What We’re Learning  

In last week’s post I showed how the work of Massachusetts’ Birth—3rd partnerships is “spilling over” in unexpected and promising ways due to the creation of new social and institutional relationships. These spillovers illustrate how the new relationships that partnerships create can lead to new strategies and build capacity for ongoing improvement.  These developments are important because they are early evidence of the kinds of change that communities must become adept at in order to be more successful in addressing the intractable challenges of raising the achievement of low-income children. They signal that Birth—3rd partnerships can develop new ideas, new practices, and more effective ways of doing the work of improving early education and care.

The spillovers seen in Massachusetts Birth—3rd partnerships thus far are positive signs of progress that are consistent with the research on social capital and cross-sector collaboration. This research highlights the importance of building local and regional capacity through partnerships and networks in order to improve and innovate—to learn in systematic ways.

As Birth—3rd policy developments continue to gain momentum, and as Birth—3rd community partnerships continue to expand, it makes sense to consider several practical implications regarding the dual objectives of implementing effective strategies, on the one hand, and partnership development, on the other.

Community- and Relationship-Building are Necessary but not Sufficient
The study of Chicago elementary schools I mentioned last week found that jump-starting collaboration can be challenging. Those schools that had achieved high levels of social capital had often begun their work with low-risk collaboration that led to “early wins.” Early action and early wins build initial stores of trust, which partnerships draw on in subsequent projects, which further build trusting relationships in a potentially virtuous circle. Building healthy partnerships and implementing effective strategy are interwoven and mutually-reinforcing.

Work in Massachusetts is beginning to illustrate the dynamics of this kind of virtuous circle in action.  Public schools and community-based preschools in Lowell had a strong relationship through its Early Childhood Advisory Council, which spawned its Birth-3rd Leadership Alignment Team and a neighborhood strategy, which it turn led to a community-wide school readiness agenda. In Boston, community-based preschools were not using a transition form the district had designed. The district and the community-based providers built trust and relationships through the Boston K1DS Directors Group, and then the Directors Group became an important sounding board for Boston’s emerging universal pre-kindergarten initiative.

The idea of early wins highlights the importance of getting work done—accomplishing something. Community-building without action will try people’s patience, as the parking lot conversations after meetings readily attest. Former superintendent Jerry Weast of Montgomery County makes a similar point regarding whether to try to change beliefs first or behaviors first:

I thought I would enter the change process through the culture door and then engage everyone in creating systems and structures that would support the culture. But I couldn’t get traction, so we started to build the systems anyway, and it seemed that the culture started to shift as people saw the changes worked for kids.
–Jerry Weast as quoted in Six Lessons for Pursuing Excellence and Equity at Scale

Attending to the Imbalance of Power Requires Care
A fundamental challenge in building healthy early education collaboratives revolves around the asymmetrical nature of the district—community-based preschool power dynamic. Districts are the large institutional educational players in their communities. Their teaching staffs tend to be more highly paid have higher educational credentials. Further, while the preschool districts offer is only for the length of the school day and does not include summers (in contrast to community-based providers), many if not all of the seats they offer to families are free.

In both Somerville and Springfield, leaders have been sensitive to these power dynamics and have taken care to design collaborations between community-based and district teachers, including cross-site visits and joint professional development that are positive and respectful. In both cases, these on-the-ground collaborations have created banks of good will that are supporting more ambitious collaboration in both communities.

Preschool leaders frequently acknowledge the power imbalance between them and districts. They nonetheless emphasize that they are eager to learn more about district initiatives in the early grades that will impact them, share information about rising kindergartners, participate in shared professional development, and in effect, be included in the larger system. In some cases, however, initial collaboration efforts have foundered when attention to establishing a climate of mutual respect and joint commitment has not been adequate.

Partnerships Need a “Backbone”
Massachusetts’ experience implementing cross-sector Birth—3rd partnerships thus far strongly suggests the need for an organization to assume the role of convener and organizer in order to keep activities moving forward and coordinate and link initiatives across agencies. In Massachusetts, some partnerships are led by districts, some by large community-based preschools or preschool associations, and one by the local United Way (Pittsfield). The well-known Birth—3rd Evaluation and Planning Framework by Kristie Kauerz and Julia Coffman refers to this role as “Resources for Cross-sector Work,” a category that includes governance structures, strategic plans, and blended funding resources. Another resource that is helpful for understanding the role and function of this central convening organization is found in the notion of a backbone organization. Backbone organizational support is one of five conditions that form the Collective Impact Model, a model of community-wide collaboration that is used in several Massachusetts cities and around the country (for more information, see this article and this forum).

