Deepening and Extending the Work in New Jersey

New Jersey is well-known for its leadership in early learning. Notable examples include the state’s highly-regarded preschool and kindergarten implementation guidelines, its investment in preschool across the state, extensive support for PreK-3rd early literacy in low-income communities, its PreK-3rd Leadership Training Series, and leading edge success stories in communities like Union City and Red Banks. Vince Costanza, the Executive Director of the Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge for the NJ DOE, recently shared some updates on the state’s early learning work in a blog post and in a presentation at the Ounce of Prevention Fund’s Birth—3rd District Leadership Summit. Here are a few highlights:

  • 1st through 3rd Grade Guidelines: Having created PreK and Kindergarten guidelines, the state is extending its implementation and best practice guidance to the early elementary years. Costanza says that the transition out of K is “the next frontier.” Regarding the new guidelines: “We want something that say the things that need to be said and aren’t currently being said; that conceptualize academic rigor and developmentally appropriate practice and show what it would look like.” Supported by NIERR and CEELO, the Department of Education has worked closely with teachers, districts, and higher education, building engagement and buy-in at the local level. Costanza expects that the guidelines will be finalized this fall.
  • Deepening Kindergarten Practice:  The Early Childhood Department has developed a 3-part video series, High-Quality Kindergarten Today, that demonstrates best practice in kindergarten classrooms. Renowned early childhood educator Dorothy Strickland provides helpful commentary throughout the series. The department is also creating a professional development series focusing on problems of practice in kindergarten teaching.
  • Connecting State Initiatives: Regarding integrating state initiatives like the Common Core, educator evaluation, student growth objectives, and the kindergarten entry assessment, Costanza talks about the need to “double down and define what this work looks like in the early years.” See New Jersey’s Teacher Evaluation Support Document for PreK and K for an example.
  • The KEA and Social-Emotional Development: Rick Falkenstein, the superintendent of the Kingwood Township School District, describes a partnership in which the state supported KEA implementation in a number of school districts. Falkenstein reports his kindergarten teachers saying that their use of Teaching Strategies Gold has made them more “intentional” in their teaching. One veteran told him, “I know my students in ways I didn’t before.” Falkenstein also noted that as a result of his kindergarten teachers using the KEA, 1st and 2nd grade teachers are expressing more interest in social-emotional development. “It has been pretty contagious.” I wonder if other districts are experiencing this kind of contagion effect?
  • 10 Kindergarten Policies: The Ounce session on kindergarten also profiled a policy statement from the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education: The Power of Kindergarten: 10 Policies Leading to Positive Child Outcomes.
  • New Transition Tool from Washington State: And in a contribution to the session from the West Coast, Anne Arnold from the Highline Public Schools shared a Profile of a Kindergarten-Ready Child, a transition form developed by a cross-district coalition that included Seattle and that was supported by the Gates Foundation.

Executive Function & 21st Century Skills

Lisa Kuh, Somerville’s Director of Early Education, has started the Somerville Early Education blog. For a good introduction and number of helpful links, see two posts Lisa wrote on Executive Function & 21st Century Skills:

Executive Function & 21st Century Skills – Part 1: Making Choices and Environmental Design 

Executive Function Part 2: Tools to Support Choice Making & Self-Regulation

In Lisa’s words:

This post is the first in a series about how children move through environments and the role of self-directed activity, classroom schedules and room arrangement, and what “counts” as choice time in school and at home. 

A young child moves across the room to put away her supply box.  For some of us a simple task. For the young child, a potential obstacle course where many things can happen along the way – an accidental bump of a peer turns into a conflict; a joyful conversation with a friend ensues; difficulty figuring out how to get from one side of the room to another during a high traffic time.  We take for granted what goes into getting from one place to the next.  But young children need time and modeling to make these excursions successful and also develop important cognitive and motor abilities while doing so.

Executive function skills support planning, completing and evaluating tasks, and oversee communication exchanges (Cognitive Connections – Sarah Ward, FAQ). Executive function is like the air traffic control system for the body and mind (The Art of Control). It helps us to understand a series of steps such as: come into the classroom, put my things away, wash hands, go to the rug – and to make choices about how to approach tasks.  Many children need previewing and practice for their executive function systems to work efficiently and for some children, this must be an important part of their day – and not just with arrival and clean up routines.

“What Every School Can Learn From Preschools”

See National Public Radio’s story on a new report from the New America Foundation, Skills for Success: Supporting and Assessing Key Habits, Mindsets, and Skills PreK-12.

From the NPR article:

… the best tack is to hold entire schools accountable for creating atmospheres that instill or support these qualities. This can be done using tools like school climate surveys and sharing the information publicly.

It’s a good time to have this conversation. Most states, and the federal government, have expanded access to preschool in the last year. To evaluate those programs, they use a wide palette: classroom observation, self-reporting, and more.

This report suggests importing some of that more holistic approach to accountability into the higher grades. This doesn’t mean replacing an emphasis on academic rigor with something fuzzy and hard to quantify. “It’s a false choice,” says Tooley. Schools can and should be doing both.