There is little disagreement over the fact that quality pre-K is an effective means of preparing children for kindergarten. In fact, dozens of studies have been published showing marked improvements in academic and social skills among children who attend pre-K. Disagreements usually arise over how to ensure these initial positive effects persist over time as students leave pre-K, kindergarten, and then continue their academic career.
A recent report published by the Department of Education offers promising examples of programs around the country working to sustain pre-K gains by aligning standards, curriculum, and instructional practices from pre-kindergarten through third grade (referred to as PreK-3rd, or P-3, alignment).
The idea of PreK-3rd alignment is a simple, yet important one - to more likely sustain children’s gains made in pre-K, pre-K should be followed by kindergarten through third grade classrooms that are well-aligned so that each year’s content builds on the previous year’s.
The report examines PreK-3rd alignment efforts underway in five programs across the country: Boston Public Schools, Chicago Child-Parent Centers, Early Works in Portland, FirstSchool in rural North Carolina, and Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) in Redwood City, California (for more schools involved in this type of work, check out this map by the National P-3 Center at the University of Washington). These schools were selected for study due to geographic diversity and their focus on PreK-3rd alignment.
All five programs implementing PreK-3rd alignment efforts shared common approaches to the work. First, all the programs used professional learning communities (PLCs) to deliver professional development to teachers. These PLCs take part in both horizontal and vertical team meetings. In horizontal team meetings teachers of the same grade meet and use the time for co-planning and learning about what’s working in each other's classrooms. Vertical team meetings involve teachers of different grades coming together to ensure that curricula and instructional practices are aligned across grades. For example, pre-K teachers might talk with kindergarten teachers to ensure that they’re building the skills necessary for students to be successful once they enter a kindergarten classroom.
The five efforts also employed an instructional coach to help teachers understand standards and ensure curricula and instruction are aligned between earlier and later grades. The instructional coaches observe teachers in action and then offer constructive feedback on ways to improve. Teachers in the programs reported increased use of data to inform instruction thanks to help from their instructional coach. They also reported feeling more comfortable trying new teaching strategies with support from the coach.
In order to provide continuity for children’s learning across PreK-3rd, all five programs included a strong family engagement component. In fact, some programs indicated that increased parental engagement was the most critical component of PreK-3rd alignment. Schools focused on increasing the frequency of their communication with parents and communicating with parents in the parents’ first language. They emphasized the message that parents play a critical role during the PreK-3rd years as their child’s “first teacher” and worked to help parents feel more comfortable becoming involved in school activities. Teachers in two of the efforts, Early Works and Chicago Child-Parent Centers, conducted visits to the homes of their students in order to meet with parents in a place where they felt more comfortable to talk openly.
Finally, to further the goal of fully aligning the PreK-3rd grades, the programs have focused on “pushing up” elements of pre-K instructional practice, such as student-initiated and play-based learning, into the early elementary grades. By incorporating elements of instruction, such as free-choice centers and dramatic play, that are typically associated with pre-K into K-3rd grade classrooms these efforts help to smooth the transition into later grades that can sometimes be jarring for pre-K students. School staff felt that these practices helped to increase student engagement and led to more child-initiated talk and questions rather than most of the talk coming from the teacher.
The programs all saw positive results after implementing these practices. While a rigorous evaluation, such as a randomized trial, has yet to be performed, school staff observed improvement in students’ language skills, social-emotional development, and attendance, as well as increased levels of parental involvement.
Implementing PreK-3rd reforms did not come without challenges. Staff in all five programs reported difficulties in convincing teachers, especially veteran teachers, to alter their practices in the name of PreK-3rd alignment. The report emphasizes the critical role that training plays in gaining support from staff for a program focused on PreK-3rd alignment. Teachers and other staff members should be told not just how to implement the new strategies but also why.
Another challenge had to do with sustainability of the reforms. All five programs had philanthropic funding from foundations such as the Barr Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to implement the reforms. Since such funding will not continue indefinitely, program staff worried that eventually they would no longer be able to afford key positions, such as instructional coaches, that are critical to the PreK-3rd work. The programs recognized the value of the efforts and planned to look for other sources of funding in the future to keep the PreK-3rd alignment work going.