The developers of the collective impact model articulate the rationale for backbone organizations saying:

Coordinating large groups in a collective impact initiative takes time and resources, and too often, the expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails.
Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work

They suggest that backbone organizations perform six functions: providing strategic direction, facilitating dialogue, managing data collection and analysis, handling communications, coordinating community outreach, and mobilizing funding.

Based on their experience working with many communities, and echoing the experience of Birth—3rd Partnerships in Massachusetts, the developers of the collective impact model suggest that effectively playing the role of backbone organization requires that organizations avoid leadership approaches that are either too top-down, on the one hand, or too laissez-faire (e.g., purely facilitative) on the other. Partnerships need a deliberate approach to leadership that requires balance and finesse:

Backbone organizations must maintain a delicate balance between the strong leadership needed to keep all parties together and the invisible “behind the scenes” role that lets the other stakeholders own the initiative’s success.
Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work

Birth—3rd Improvement Requires District Early Childhood Capacity
Regardless which organization (or organizations) serves as the backbone organization, it is clear that improving learning and care along the full Birth—3rd continuum, including PreK—3rd in district classrooms, requires that school districts develop sufficient early childhood expertise and capacity. This capacity includes staff who can support district teachers in the early grades and engage with the community-based providers as well.

Jason Sachs, the director of Early Childhood for the Boston Public Schools, emphasizes the critical role that Boston’s substantial early childhood coaching staff has played in supporting the implementation of Boston’s successful prekindergarten model, both in district and community-based classrooms. Likewise, the Lowell Public Schools is known for its strong early childhood program. As in other Birth—3rd Partnerships, Lowell is using state grant funds to expand its early childhood capacity through the extensive use of an additional coach as well as strategic and technical assistance support from a consulting organization, Early Childhood Associates.

In Somerville, political momentum in support of expanded early childhood services has grown in tandem with the on-the-ground work of its Birth—3rd partnership. As the partnership piloted collaborative professional development and coaching activities, the city committed to a universal kindergarten readiness plan. As a result, the district has expanded its professional development and coaching services to community-based providers by hiring a senior Early Childhood Director and an additional coach who will support community-based preschools.

An Important Balance: Strategy with an Eye towards Capacity-Building
We have seen in Massachusetts early evidence of better relationships, more trust, changing culture, and unplanned and even innovative strategies. These developments in Massachusetts are in line with the educational experience of Ontario, Canada, Montgomery County, MD, and high-performing countries. Partnerships characterized by high degrees of social trust and strong personal and institutional relationships are more likely to build the capacity and expertise required to continuously improve and innovate. As we’ve seen, community-building requires a focus on action—building relationships and changing hearts and minds through the work. The question then arises how we can best exploit these new institutions to take advantage of improved social capital. The challenge is thus to have two goals in mind: implementing change in the near term and building relationships and capacity over time. In addition to implementing good strategies, assessing them, and adjusting in a process of continuous improvement, are we also attending to the importance of social capital and relational trust in ways that build local expertise and capacity, generate new ideas, and lead to innovative work?

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID. 

New Article in Kappan Magazine

Kappan Magazine has just published an article I wrote , The Primary Years Agenda: Strategies to Guide District Action. I draw on examples from Massachusetts and other states to make the case for three Birth-3rd strategies. These strategies are as relevant to communities as they are to districts. They are intended to help set priorities and “chunk the work for action.” Here is the abstract:

School districts on the leading edge of the Birth through Third Grade movement have demonstrated unprecedented success raising the achievement of low-income students by developing coherent strategies focused on the early years of learning and development. These communities are not merely improving preschool. Rather, they are building aligned, high-quality early education systems. Building such systems requires that school and district leaders embrace improving early education as a strategic priority and provide leadership in implementing three overarching strategies in their communities.

Relationships, Capacity, and Innovation

Innovations often evolve out of a series of what may seem to be minor developments. As a consequence, instead of waiting for disruptive products and technologies, we need to create the conditions for individuals, groups, and organizations to adapt, innovate, and improve all the time.
–Thomas Hatch, Innovation at the Core.

Principals pick up the phone to call preschool directors to discuss specific children. Communities use a new early learning partnership as a platform to win new grant funds. A district invites community-based preschool teachers to share information about rising kindergarten students, significantly influencing classroom assignment decisions.

