Top concerns about Common Core State Standards in early childhood education

March 26, 2015

There’s been lots of discussion about the Common Core State Standards recently, and their impact on classroom activity and child outcomes. Common Core is a major policy initiative to reform K-12 classroom practices, raise expectations and implement a new generation of assessments (at least in grades 3 and up), so it has major implications for Kindergarten-3rd grade (and early childhood education) teachers, children, and parents. It must be examined critically and debated. As we know, even if the policy is sound, implementation matters.

children in classA recurring concern is that the Common Core State Standards were developed from the top-down (setting standards for 12th graders first, and then working backwards to set expectations for the lower grades, failing to take sufficient account of research-based learning progressions for children from birth-age 5. A related issue: Some feel there was insufficient involvement of early childhood research experts in language, literacy, mathematics, and child development in the standards development process.

Over the next few weeks, we plan to have experts comment on the top concerns and issues we’ve heard about CCSS.

  • Rigorous standards may lead to reduced play and rich activity in preschool and Kindergarten classrooms.
  • Literacy instruction may become limited to a few texts and drill-and-kill teaching.
  • The standards are complex and extensive, and there is little guidance for teachers to implement them in Kindergarten classrooms.
  • Parents don’t understand the CCSS and are concerned about what they mean for their children.
  • The Kindergarten standards for literacy are not appropriate for children that age.
  • Assessment related to reaching standards will not be developmentally appropriate, and results may be misused.
  • Alignment with K-12 standards will mean teaching methods, subjects, and assessments that are not developmentally appropriate will be pushed down to preschool levels.
  • Math standards will be too challenging for young children.

We welcome your participation as well. Please comment and weigh in on the concerns and our experts’ responses.


Developing P-3 Guidelines in New Jersey: Collaboration and Communication

March 24, 2015

The Center for Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes is committed to building the capacity of state early education administrators to advance the state’s goals for children. This year CEELO is focusing specifically on the theme, Leading for Excellence in Early Childhood Education. 

As part of an ongoing series of interviews with leaders in early childhood education, CEELO spoke with Vincent CostanzaExecutive Director, Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge at the New Jersey Department of Education, about the process of developing guidelines for Preschool-to-Grade 3 program implementation and best practice in New Jersey. They will provide guidance to school districts, private providers, and local Head Start agencies on planning and implementing high-quality programs for children, with alignment through the early elementary grades, and with NJ Teaching and Learning Standards.

Can you briefly discuss the P-3 guidelines and the timeline for developing them in NJ?

Initially the Division of Early Childhood was very focused on the implementation of Abbott preschool—that was the charge of the office. We developed preschool guidelines, and they were fantastic and outlined best practices in the preschool world.

But around 2011 there was some discussion that there was nothing like the preschool guidelines for Kindergarten, so we developed them then. Ironically, the same discussion came up and people said we don’t have them for first to third grade either—and there were not great examples around the country. With the award of the Early Learning Challenge Grant, we leveraged the funds to develop first-to-third-grade guidelines.

How are the guidelines a part of the larger P-3 systems building picture, and how has the process developed?

Yearbook set 6

We have a partnership with NIEER and with the Rutgers GSE, and we have a draft of guidelines already. Year 1 of the grant was mostly about entering an MOU with higher education groups to draft the guidelines, and identifying partners.

We didn’t have the personnel in the office to do the work in a timely fashion.

Now the guidelines are out for expert review, and being reviewed by focus groups throughout the state.

What role has the state played in leading implementation of the guidelines?

The state has distributed the draft guidelines to practitioners; teachers from first to third grade; and administrators, for review and feedback on the usability of the guidelines. We want something that say the things that need to be said and aren’t currently being said; that conceptualize academic rigor and developmentally appropriate practice and show what it would look like. It’s not like the 1st thru 3rd grade guidelines could be 300 pages (triple the size of the K guidelines, because there are three grades), because people wouldn’t read them.

The review process will go through the remainder of the [school] year and be finalized in September.

What kinds of meetings, tools, technology, have been provided for districts, school, and teachers working on or with the guidelines?

There will be workshop modules, and training. The guidelines will be available on the website; and there is a communications plan around that. The DOE, and contacts at NIEER and the Rutgers GSE have put out applications to get on the presentation circuit.

There have been a lot of requests to see the guidelines from the State specialist listserv as well. People want to do this in other states and see how we are approaching it.

Has there been any work on K-12 Alignment?

