Pre-K Data in Practice: From the Perspective of Program Leaders

Blog Post
April 5, 2023

Over the past year, New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy program has produced research and writing on the need for improved assessment and data systems to improve pre-K outcomes. Ensuring the successful implementation of these new assessment tools and data systems requires an understanding of how data are collected, analyzed, and shared. In this blog series, we interview different groups of stakeholders to highlight how they use pre-K data in their roles to inform policies and practices at the classroom, program, and state level. The following blog post, featuring the perspectives of program leaders, is the first in the series.

Ashley Hoggatt’s day starts as soon as she arrives in the parking lot at D.D. Kirkland Elementary School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma where she is principal of a pre-K to second grade program.

On her way into the school building, she runs into an interventionist who excitedly shares updates about childrens’ progress on learning goals. Right before a meeting, she finally connects with the parent of a student she’s been trying to reach, uncovering changes to family dynamics that prompt her to make referrals to resources in the community.

Throughout the day, Hoggatt meets with instructional and administrative staff to review child assessment data to make sure children are on track and reports to the county and state are being submitted on time. These meetings, our interview being no exception, are interrupted by students eager to celebrate reaching a learning goal and wanting to pick something out of the treasure box that sits in her office.

This small glimpse of Hoggatt’s day reveals the wide range of skills school leaders like her have, from holding information about what’s happening with individual children, families, and staff to keeping track of program regulations and requirements. It also shows the many ways data is used in this role.

The knowledge and skills to do this job well can be built over time as individuals work their way from a classroom teacher position to administrative leader role. A crucial component, says Hoggatt, is setting up strong data-driven processes to gather data, reflect on it, and celebrate or problem solve how to move forward.

Data helps leaders like Hoggatt understand if students are learning. This requires training teachers to administer assessments and making sure they feel supported and prepared to teach. Reviewing student progress on a regular basis helps uncover additional professional development or coaching that is needed to reinforce particular learning objectives or developmentally appropriate teaching strategies. It could also reveal a students’ need for more individualized instruction or further evaluation for early intervention services.

Data also helps ensure safety and quality, which involves establishing routines and procedures, complying with building and fire codes, making sure staff meet the necessary qualifications and professional development hours, and following recommended adult-to-child ratios.

These requirements help maintain a certain level of quality across all pre-K programs and are often tied to local, state, or federal funds. They also make sure programs are serving the population they are intended to serve and being responsive to the needs of children and families.

Different programs have different capacities and resources to hire additional staff to implement data-driven processes and manage data reporting requirements. Programs like the one Hoggatt manages were fortunate to have access to Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds to hire additional instructional coaches who act as substitutes when a teacher is absent, minimizing disruptions to the data collection process. In other pre-K settings, it can be just the center director alone managing all of these responsibilities.

What is consistent, though, across all programs is the major role teachers have in collecting this information. At times, data that’s used for compliance can differ from data that the program leader deems helpful for continuous quality improvement, resulting in a variety of different assessments and data that teachers are responsible for administering and collecting. This can sometimes place strain on the relationship between the program leader and teacher because it takes time away from actual teaching.

That’s why program leaders I interviewed noted how important it is to explain the purpose and use of each type of data and that it can, in fact, be developmentally appropriate to get a very concrete piece of information about where the child is or what progress they made or didn’t make and connect it to strategies that are being used in the classroom.

In his role as CEO at Kidango, a large network of early childhood education centers in California, Scott Moore notes the importance of emphasizing that data is meant to be “used as a flashlight, not a hammer.” Moreover, he says, it goes a long way to acknowledge what else is being asked of teachers before adding something new to their plate.

Creating a data culture in pre-K takes time. Introducing assessments into play-based classrooms can at first feel counterintuitive, but it is a disservice to children and families to not have an early learning experience that is informed by data. Adequate training and support with data systems and data collection can make the whole process feel less daunting. And, as Anika Bugarin-Jebejian, VP of Quality Improvement at Kidango, summarized, helping teachers see that data is just the starting point for making a plan for what they will stop doing, keep doing, and start doing.

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