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

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?

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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