A Working Theory of Action for P-3 Community Partnerships

Over half of the children in American public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. 34% of American families, and 44% of all children, live in low-income households. We have a clearer understanding than ever of the challenges that confront low-income families and their children, challenges that lead to persistent achievement gaps and a pernicious cycle: Inequality leads to achievement gaps, which in turn exacerbate inequality.

Over the last 10 years, research, policy, and expert opinion have converged to form a two-part conviction. First, addressing achievement gaps requires an intensive focus on the first 8-9 years of life, beginning with prenatal care and continuing with high-quality supports through third grade. Second, the focus of care and education across the entire prenatal through third grade continuum (P-3) needs to be holistic in nature. The challenge is to improve the teaching and learning of cognitive, linguistic, and academic skills while deepening physical and mental health supports as well as social-emotional learning and character development.

Quality Within, Continuity Across

This two-part conviction is leading to exciting developments and crucial investments in preschool and P-3 alignment. In order for early childhood education and early elementary school to be most effective, however, communities need to address two fundamental obstacles. Investments in early childhood and early elementary education and care will only pay off if the services they support are (1) of high quality and (2) provide high levels of continuity across through the P-3 continuum. Yet, the quality of both early childhood and early elementary education is highly inconsistent, and the mixed delivery system is characterized by a high degree of fragmentation.

Addressing these twin obstacles–inconsistent quality within organizations and fragmentation across organizations–requires a collective response on the part of communities, efforts that require state and federal support as well. Communities need to develop the capacity to raise the quality of education and care in the various community-based organizations and public elementary schools that serve young children and their families in their locale; they further need to create meaningful linkages that align and coordinate the work of these organizations. Developing this capacity by necessity requires partnerships of schools, community organizations and families focused on quality and continuity, what I call P-3 Community Partnerships.

P-3  Community Partnership Theory of Action

A Working Theory of Action

The graphic above summarizes a theory of action for P-3 Community Partnerships. This theory of action illustrates how P-3 Partnerships can best support elementary schools, preschools, and other P-3 organizations in improving outcomes for children and families. This model builds on and complements the Framework for Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating PreK-3rd Approaches, drawing on our growing knowledge base regarding P-3 partnership efforts, early childhood education and care, school reform, family engagement, and community partnerships.

A theory of action tells a story about how a series of activities are expected to lead to positive outcomes, creating what some have called a “causal story line.” In effect, a theory of action is a hypothesis about activities leading to outcomes that can be tested and improved over time in light of experience.

The P-3 partnership theory of action describes a series of supports for children and families. At the crux of the model, P-3 Partnerships implement a set of strategies to support elementary schools, preschools, and other P-3 organizations in attaining a high level of organizational excellence by mastering a set of organizational competencies, all in service of thriving children and families. Most theories of action take the form of an if-then statement, as in,

  • If P-3 partnerships implement a set of core strategies in support of their member organizations, and
  • if, with this support, P-3 organizations master essential competencies in order to attain high levels of organizational excellence,
  • then children and families will thrive, and children will be prepared to reach their potential.

Distinctive Features. As the principles described below make clear, the P-3 theory of action places significant weight on several distinctive features. It is explicitly organizational in nature in that P-3 Partnerships focus on building the capacity of elementary schools, preschools, and other early childhood organizations around multiple facets of organizational excellence. Further, the theory prioritizes both the vertical alignment of services as children develop from infants and toddlers to preschoolers to elementary school students as well as the horizontal alignment of wrap-around services at each stage of development.

Finally, the P-3 theory of action is fundamentally place-based in that it directs P-3 Partnerships to improve quality and alignment within defined geographic areas so that neighborhoods and communities can benefit from a concentration of mutually-reinforcing programs, services, and relationships. It therefore makes sense for P-3 Partnerships to link to broader place-based ‘Cradle-to-Career’ and community development initiatives in communities where these collaborative structures exist. The implications of these distinctive features are discussed further in the principles below.