We’re not really working on 3+ alignment yet. There are governance issues: people are talking about Birth-to-8 systems, but the reality is there haven’t been that many people who have been involved in it. Teachers and administrators in early education struggle with teacher evaluation and growth objectives, for example.

We’re now working with the teacher evaluation office, in a collaborative effort, working together to put together good examples. The evaluation office has been great. We have been aware of needing to collaborate, to know the right people, on the right issues. You have to really be focused on the issues that the field is struggling with. The teacher evaluation struggles have motivated us to have answers in these areas, and in order to have answers we have to work collaboratively within the DOE. We’re doing the same in the areas of social-emotional learning, as the department considers how to development K-12 supports in this area.

How are districts and teachers supporting the work?

For the teachers and districts: working with NIEER and the Rutgers GSE has helped to legitimize the work. People at the Department don’t know everything there is to know; so it adds a lot of legitimacy to work with higher ed.

Even before the Early Learning Challenge funds we had a guidelines work group: 50 educators, superintendents, first-grade teachers, people in higher education. They helped to put together a draft outline of what to include, what they need to hear.

Teachers and districts have been very receptive and interested. The focus groups want more state involvement. They appreciate the supports, concrete examples, expertise. They want to keep doing more of what they’re doing. Not only is the field supportive, they want much more engagement. Therefore we do need people who are in the bus and foot on the pedal to get the work done.

Teachers and administrators are excited about it too.

Has the Early Childhood Academy been involved in this project at all? If so, can you discuss how?

The Early Learning Academy participants (5 New Jersey districts engaged in leadership development activities)—have received copies of the guidelines. We’ve solicited feedback and comments; some have provided feedback. In April, Sharon Ritchie will be presenting; there is lots of correlation, so it will be a topic.

What advice would you give to other states wanting to implement this kind of project?

Looking outside of the department has been a very important aspect for us; for legitimizing the work, and getting it done in a timely fashion. For Kindergarten this took 18 months; for this draft, the focus groups, and expert review have happened within 6 months. Get some friends.

Really appreciate the issue of having people that are just going to own it. I’m not making an argument for silos, but there are times when maybe we over-learn it, and some compartmentalization may be good, devoting someones’s full attention to it.

Involve stakeholders. What’s different about the early childhood guidelines is to reach stakeholders and really involve them. Year 1 of the Kindergarten Entry Assessment is another example; we have people who can’t wait to sign on to them.

Can states move forward effectively on this without the kind of funding you have with the challenge grant?

We were set to move forward with this before we got the grant. It’s hard to imagine the quality and timeliness would be the same.

How has CEELO (if at all) been involved in developing/enhancing this work?

CEELO has been involved through the extension of the Academy, which they support , and with things like the teacher evaluation brief, our first-third grade guidelines, helping to put the issues on the radar that need to be in early elementary guidelines.

Are there any other resources you would like to highlight for your state or other states?

No other resources in early elementary, but our teacher evaluation document, developed in early childhood, has been timely as far as ‘here’s the issue people are dealing with.’

Also the KEA work; the work of first-third-grade guidelines will be informed with approaches we have going on with KEA. Nationally it’s talked about as if K has a monopoly on talking about children are doing at the beginning of the year, but that could expand to second and third grade as well.

–Kirsty Clarke Brown, NIEER & CEELO, Research and Policy Advisor


Time well spent: Principals as early learning community leaders

March 11, 2015

Former principal Sue Maguire from Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington, Vermont, told her teachers she expected only two things of them–excellent teaching and a welcoming school environment. With these expectations and the recognition that kindergarten was too late for some children, this leader reached beyond the school walls to embrace early childhood.

Yet a recent CEELO report showed that she may have been an exception, with many principals underprepared to tackle the complexities inherent in the P–3rd grade realm, where transitions for children from home, to pre-K, to elementary school, may feel more like chasms than bridges. Few administrator preparation programs or certification requirements include early education coursework or field experience, and administrators quickly realize that 4-year-olds approach learning quite differently from 4th graders. Preschool classrooms look dramatically different from a typical elementary arrangement (as well they should), and effective pre-K teaching strategies may be unrecognizable in the primary grades. For elementary principals to be key instructional leaders in their buildings and communities, which increasingly include pre-K, their responsibilities of supervision, coaching, and evaluation must incorporate a broader understanding of how young children learn, teachers of young children teach, and collaborative relationships across settings develop.

