June 16, 2023
Many decisions that directly impact kindergarten are made in schools by principals. There are many tools, however, that school districts, states, and even the federal government have to establish conditions for effective kindergarten programs and teaching in the ways that young children learn best.
There are specific policy areas that typically all states have oversight of when it comes to kindergarten. For example, does the state require school districts to provide kindergarten for the same number of hours as the first-grade day? Are children required to attend kindergarten before entering first grade? What is the compulsory age for school attendance? What is the cut-off date for kindergarten enrollment? How much funding does the state appropriate for kindergarten, and is that amount the same or greater than first grade? Across the states, the answers to the questions above can surprisingly vary quite a lot, with some states requiring a full day of kindergarten and others not requiring kindergarten attendance at all. (Take a look at updated state K-3 policy profiles from the Education Commission of the States.)
All states also have academic standards for kindergarten and requirements for the license needed to teach kindergarten, which in some places is an early childhood education (ECE) license and in other places is either an elementary or an ECE license. Building expectations for experiential learning (also known as play-based learning) into standards can help inform what curricula local school districts select. And reducing the overlap of grade spans in state teaching licenses can help ensure that K-3rd teachers have a deeper understanding of early childhood development, pedagogy, and experiences in ECE classrooms before they begin teaching on their own. Some states have also made or considered changes to principal preparation and licensure requirements to help ensure school leaders understand what learning looks like in kindergarten and early grade classrooms.
Some states are going beyond these traditional areas of action, wading into other areas of policy and practice that may more directly enable strong teaching and learning environments in kindergarten and early-grade classrooms. State leaders can use tools such as guidance, grant opportunities, pilot programs, learning communities, and financial incentives to spur local change. And these state actions can be possible even when strong local control systems are in place.
“I think that over the course of the past 15 to 20 years, the concept of kindergarten as building the foundation for students has been lost, and kindergarten has evolved into programming to ‘fast track’ students towards specific benchmarks… In so doing, programs are trying to almost put the roof on the house before the foundation has had an opportunity to set, and then those who are not putting on the roof are definitely trying to build the walls.”
That was the sentiment expressed by Pamela Truelove-Walker, Ed.D., of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, during the January webinar Learning How States, Districts, and Educators Are Strengthening Kindergarten. For state leaders, such as Truelove-Walker and Anna Severens of the Nevada Department of Education, supporting developmentally appropriate kindergarten is central to their work to strengthen children’s experiences in PreK-3rd grades. For years, Alabama has been implementing a PreK-3rd integrated approach to early learning through a competitive grant process that includes three components: leadership, instruction, and assessment.
After a decade of birth through third-grade work in Nevada, the Office of Early Learning and Development at the Nevada Department of Education (NDE) started Developmentally Appropriate Kindergarten Cohorts of kindergarten teachers and P-3 Leadership Academy Cohorts of principals and other school leaders. The kindergarten cohort provides an opportunity for teachers to discuss practices and learn from one another about strategies to support young learners. Teachers are able to attend professional learning workshops and visit kindergarten classrooms. NDE is also using Title IIA funds to enable up to 20 elementary school principals and district administrators to participate in the National P-3 Center’s P-3 Leadership Certificate Program. Together these opportunities offered by the state have the goal of making kindergarten and early grade classroom environments and instruction more engaging and appropriate for young learners.
In a presentation delivered in December 2022 to the Nevada Board of Education, Severns and others highlighted how the state’s efforts have impacted local work. In Washoe County School District, for example, about 15 percent of kindergarten classrooms are moving toward a DAP approach. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit several schools in Washoe and see play-based learning in action. In one classroom, children broke into math centers, using blocks, toys, playdough, and other games to create math equations. I sat at a table where several children were making cookies with play dough. They each rolled out and shaped two or three cookies and placed “chips,” which were actually buttons and beads, on each cookie, and then they would write an equation: 3 chips + 4 chips = 7 chips. They all dutifully had their math journals next to them as they played and developed addition and subtraction equations. As they played, the children also talked to each other about math.
Nevada state leaders recognize there is a lot of work to do across the state, but they are making steady progress. Just this year, Nevada adopted a developmentally appropriate practice kindergarten policy statement that sets a vision for what the ideal kindergarten should look like. A good next step toward fully realizing this vision would be to make more dollars available to expand professional development for teachers and principals and equip kindergarten and early-grade classrooms with the necessary tools and materials.
Across the country in Maine, state leaders adopted Boston’s Focus curriculum and adapted it for Maine: Instructional Materials for ME. Several schools and districts are piloting the curriculum in pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade. The curriculum integrates literacy with science and social studies themes and includes activities throughout the day to build literacy skills, vocabulary, and language skills. And Focus includes lots of opportunities for purposeful play. The state provides professional development and learning communities with the teachers who are participating. With the help of a Preschool Development Grant, the state also provides some dollars to equip classrooms with materials needed to implement the curriculum.
When I visited a kindergarten classroom in Maine during center time, students were learning about frogs as part of a unit on animals and habitats. Children around the room were engaged in different activities, most of them related to frogs. Some were creating a frog habitat. Some were drawing the life cycle of a frog. Others were building frogs out of blocks. Children at the water table were pouring water into tubes with water wheels and noticing that when they poured a lot of water, it spun quickly, but a little water barely spun it at all. There was also a reading area with many books about frogs and dramatic play where children ran a supermarket. The teacher moved around the room, asking questions and interjecting vocabulary words from the habitat unit. Children were clearly engaging in active and applied learning. Each year, Maine officials continue to expand the number of classrooms implementing the curriculum, changing practices and learning opportunities in kindergarten and the early grades.
The examples above demonstrate the various tools states have in their toolbox to improve kindergarten and early grade classrooms, even in states, like Maine and Nevada, where districts have the authority over what happens in local schools. For more on kindergarten, the early grades, and the transition into and out of kindergarten, visit our Transforming Kindergarten collection page.
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