In his book about how one of New Jersey’s lowest-achieving school systems became a “poster child for educational reform,” David L. Kirp, a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkley, describes a “universal approach that builds on existing strengths and a belief in public schools as the place for students to succeed.”
This discussion coincides with an innovative approach recently recommended by the City of Somerville and the Somerville Public Schools to develop a Universal Kindergarten Readiness strategy. Professor Kirp will discuss successful strategies that Somerville can adapt for its own student population.
“Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools”
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 from 7:00-8:30pm
East Somerville Community School
50 Cross Street, Somerville, MA 02145
Springfield held a Pre-K through Grade 3 conference on November 4 as part of its Birth through Grade Three Alignment Partnership work. The conference brought together senior district leaders, principals, preschool directors and teachers, and representatives from community organizations. The centerpiece of the day was a presentation by Kristie Kauerz, a national leader in the P-3/Birth -Third movement. Kristie was formerly the director of Harvard’s Pre-K-3rd initiative and is currently a research scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she is starting a national P-3 Center.
Kristie’s presentation and the discussion it provoked provide a compelling summary of the research that underlies the Birth through Grade Three movement, an introduction to an important Birth-Third framework, and useful advice and tips based on the experience of communities around the country. Below I share a few highlights.
Kauerz discussed a number of findings from the research on brain development that show the importance of supporting learning and development in children’s first five years. Kauerz shared pictures that illustrate the extraordinarily rapid development of neural connections in the first six years, some of which then atrophy by year 14. According to Kauerz, “What stays are the connections that are reinforced. If we are reinforcing the good things, they stick around.” She emphasized the integrated nature of cognitive, social, and emotional development, saying you can’t tease them apart or do one without the other. While reading proficiency by grade three is an important goal of P-3 efforts, it is one goal of several inter-connected ones, including not only social, emotional, and physical development, but also early mathematical learning. Kauerz notes that preschool math skills have been shown to be an even better predictor of later learning than early literacy skills.
The upshot of the research on brain development: the ability to change brain development and behavior decreases over the lifespan, but happily never bottoms out. We can all keep learning. It is, however, easier, and cheaper for that matter, to influence brain development and behaviors in the early years. “This is our window of opportunity,” says Kauerz.
Kauerz points out that there has only been “marginal” improvement in NAEP scores in recent decades and that large achievement gaps remain. Gaps between white and black children are present by age 2 and are larger by kindergarten. Yet it is the gap between low socio-economic and more affluent children that has become the biggest achievement gap. Kauerz shared the graph below, showing evidence of the low-income gap by age 2 and consistently increasing at each step from age 2 to age 4 to kindergarten to first grade to fifth grade. As Kauerz pointed out, “there is work to do at each of these points.”
Quality in Classroom from Prekindergarten through Third Grade: Low Instructional Support
The Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia used the CLASS classroom observation tool to assess quality across the prekindergarten through third grade span in classrooms across the United States. Kauerz emphasized that the study found emotional support to be reasonably good across the spectrum, including in K-3 classrooms, contrary to what some think about early elementary classrooms. Classroom organization was scored slightly lower than emotional support. The big problem, however, was in instructional support, which hovers around 2 on a scale of 7. “This is what we need to be worried about,” says Kauerz. Two-thirds of the students in the study experienced inconsistent instructional support as they progressed from first to third to fifth grade, and one-fifth of students experienced consistently low quality instructional support across these grades.
The P-3 Approach: What If?
Kauerz sees the P-3 approach as a means to address the need to improve learning and development in the first 9 years of life, thereby improving learning for all and reducing gaps. She uses a metaphor to explain her vision of what an aligned P-3 system would look like, comparing toy building blocks to pop beads.
Instead of each silo as a separate building block, pop beads suggest separate pieces, each of which needs independent work but that are connected to each other, yielding a connected, flexible continuum when attached.
Kauerz sets forth as the goals of the P-3 approach three outcomes:
Developing strong foundational cognitive skills;
Developing social and emotional competence; and
Establishing patterns of student engagement in school and learning.
Kauerz shares an inspiring “what if” graph that illustrates a vision of the possibilities successful P-3 work can bring about, a progression of reducing rather than expanding gaps. (For another inspiring graph of the possibility of reducing gaps by “intervening again and again,” see this simulation of the impact of multiple interventions.)
Framework for Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating PreK-3rd Grade Approaches
Kauerz and her colleague Julia Coffman have developed a P-3 Framework that describes the components of P-3 work. This framework includes 8 domains of activity, each fleshed out with a goal, strategies and example indicators. This framework incorporates lessons from communities that have successfully implemented P-3 initiatives, such as Montgomery County, MD and Union City, NJ, as well as input from experts and practitioners in 11 states. (Teams from Holyoke, Springfield, and Worcester provided feedback on the framework at a meeting at Harvard in 2012.)