Addressed in a recent webinar “Supporting Principal Leadership for P–3rd Grade Learning Communities” sponsored by CEELO, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, the critical role of principal continues to be redefined. More than 600 principals, administrators, and early education leaders from almost every state and the District of Columbia registered, signaling the pivotal role played by principals to ensure greater continuity across what have been traditionally separate birth-five and K-12 systems. In what has become a “don’t wait until it’s too late” stance toward education, the importance of the early years has become everyone’s business.

While the role of principal remains demanding in every sense, a sigh of relief can be heard as principals realize there is a broad base of support available for them. High quality early education may already be happening throughout their communities in Head Start, child care, and children’s homes; it’s a matter of developing partnerships with these programs rather than starting from scratch. In addition to NAESP’s Leading Pre-K – 3 Learning Communities: Competencies for Effective Principal Practice and Kauerz & Coffman’s Framework for Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating PreK-3rd Grade Approaches, resources are plentiful, from the PreK–3rd Grade National Work Group, Foundation for Child Development, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and others. States such as Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, and Pennsylvania are providing leadership to support principals as P-3 leaders through conferences and institutes, influenced by programs such as the University of Washington Certificate in P–3 Executive Leadership and the National Institute for School Leadership.

As challenging as the role of principal is, they have a front row seat when it comes to witnessing the fruits of their labor by embracing a P-3rd grade approach. Principals have the opportunity to look beyond school report cards to watch the joy of learning each day. And when the time comes to send the children off to the next level of education and life, they can rest assured that their time has been very well spent.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, National Institute for Early Education Research and Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes


Spring peepers and the war on Pre-K for All

February 27, 2015

In the past week I have seen many more attacks directed against Pre-K for All than I have in some time. This signals the start of the state budget season as surely as drumming woodpeckers and noisy peepers signal the arrival of spring. What I find surprising is how many preschool policy peepers promote misinformation based on research that is flawed or simply misused. story time 4

Good government requires good information, and that seems to be in short supply this budget season. Generally, the peepers protest that if everyone gets good preschool, achievement gaps will widen and public money will be wasted, because children from middle-income families do not benefit from preschool. I don’t know which is worse, the obvious logical contradiction or that the studies they cite to support these claims either include only children in poverty or find exactly the opposite–that children from middle-income families gain from high-quality pre-K though usually not as much as children in poverty. New York City in particular has suffered a sudden onslaught of misinformation that coincided with the Mayor’s budget presentation in Albany.

The Mayor’s new budget was greeted with accusations from a just-released report that the first year of the Pre-K for All expansion tilted the playing field in favor of children in wealthy neighborhoods. That claim is patently false. Nearly two-thirds of free, full-day Pre-K for All seats are in neighborhoods below the City’s median income. In just one year of Pre-K for All, New York City increased provision of pre-K seats in neighborhoods in the two lowest-income quintiles to 2.5 times the previous level. In other words, the Mayor’s initiative added more new places for children in low-income communities in one year than New York City had managed to add in the entire previous decade. The straight-up facts: Pre-K for all added 20,500 pre-K places in lower-income zip codes; 6,200 pre-K places in neighborhoods around the median; and another 6,800 in higher-income zip codes.

The same report put forward a survey as evidence that new Pre-K for All seats often just replaced existing places in preschools that did not receive Pre-K for All funds, through “wasteful competition.” Competition that increases choice and raises the bar for quality across early care and education in NYC is hardly wasteful. However, the survey provides no basis for any firm conclusions. Of the 264 providers who did not receive Pre-K for All funds contacted for the survey, less than 40 percent responded. The responses that were obtained appear to be “guesstimates,” rather than data from records, and counted programs as losing seats even when they had waiting lists from which to draw “replacements.” Extrapolation from these questionable figures to “lost seats” just doesn’t make sense.

More troubling than these manufactured problems with Pre-K for All is the proposed solution: to restrict publicly funded pre-K based on family income. This would paradoxically entrench disparities in early learning in the City. Whether or not one believes that every child deserves the option to attend a free, high-quality, full-day pre-K, who believes that separate means equal? Separate is not equal, it’s disparate.

Pre-K is a time for children to explore, create, learn, and socialize with other children and adults, as they build a foundation of skills and knowledge needed for school and life. Exposure to peers from different socioeconomic backgrounds is valuable to a child’s development, and to restrict pre-K access based on income undermines the goal of a fair and equitable education system that reflects the diversity of our cities, states, and nation.

