State Education Agencies (SEAs) across the country are working to directly impact early childhood teaching and learning in local education agencies (LEAs). To do this, the SEA must rely on local change agents to increase classroom quality across a state. The work presented in this paper set out to build the capacity of educators, teachers and leaders in New Jersey to spearhead change in LEAs with the support of the SEA.
The New Jersey Early Childhood Academy (NJECA) was conducted from 2013 to 2017 as a collaborative effort of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), The Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO), and the New Jersey Department of Education Division of Early Childhood Education and Family Engagement (NJDOE). This paper describes the rationale and theory of change, identifies the impact on the SEA and LEAs, lessons learned, and concludes with next steps for the SEA.
NJECA is a focused community of practice for district teams of administrators and early childhood teachers to learn and share best practices in implementing state policy reforms. Research-practice partnerships have been defined as “long-term collaborations between researchers and practitioners…which are organized to investigate problems of practice and generate solutions for improving district outcomes.”[i] In more formal terms, this partnership could be seen as a “Networked Improvement Community” as it involves “a network of districts that seek to leverage diverse experiences in multiple settings to advance understandings about what works where, when and under what conditions…to address a problem common to many different communities.”
The NJECA commenced in 2013 and a first-year report was produced in 2014. “Professional Learning Academy: Supporting District Implementation of Early Childhood Policy” documents the structure of the professional development with districts and reports initial outcomes. The report noted impacts on:
- relationships (within and across LEAs),
- knowledge and understanding of key SEA policies that LEAs were expected to implement (e.g. teacher evaluation, early childhood education standards), and
- stronger understanding of quality and how to use data to inform practice and policy.
In the most recent year of implementation, 2016-2017, the NJECA became an integral part of the comprehensive work the SEA is implementing through their federally funded Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant (RTT-ELC). This was accomplished with a focus on improving the quality of kindergarten through third grade through research and professional learning as part of a continuous improvement cycle.
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