Kauerz emphasizes that people should not follow the framework like a recipe and instead advises that communities “choose 3-5 things to do really well.” Communities that have successfully done this work had a “laser-like focus” on a small set of goals.
The Work of Implementation
In the discussion that followed her presentation, Kauerz shared the following advice regarding implementing P-3 efforts:
Priority. Moving beyond superficial implementation requires that leaders make difficult choices about how they are spending money and the initiatives underway in their districts. These choices may require shifting funds from less impactful initiatives and strategically reviewing the accumulation of initiatives to determine what to continue and what to stop.
Ownership. Kauerz cites instances in which groups have convened to meet and talk about P-3, sometimes on an ongoing basis, but the real work isn’t taking hold. It is critical to build ownership and buy-in among stakeholders, including teachers, if P-3 work is going to have an impact. She cites this example from Chicago in which a partnership started over when it realized it wasn’t making progress.
Progress-monitoring. Communities cannot wait until “the end” of their initiative to see if they are having an impact. Implementing P-3 requires an extended period of time, but it is critical to monitor progress in an ongoing fashion so that leaders can address problems and make adjustments to ensure that work is leading to improved outcomes for children.
State Agency Alignment and Misalignment. An audience member noted instances in which districts get conflicting messages from state agencies, whose policies and guidelines are not always aligned. Kauerz mentioned the need for “barrier-busting meetings” in these cases, highlighting the need for multiple state agencies to work collaboratively with districts to address alignment issues.
False Dichotomies: The Developmentally Appropriate Question. In response to the familiar concern that academic curricula or teaching methods will be “pushed down” from 1 to K to PreK, Kauerz emphasized that P-3 alignment is sometimes hindered by “false dichotomies.” Yes, there are instances of schools in which kindergarten teaching is not developmentally appropriate, and this is an important concern. But our impressions about the quality of teaching and learning in other sectors are not always accurate, as indicated by the high degree of emotional support the University of Virginia study found in K-3 classrooms. Elementary schools use the term differentiated instruction to refer to meeting students where they are, much as early childhood educators use the term “developmentally appropriate.” Whereas early childhood educators talk about the importance of play, K-12 educators are interested in “experiential learning.” As these examples show, vocabulary can become a barrier. Regarding what she regards as false dichotomies, Kauerz asks, “Is your P-3 work an “Us” effort or an “Us vs. Them” effort?”
Two Kristie Kauerz Recommended Books on Successful P-3 Approaches
 A note on terminology: Different terms are used to describe the movement to improve and align education and care from before birth through third grade. Kauerz uses “P-3” to refer to everything before (i.e., “pre-“) school through third grade. Others, including the MA EEC and this blog, use the term Birth through Grade Three (Birth-Third).
Over time the Birth-Third Learning Hub aspires to examine the broad range of efforts underway in Massachusetts to improve outcomes for young children. Five communities in particular provide an important stream of information and experience regarding Birth-Third strategies. Boston, Lowell, Pittsfield, Somerville, and Springfield received Birth through Grade ThreeAlignment Partnership grants in 2012 from the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) to deepen their early years work. Additional grants for a second round of Alignment Partnerships will be announced in March. Cambridge Education is documenting the original five partnerships for the EEC, and this blog is part of an effort to share the experiences the five partnerships have had thus far.
Funded by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top -Early Learning Challenge program, the EEC has awarded each of these communities $100,000 grants for each of two years. (In Boston, the Boston Public Schools and the city’s community-based preschool collaborative, Thrive in Five, both were awarded $100,000 grants for a combined initiative that also includes philanthropic investment.)
Each community has formed a Birth through Grade Three Alignment Partnership composed of community-based preschool providers, a school district, each community’s Community Family and Community Engagement (CFCE) grantee, each community’s Educator and Provider Support grantee, and other organizations. Three partnerships are led by school districts (Boston, Lowell, and Somerville), one by the local United Way (Pittsfield), and one by a preschool organization (Springfield).
These five communities are especially good candidates for learning about implementation efforts. Building on previous foundational work, they are implementing a diverse range of promising strategies, and they vary in terms of community size and stage of project development.
