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Preschool Matters Today

Extracting Success in Pre-K Teaching


April 30, 2018
Abbie Lieberman
New America

This post re-published with permission from New America.

High-quality teachers are an essential component of an effective pre-K program. After all, young children’s learning depends on the quality of interactions they have and the relationships they form with adults. While there is much debate in the early education field right now about teacher qualifications and preparation requirements, there has been less discussion on the importance of ongoing in-service professional learning for pre-K teachers. When designed and implemented well, professional learning can help pre-K teachers develop the knowledge and competencies needed to best serve their young students. But what constitutes high-quality professional learning?

Our new report, Extracting Success in Pre-K Teaching: Approaches to Effective Professional Learning Across Five States, identifies the following components associated with effective professional learning based on the research:

  • Ongoing
  • Reflective Practice
  • Classroom-Focused
  • Job-Embedded
  • Educator Buy-In
  • Data-Driven
  • Continuous Improvement
  • In-Classroom Coaching
  • Collaborative
  • Scalable

Unfortunately, with varying requirements, limited capacity, and often insufficient funding, this caliber of professional learning can be difficult for pre-K teachers to come by.

Shayna Cook, Sarah Jackson, and I profile five promising in-service programs that are incorporating most, if not all, of these aspects of high-quality professional learning. We visited Passaic, New Jersey, where SciMath-DLL is strengthening pre-K teachers’ STEM instruction, with a focus on serving the community’s high dual language learner population. In Illinois, we saw how the Erikson Institute is empowering pre-K through third grade teachers in the Archdiocese of Chicago to incorporate technology into their classrooms. In Nashville, Tennessee, we met with researchers from Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute and district pre-K coaches who are together using teacher and student data to tailor professional learning to individual teachers’ needs. In San Jose, California we heard from leaders and teachers about how Franklin-McKinley School District is responding to teachers’ requests for help managing challenging classroom behavior. And in Texas, we learned about a literacy program that has been scaled to reach pre-K teachers across the state working in various settings.

Each program covers different content, though all is specific to early educators. Some of the professional learning is offered in the evenings or on weekends, others during paid planning time, and some online. While all incorporate aspects of quality, such as being ongoing, encouraging reflective practice, and providing coaching, their program designs are unique to fit the needs of their community. Our profiles illustrate that high-quality professional learning is not one-size-fits-all.

Like most policies and programs, success rests in the implementation. And having teachers and leaders who are invested in the professional learning program helps ensure successful implementation. Teachers who have agency in their professional learning –whether that be in helping to design the program, choosing to participate, or being offered leadership opportunities– are often more responsive and willing to change their practice. When leaders (school principals or center directors) are invested in the program they can support teacher growth and development accordingly.

More states and local school districts should invest in professional learning that is of the intensity and quality necessary to move the needle on how pre-K teachers interact with their students. But policymakers should keep in mind that teacher practice will not change over night, and changes in student outcomes may take even longer to see. Adequate funding is needed, especially to cover staffing costs, like coaches or part-time teachers who can cover a teacher’s classroom while they participate in professional learning during the paid workday. Sufficient funding should also be set aside for evaluation tools. A rigorous evaluation component allows programs to monitor outcomes and tailor components of the program to better serve their community.

Find out more about what high-quality professional learning looks like in these five innovative programs and what lessons they can offer other states and districts in our full report.