Mayor de Blasio has led a historic expansion of pre-K in New York City, and has made it clear that he believes every 4-year-old, in every neighborhood, deserves to attend free, full-day, high-quality, pre-K. I agree. Others may have values that lead them to different conclusions, but everyone should be informed by accurate information. The orchestrated disinformation campaign to sow dissension, curtail funding, and damage the reputation of an effort that has not completed its first year, indicates that policy makers in New York and elsewhere will need to invest in good evaluations, not just to inform continuous improvement, but also policy making more generally. With a rigorous evaluation planned from the start, New York City results could inform policy decisions in other cities and states around the country. This does not mean a rush to judgment regarding impacts on children in year 1. As Don Campbell advised, summative evaluation of ultimate impacts should wait until a program is “proud.” We should evaluate progress along the way, however. New York City seems to have cleared the first hurdle with room to spare, the preschool peepers’ protests notwithstanding.

–Steve Barnett, Director


Young immigrants and dual language learners: Participation in pre-K and Kindergarten entry gaps

February 18, 2015

In a recent webinar, NIEER discussed what it means to be Hispanic and a DLL (a dual language learner) or Hispanic and come from a home with immigrant parents. We showed that Hispanic children, DLLs, and children with an immigrant background have lower rates of participation in center-based care (including Head Start) pre-K programs than White non-Hispanic children. We considered the impacts on enrollment of home language and of varied immigrant backgrounds, which make this group quite heterogeneous. We found that enrollment rates do show that while non-DLL Hispanics and Native Hispanics had enrollment rates above 60 percent, much like White children, about 45-50 percent of DLLs and Immigrant background Hispanics were enrolled in center-based care.

Pre-K participation of Hispanics in center-based care

That is, only one in two DLL Hispanics or Immigrant Hispanics attend a center-based program. This suggests that aspects of language and immigration status are likely defining why children participate.

We then wondered about similarities between these enrollment patterns and kindergarten entry gaps. Using Whites as the group of reference, it turns out that Hispanic DLLs and Hispanic immigrant children have very large performance gaps in reading, math, and language. These two groups pretty much drive the overall Hispanic gaps observed at kindergarten. What about Hispanic children who are both DLL and of immigrant background? Hispanic DLL children from an immigrant background show very large performance gaps, unlike Native-born English-speaking Hispanics, who fare quite well relative to Whites. It appears we are failing this group.

Kindergarten gaps for Hispanic students, math, reading, and language

Patterns are somewhat different when we look at socio-emotional developmental gaps. These do not resemble those for reading, math, and language. On the contrary, while most Hispanics differ little from Whites in terms of approaches to learning, self-control, or problems with externalizing and internalizing behaviors , Hispanic DLL children who are Native-born show large gaps across all of these domains except for internalizing behaviors.

Kindergarten gaps for Hispanic children, social-emotional skills

Putting this all together, clearly policy makers should focus on increasing access, outreach, and participation in high-quality early education for any and all Hispanic children, but especially for Hispanic DLL children and children whose parents are immigrants. Moeover, policy makers and practitioners both should recognize how diverse Hispanics are as a group, and how the needs of DLL Hispanic children differ depending on their family histories .

Addressing these issues in early care and education begins with obtaining a better understanding who our children are and who are we serving (and not serving), including:

  • screening language abilities
  • developing guidelines and standards that address the needs of these groups
  • promoting the proliferation of bilingual programs
  • and, planning ways to engage and effectively work with diverse groups of Hispanic children.

How well we do this in the first years of their lives will have important consequences for their developmental pathways and their opportunities, and this will be reflected in the our society 15-20 years from now.

–Milagros Nores, PhD, Associate Director of Research


Will FY2016 be the year for children? Or déjà vu?

February 4, 2015

In January’s State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted several initiatives meant to simplify child care for America families. The White House’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016, released on Monday, provides further insight into the costs and details of these programs as well as additional areas of focus within the early childhood world.

FY2016 budget table

Early childhood education is often referred to as a “patchwork” system in reference to the number of public and private stakeholders–with varying program requirements and goals–who are involved, and the federal budget is no exception. Several departments have larger programs that operate projects in early childhood education. The Department of Education oversees Special Education Preschool Grants and houses the current Preschool Development Grants program, as well as the President’s proposed Preschool for All program. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also collaborates on the Preschool Development Grants program. HHS oversees Head Start, child care, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV). The President has also proposed expanding the current tax benefits for families paying for child care–a complex change to tax policy which would not be covered by either department as it is not itself a program.