Primary Use of Funds
Boston Public Schools/Thrive in Five
Lowell Public Schools
Berkshire United Way
Somerville Public Schools
Square One (CB Provider)
Project Strategies. As described further below and in subsequent posts, the communities’ strategies differ both in terms of how developed they were at the onset of the grant and whether the thrust of their work is targeted on specific classrooms, preschool centers, and schools, or aimed more broadly at the community level. Boston and Pittsfield are building on previously established initiatives and thus began the grant with relatively well-developed strategies in place. Boston’s project targets 14 community-based classrooms; Pittsfield is implementing a city-wide (and increasingly county-wide) strategic plan. Lowell, Somerville, and Springfield, while building on past efforts, have formed new leadership groups and developed new strategies during the grant process, strategies with both targeted and community-wide prongs.
Here are brief descriptions of each community’s strategy. Future posts will explore each community’s work and cross-cutting patterns in more depth (in alphabetical order).
Boston. The Boston Public Schools (BPS) and Thrive in Five are supporting 14 community-based preschool classrooms in implementing the BPS pre-kindergarten model. This model includes literacy and math curricula, professional development, coaching, and additional compensation for most of the participating teachers. Rigorous internal and external evaluations have found that Boston’s pre-kindergarten model has led to growth in language, math, executive function, and self-regulation skills. The BPS pre-kindergarten model has received national attention due to the size of the child outcomes, the scale of implementation (2,300 students), and the impact on multiple domains (Evidence Base on Preschool Education). BPS is committed to supporting the implementation of its pre-kindergarten model in additional community-based classrooms if this pilot study yields outcomes comparable to those in BPS classrooms. EEC funding is supporting a coach and professional development for each site and is supplemented by philanthropic funding.
Lowell. In Lowell, the CFCE, led by the early childhood department of the school district, is targeting two low-income neighborhoods, each of which includes a participating school, a preschool center, and family childcare providers. The alignment leadership team is focused on improving quality through the QRIS process, school readiness, formative assessment, and family engagement. The project supports communities of practice for center-based staff and family childcare providers, the use of CLASS observations in schools and preschool classrooms to inform center and school improvement priorities, and training in Teaching Strategies Gold. Through its initial alignment discussions, the Lowell partnership identified school readiness as an important issue and has begun additional work developing a school readiness definition and action plan for the broader community. Lowell has hired Early Childhood associates as a consultant to support the design and implementation of its strategy.
Pittsfield. In 2012, community leaders in Pittsfield committed to the Pittsfield Promise, a community initiative to achieve a single goal: “By 2020, 90% of Pittsfield students will achieve reading proficiency as demonstrated by 3rd grade standardized tests.” Berkshire United Way serves as “backbone” organization, and the Pittsfield Promise has the support of a broad range of community institutions, including the local hospital, library, museum, and newspaper. The community has developed a strategic plan based on five strategies that are being developed and carried out through a network of six committees. The EEC grant supports a coordinator, a staff member of Berkshire United Way, to support and align the work of these committees around the following priorities: family engagement (including a city-wide literacy campaign and home visiting), preschool participation, quality and alignment, and out-of-school time.
Somerville. Building on a history of strong support for families, the Somerville Public Schools formed a new alignment leadership group to guide the work of the EEC grant and hired a full-time project coordinator. Somerville’s leadership team has developed a strategy that has four main components:
A Kindergarten Readiness Group composed of community-based preschool teachers and leaders and public school kindergarten teachers that is focused on aligning EEC and Common Core standards and using developmentally-appropriate practice to meet standards.
Literacy coaching using the ELLCO as an observational tool for 8 preschool classrooms (2 Head Start classrooms, 2 public school, and 4 community-based). Lead teachers and their co-teachers are participating in coaching and whole-group activities. The Alignment Partnership is also offering a language and literacy full-day workshop plus two follow-up mentoring sessions to an additional 20 teachers.
Training in Teaching Strategies Gold for community-based preschool teachers.
A new online resource for families with young children and outreach by community organizations teaching adults how to use it.
Springfield. The Springfield Alignment Partnership, led by Square One, a community-based preschool provider, builds on a history of collaboration between the school district and the preschool community as well as on the Davis Foundation’s Read! Reading Success by Fourth Grade initiative. Its leadership steering committee has hired a staff person at Square One to coordinate the work with the help of an outside consultant. Springfield’s project is organized around three broad strategies: Curricular and Assessment Alignment, Teacher and Adult Caregiver Capacity/Quality, and Data Use and Strategic Planning. Planned activities include selecting and/or developing an early education curriculum for the community and identifying standards to focus on across public and private settings, including common developmental domains in Teaching Strategies Gold and shared social-emotional standards. The partnership will then provide professional development and outreach around these domains and standards, identify common formative assessments to use across preschool settings, expand teacher-to-teacher observations, and share kindergarten assessment data with pre-kindergarten providers. Springfield has re-instituted monthly “PLCs” of community-based and public preschool and kindergarten teachers that participate in shared professional development and conduct cross-site classroom observations.
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.