum for exchanging practical ideas and an off-site opportunity to reflect on the tenor of one’s daily interactions with children.
The participants of both communities of practice emphasize that though they learn the expectations of the ECERS-R/FCCERS-R tool relative to the QRIS system, they also learn specific ideas and practices from their colleagues and from Harrison. The ECERS/FCCERS tools serve an interesting and helpful function in these discussions. Conversations typically begin with the participants sharing what they do with regard to a specific item on the tool (e.g., helping children understand language, fine motor skills, or dramatic play). Harrison adds what evaluators in fact look for with regard to the item, highlighting expectations that she knows to be particularly challenging or frequently surprising to teachers: for example, expectations that math be integrated not only during carpet or whole group time but throughout the day during free play; that nature and science activities be included every day; and that TV be limited to no more than 15 minutes at a time and no more than 30 minutes a day (and only for children above 24 months).
Eventually the participants rate themselves on each item within a given category or “sub-scale.” In route, however, discussion of the evaluators’ expectations naturally transition into the learning activities the participants typically do, do not do, could do better, and ideas they could learn from others. In effect, the tools serve to make the conversations less awkward as both of the communities of practice were in the process of building trust and the confidence to share and reflect on their own practice—conversations that can feel personally threatening both with close colleagues and with new acquaintances.
Out of this type of conversation at one meeting crystallized a number of pointers regarding QRIS expectations at one level, but about the current understanding of best practice at another:
- The importance of free play and choice (e.g., moving away from one whole group activity followed by clean-up followed by another whole group activity …),
- Balancing independent exploration and the teacher role in providing structure,
- Encouraging interactions among children,
- Encouraging children to solve their own problems (with support),
- Expanding the use of music, dance, and dramatic play and making art projects less “cookie-cutter” and more creative, and
- Increasing the proportion of talking and listening that is not directed towards behavior management and control.
From the vantage point of the participants, key take-aways included the need to be more deliberate and organized in setting up centers as discrete areas for specific activities, being mindful of which centers are placed next to each other (i.e., not placing loud centers next to quiet areas), attending to sight lines and the placement of furniture, how not to use time-outs, how to use routines to make activities run more smoothly, and the importance of choice among activities.
The Lowell partnership is planning on deepening its community of practice model with the addition of an on-site coaching component that will complement the monthly meetings. Among other benefits, coaching will provide support in translating the pointers and take-aways from the meetings into practice. We also find this combination of off-site whole group professional development and on-site coaching in Somerville’s literacy coaching model and the Boston’s K1DS curriculum implementation support.
The two communities of practice are soon to come together for a joint CSEFEL training. Lowell’s plan for Round Two of the EEC Alignment Partnership includes continuing these two communities of practice, adding one for administrators of public school and community-based preschools, and developing a pilot community of practice for families led by a parenting coach.
Lowell’s communities of practice broaden the range of professional development and coaching arrangements we find across the first five EEC alignment partnerships. They demonstrate the use of the ECERS-R and FCCERS-R rubrics and a model tailored to family child care providers as well as community-based preschool centers. One family child care provider summed up her experience of the community of practice saying,
“You look at your daycare differently, which is hard to do unless you are in a class like this.”
 The Pittsfield Promise also works with family childcare providers and family childcare systems.
 A study published last month called into question the relationship between quality as measured by the ECERS-R and child academic and social outcomes. The authors suggest that since that many centers meet the baseline levels of quality the ECERS-R measures, a more nuanced tool may be needed. Nonetheless, most states, including Massachusetts, currently use the ECERS-R as part of their QRIS systems. Further, as will become clear, in the context of the Lowell community of practice, the ECERS-R is being used as a formative professional development tool to guide conversations about best practice with an experienced coach. Used in this way the ECERS-R has the potential improve practice independent of the link between ECERS-R evaluations and child outcomes. We will continue to track the research on the ECERS-R and related tools.
 For more on Lowell’s adoption of district social-emotional standards, use of CSEFEL training, and home visiting protocol, see page 36 of Improving Early Years of Education in Massachusetts.
This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID.