Fewer Mandates, More Empowerment of Leaders

A New Report Highlights Leaders’ Impact on Organizational Conditions in Early Ed Classrooms
Blog Post
Jan. 28, 2019

Over the last several years our team has been exploring the integral role of early learning leaders, both elementary school principals and center directors. In this guest post, Anisha Ford discusses new research on how these leaders impact their program climate. In 2019 we’ll continue digging into this important topic, including exploring how to best prepare center directors.

Organizational conditions are key levers in improving the quality of early education classrooms. They can impact many aspects of a program, including but not limited to: the ability to effectively implement policies aimed at classroom improvement, staff turnover and attrition, and family engagement. Research has shown that a positive organizational climate is linked to higher quality in pre-K classrooms. However, there are few tools that allow early education programs to assess their organizational conditions and provide actionable steps for improvement.

To help close this gap, the Ounce of Prevention Fund (the Ounce) in partnership with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium) developed the Early Education Essentials measurement system, which allows early education leaders to measure the organizational conditions in their programs. The measurement system consists of teacher/staff and parent surveys, data reports, and data use and improvement tools. The six essentials of organizational climate measured by the tool are:

  • Effective Instructional Leaders
  • Collaborative Teachers
  • Involved Families
  • Supportive Environment
  • Ambitious Instruction
  • Parent Voice

More information on these essentials and their definitions can be found here.

In April of 2018, I wrote about the validation study of the Early Education Essentials, which found that sites with high scores on the Early Education Essentials surveys also had higher rates of student attendance and higher scores on the CLASS (an observational tool used to assess classroom quality by measuring the interactions between teachers and students). The validation study laid out these quantifiable differences between sites with strong and weak organizational conditions. But there are more abstract differences between strongly organized sites and weakly organized sites, and the newest paper from the Ounce and UChicago Consortium, Illustrations of Strong Organizational Practices in Programs Poised for Improvement, aims to characterize these abstract differences through a qualitative study.

The Ounce and UChicago Consortium conducted an in-depth, three-day observation of two school-based early education programs: one with high Early Education Essentials survey scores and one with low scores; and two community-based early education programs: one with high Early Education Essentials scores and one with low scores. The study found that programs with strong essential supports (programs with high survey scores) had noticeably different organizational climates and practices, and created “more supportive contexts for teaching, learning, and family engagement than programs with weak essential supports.”

The study shines a light on the pivotal role leaders have in creating the organizational conditions of their program. The researchers found that leaders of highly organized sites have a vision rooted in early childhood development and pedagogy that drives all of the work being done in the program. They also prioritize their role as instructional leaders and facilitators for teacher collaboration. Because everyone in the program is working toward a shared vision, teaching staff in strongly organized sites collaborate often and sometimes are given protected time specifically for collaboration. Finding protected time for teacher collaboration is difficult because classrooms need to remain in ratio, but leaders of strongly organized sites actively search for opportunities to facilitate this collaboration. The ability for teachers to collaborate, to reflect and share their experiences from the classroom, is the vehicle for change in early education programs according to what the Ounce and the UChicago Consortium observed in this latest qualitative study.

Leaders of strongly organized sites and their staff recognize the important role parents play in their child’s development and actively find opportunities to partner with parents. The Ounce and the UChicago Consortium write: “A key element then of these leaders’ vision is cultivating an organizational climate that values and prioritizes partnerships with families and a mindset that families’ perspectives help staff teach more effectively.”

A leader’s vision, priorities, and actions strongly influence staff, parents, and the children their program serves. As one teacher from a strongly organized site stated, “I feel like it’s empowering [here], it’s not just from the top down. Its right here, and we believe in this stuff, and I have something to share, and it’s valued by our administrator... I think it’s kind of what we try to do with our students too, now even when they’re only three. I think [the principal] leads by example for sure.”

The Ounce and the UChicago Consortium make it clear in their report that “leadership is the driver of change.”

In contrast, leaders of weakly organized sites have difficulty balancing their role as an instructional leader and managing their program’s compliance with various standards and requirements. Their discussions with teaching staff are typically around specific tasks that need to be done to meet a requirement. Because work in weakly organized sites is mostly task-oriented, teachers work in silos and there is little to no time for collaboration on best teaching practices. This task-oriented mentality trickles down to teacher interactions with students. Teaching in weakly organized sites is regimented and transactional. In weakly organized sites there is minimal engagement with families beyond what is required. Standards and requirements are the main drivers of work rather than a unifying vision for the program.

The Ounce and UChicago Consortium explain that the priorities of leaders deeply impact the organizational conditions in early education programs and thus classroom quality and student outcomes. The report highlights the need for policymakers and funders to focus less on creating mandates for programs to meet and more on how to empower leaders of programs to create and carry out a vision for their program based on child development and early childhood pedagogy.

Anisha Ford is a program coordinator at the Ounce of Prevention Fund. She previously interned with the Early & Elementary Education Policy team at New America in spring 2018.

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