The intent of the theory of action is to provide guidance for P-3 Partnerships as they design and adjust their strategies. It also provides a structure for collective learning–both within and across communities–about how best to implement these strategies. Embedded in the theory of action are seven underlying principles that help guide the work of P-3 Community Partnerships.

7 Principles of Effective P-3 Community Partnerships

  1. Implement Whole Child Development Systematically

American educators have long valued whole child approaches that encompass physical and mental health, social-emotional learning and character development, and cognitive, linguistic, and academic learning. These commitments have increased significantly in recent years among policymakers and practitioners in response to mounting research findings. Yet typically health and mental health and social-emotional learning have not been integrated into the core work of educational systems, and thus implementation has been overwhelmingly superficial and fragmented. A central overarching objective of P-3 Community Partnerships is to support elementary schools, preschools, and other P-3 organizations in continuing to improve cognitive and academic learning while also deepening work around physical and mental health, social-emotional learning, and character development.

  1. Build Organizational Excellence through Essential Competencies

The clear implication of the importance of whole child development is that preschools, elementary schools and other P-3 providers need to master several distinct, yet mutually-reinforcing essential competencies. A seminal study of elementary schools in Chicago found that the schools that were highly successful with low-income children had mastered, as organizations, a number of essential competencies that include teaching and learning supports, family engagement, and community connections. In fact, only schools that successfully implemented all of these dimensions of education and care were successful—hence the term “essential.” Research on quality in early childhood education supports these findings as well. The theory of change for P-3 Community Partnerships draws on these studies to suggest that the central objective of P-3 partnerships is to build the capacity of P-3 organizations to master the five organizational competencies outlined below, competencies that can serve as a common focus and a common language for collective, community-wide capacity-building.

  • Best Practice Guidance Systems. Well-defined approaches, communicated through coherent sets of guidance documents, to carrying out an organization’s work at high levels of quality. In preschools and elementary schools, these systems comprise high-quality curricula, formative assessments, effective instructional strategies, and continuous improvement through effective use of data.
  • Professional Capacity. The capacity of P-3 organizations to recruit and retain high-quality staff and to deploy them effectively through ongoing professional development and staff collaboration on continuous improvement.
  • Student-Centered Learning Climate and Environment. Physical environments and organizational cultures and climates that promote student-centered learning.
  • Family Partnerships, Support, and Social Ties. Partnerships with families that encourage voice and input and engagement in child learning and development and that include parenting support and the cultivation of positive social ties.
  • Community Connections and Aligned Services. Coordination across schools, preschools, and community-based social service agencies that supports continuity and comprehensiveness in the services that children and families experience; and positive relationships between educational institutions and the communities in which they are located.
  1. Improve Quality and Continuity through Core Partnership Strategies

P-3 Community Partnerships can support their member organizations in mastering these essential competencies–and thus improving quality and continuity–by performing several core partnership strategies:

  • Collaborative Quality Improvement. Bringing early childhood and early elementary educators together for joint professional learning and establishing communities of practice for home visiting professionals and family childcare providers.
  • Alignment and Transitions. Aligning standards, curriculum, assessments, and teaching practices vertically across the P-3 continuum and smoothing the transitions that children and families experience.
  • Comprehensive Wrap-Around Services. Coordinating relationships between preschools and elementary schools, on the one hand, and health and social service agencies on the other in order to provide after-school and summer programming and medical, dental, and mental health supports to children and families, among other services.
  • Community Outreach and Family Supports. Sponsoring public awareness activities, such as literacy campaigns, and opportunities for families to connect to programs, resources, and peers.

These core strategies bring together vertical focus characteristic of P-3 Alignment Initiatives and the horizontal connections between education and health and social services that is emblematic of community schools and other integrated service support models. While often implemented in isolation from each other, the P-3 Community Partnership theory of action suggests that these strategies are fundamentally complementary and should be implemented in a coordinated fashion, and when possible, overseen by one partnership entity.

  1. Connect Families, Build Trust

P-3 Community Partnerships can raise the impact of the work of their member organizations by explicitly building strategies to develop positive social ties for low-income families into their plans. Research has demonstrated that positive social ties and social trust benefits both parents and children, yet low-income families are disproportionately likely to be socially-isolated and live in neighborhoods characterized by low levels of social trust. Research shows that preschools and elementary schools are well-positioned to connect families in positive ways, both to other families for social support as well as to broader social networks and social service opportunities.