Much of what the White House is proposing in this budget has been seen before. The Preschool for All program is similar to the version proposed in the FY 2014 budget, and the Preschool Development Grants seek to distribute funds to more states than those already awarded grants in FY 2015. A review of budget documents from the Education and HHS departments does reveal some suggested changes:

  • Special Education Preschool Grants would include appropriations language that would allow LEAs to expand the age range of eligible children to include children ages 3 through 5, as well as requesting a waiver of some reporting requirements for LEAs that exercise this flexibility.
  • Head Start requested an additional $1.1 billion to expand service to full-day and school-year calendars. There is also $150 million for Early Head Start and EHS-Child Care partnerships as well as $284 to help existing programs offset rising costs.
  • Child Care: In the requested increase, there is a proposed $266 million to implement the reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant Act. There’s also a requested $100 million for Child Care Pilots for Working Families, which would test and evaluate models for working families, including those who work nontraditional hours. The administration has also introduced a 10-year, $82 billion plan for mandatory funding for the Child Care and Development Fund, to ensure that all low-income working families with children ages three or younger have access to quality, affordable child care.
  • An expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) up to $3,000 per child would triple the maximum credit for families with children under age five and makes the full CDCTC available to families with incomes of up to $120,000. While this credit is largely discussed as a way to help parents pay for the care of their young children, it can also be used for older children and dependents who are elderly or have disabilities.

The Obama administration has touted this budget as crucial to progress for the middle class. These proposals focused on the early years on life would fill major gaps in service for many of America’s children–children in low-income families who do not have quality care while their parents work; children whose families feel the “middle class squeeze” and could greatly benefit from the increased CDCTC; children with special needs for whom quality early intervention services can make a world of difference. However, two essential questions should be asked about each element of the proposal. First, is it designed in such a way that it will significantly improve the quality of children’s early educational experiences? Much of the potential benefit to children and society depends on the answer. Second, what is the potential for passage?  Without support across the aisle, as well as at the state level, these proposals will remain just proposals. Recent experience suggests that, at least for education, proposals designed to help every child will be better received than those that exclude the families expected to pay for them.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator


Healthy preschool habits can last a lifetime

January 30, 2015

By the end of January, gyms are slowly becoming less crowded, as many adults give up on their resolutions to lose weight or get in shape. But a healthy weight and staying active remain important for all ages throughout the year. January 30 is National Preschool Health and Fitness Day, underscoring the importance of beginning healthy habits early in life.

Child obesity remains a daunting problem in American society, as it can set children up for health problems beginning in early childhood. Data from the Centers for Disease Control in 2013 reported that 1 in 8 preschoolers was obese, and that children who were obese or overweight in preschool were five times more likely than normal-weight peers to grow into obese or overweight adults. A recent limited study of 44,000 preschool-aged children found that overweight and obese children in Head Start were more likely than children not enrolled to slim down. The study also found that children entering the program who were underweight were more likely to reach a healthy body weight during the program year. Because of how the study was structured– instead of having a control group, the Head Start children were compared both to children in low-income families receiving Medicaid, as well as to higher-income families with private insurance. This study does not pinpoint a specific reason why Head Start is effective in helping children reach a healthy weight, but it does add to a growing body of literature on the important role early childhood education plays in health and fitness.

Early childhood education programs can play an important role in providing families with resources and information to support healthy habits. Based on data from the 2012-2013 school year, state-funded pre-K programs prioritize screenings for healthy weight among many other aspects of health. About half of state-funded pre-K programs require at the state level that programs screen students height/weight/BMI, with another 43 percent allowing programs to decide locally whether to track this information.

health screenings

In a separate survey question, administrators indicate the 62 percent of programs provide child health services as part of their comprehensive services; 43 programs also reporting providing nutrition information, beyond the offering of healthy meals. These services provide an important opportunity to start a conversation with children and families about healthy habits that can last a lifetime. A NIEER policy brief explores the importance of addressing health in preschool programs as well as the positive impacts such programs can have on children’s long-term health and development.

There has been no shortage of efforts to increase awareness of healthy habits in early childhood education. The First Lady has made fighting childhood obesity a key area of her public profile through the Let’s Move! Campaign. Sesame Street provides resources for families as well as child care and education providers on both how to incorporate exercise into early day life and how to empower children to make healthy food choices.

-Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator


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