Supporting P-3 Community Partnerships
  1. Link P-3 and Place-Based, Cradle-to-Career Initiatives

P-3 Community Partnerships are part of a broader trend towards community partnerships that bring together education and social services agencies in concerted efforts to produce measurable outcomes in defined geographic areas through a coherent mix of comprehensive strategies. These initiatives have been inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone and similar initiatives and, importantly, represent a “moving-beyond” the false dichotomy between within-school, “no-excuses” education reform proponents and “outside-of-school” advocates who look towards broader social and economic solutions. Many of these partnerships are broader than P-3 Partnerships and span the entire age range from before birth through college and career. These “Cradle-to-Career” initiatives often draw on the Collective Impact methodology, which emphasizes shared measures to guide “mutually-reinforcing activities” across partners in service towards a common vision. Further, motivated by a similar impulse towards comprehensiveness, community development organizations are increasingly looking to combine investments in early childhood and school reform with place-based initiatives that include housing, economic development and workforce development initiatives as well.

Improving early childhood and elementary school education is central to all of these broader “community revitalization” efforts, leading to a two-fold opportunity. Communities that have developed cradle-to-career and related place-based initiatives can draw on the growing knowledge base on P-3 improvement and include P-3 Community Partnerships as central components of their work. Conversely, P-3 Community Partnerships can both benefit from and support broader place-based initiatives, and in doing so, contribute to more encompassing initiatives that provide crucial supports beyond third grade and that link to complementary initiatives involving housing and economic and workforce development.

Place-based cradle-to-career initiatives do not exist in all communities (hence the dotted lines in graphic below), but where they do, they can work hand-in-hand with P-3 Partnerships.

  1. Build Knowledge and Capacity across Communities

Supporting P-3 organizations in mastering the essential competencies through the four core functions of P-3 Partnerships has great potential. Yet in order to build the capacity to play this critical role, communities will need support from states, funders, and networks of communities. P-3 state policies regarding standards, formative assessments, leadership development, and workforce development are crucial supports for effective P-3 practice in the field, as are targeted grant programs to support local P-3 capacity. (See Building State P-3 Systems: Learning from Leading States and this related post at Preschools Matter Today.)

Further, ambitious cross-sector initiatives have much greater chances of success if they are supported in developing leadership and organizational capacity and if they are able to access practical knowledge about strategy, program implementation, and available resources. Internationally, many countries and provinces have had significant success supporting education reform through regional and state networks, and a number of states in the U.S. have developed innovative support systems for P-3 in particular.

  1. Practice Strategic Leadership and Data-Driven Continuous Improvement

Leadership and continuous improvement are integral to P-3 improvement at every stage of the theory of change. The Chicago study of effective elementary schools serving low-income students found that leadership acted as the driver of all the essential organizational competencies successful schools developed, a finding that is consistent with research on early childhood organizations as well. Leadership is equally critical at the partnership, community, and state levels. At all of these levels, leaders will be aided in building the capacities specified in the theory of change by developing focused strategic plans and using data to monitor progress regularly, adjust strategies, solve problems, and improve coordination.

 An Emerging Boundary-Spanning Consensus

Integral to the P-3 Community Partnership theory of action are three priorities that have long attracted support from both liberal and conservative thinkers, policy-makers and practitioners:

  • Integrating social-emotional learning and character development into the broader aims of education
  • Supporting and strengthening families
  • Building strong neighborhoods and communities

The research on these priorities, both on their importance and the implications for implementation, has grown immeasurably over the past decade or so. Taken together with the current interest in early childhood and early elementary education, the emerging consensus on these priorities presents an opportunity to develop broader political support for P-3 initiatives even within the current polarized political environment.

As I mentioned above, the theory of action is a work in progress. I will be developing this line of thought in a series of posts and/or papers over the coming months. I invite your feedback in the comments section of this blog.


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