These are all examples of activities that have emerged out of the work of Birth-3rd partnerships, activities that were not proposed in grant proposals or explicitly planned as partnership strategies. These activities have come about as a result of new relationships—both interpersonal and institutional—developed through Birth-3rd partnerships. Improving learning and care during the primary years from birth through third grade requires implementing strategies that lead to positive outcomes for children and build momentum for continued collaborative work. Effective implementation requires new interpersonal relationships and new institutional arrangements that build local and regional capacity to sustain ongoing improvement and innovation over time. Birth-3rd reform is in effect asking for Early Years Collaboratives that are broader, more robust, and more ambitious in scope than typically has been the case in the past, new institutions and new “infrastructure” that can only be effective if they are undergirded by social relationships and trust.

Collaboration between school districts and community-based preschools on PreK-3rd alignment is a significant component of what I refer to as the Primary Years Agenda. As communities around the country advance Birth-3rd work, and as 12 communities in Massachusetts continue developing Birth-3rd partnerships with funding from the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC), it is helpful to keep in mind the interconnected relationship between implementing good strategies and programs and developing institutional relationships and capacity. On the one hand, there is a danger of only of building relationships and never get around to implementing effective strategies. On the other hand, as the examples from Massachusetts and other communities described below suggest, it would likewise be a mistake not to be intentional about developing social and institutional relationships—relationships that build expertise and capacity that in turn lead to ongoing improvement and innovation.

Not Exactly Intended Consequences: Relationships that “Spill Over”

A number of Birth-3rd partnerships in Massachusetts have carried out activities that are surprising—in a sense, extra—from the standpoint of their grant responsibilities and stated strategies. These kinds of extra activities, such as the examples below, are sometimes referred to as “spillover effects.”

Simple invitation, concrete impact.  The Somerville Public Schools has for some years held an annual “speed dating” event in which district prekindergarten teachers went from table to table meeting with kindergarten teachers to discuss the rising kindergarten students that would be transitioning from one teacher to the next. As the Birth-3rd Alignment Partnership was meeting one day, the principal of the Capuano Early Childhood Center came up with the idea of inviting the community-based prekindergarten teachers as well. At the now larger Teacher Talks event, the community-based teachers share information about their children, including, for instance, which ones had strong social-emotional skills and could serve as class leaders and role models. This information influenced classroom assignment decisions as potential leaders were distributed across kindergarten classrooms.

One-to-one relationships and joint decision-making. As a result of relationships formed in Springfield’s early childhood Professional Learning Community, principals and preschool directors began calling each other to discuss children they shared in morning and afternoon programs. On a more structural level, the Birth-3rd Alignment Partnership has engaged in a collaborative decision-making process that includes district and community-based teachers in choosing a new preschool curriculum and making a joint request to the city for funding for the new curriculum.

From partnership strategy to city-wide agenda. Lowell’s alignment partnership began with a strategy focused on two communities. Its diverse Leadership Alignment Team found common ground around the issue of community school readiness. The team reached out to many other city institutions, including health, mental health, social services, and homelessness organizations in addition to city government and even the fire department. With these organizations on board, Lowell has now developed a city school readiness definition and a full-fledged city school readiness agenda that has considerable momentum.

Pooling resources to support parents. Spearheaded by the local United Way, several early childhood organizations in Pittsfield have joined together and pooled resources in order to support families in their parenting roles. Two home visiting organizations—Healthy Families and Parents as Teachers—joined with the local Head Start organization, the Community and Family Engagement coordinator, and the United Way to offer a series of evening Parent Cafes that were organized around the 5 protective factors of the Strengthening Families model. Each organization contributed different resources and undertook different responsibilities related to the workshops, events that provided more supports and were higher profile in nature than any of the organizations could have achieved individually.

From pilot group to stakeholder body. To support the implementation of the Boston Public School’s (BPS) preschool curriculum in community-based preschool classrooms, Boston’s partnership convened a monthly meeting of the directors of the participating preschools. This group has developed over time and has begun to play other roles. The directors asked to pilot a BPS transition form that had previously gone unused. Recently the partnership convened a special meeting to solicit input from this group on Boston’s emerging universal prekindergarten plan, and thus the directors are now serving as an important stakeholder body for the school district.

The Role of Relational Trust in Innovative Systems

Large scale changes come from better cross-sector collaboration rather than the isolated efforts of individual organizations. (Kania and Kramer, 2011)

These examples of informal, unplanned collaboration help illustrate the role of trust and relationships in capacity-building and organizational change. Often referred to as social capital, these types of social relationships are critical to improving educational outcomes. A large study of Chicago elementary schools found that relational trust was a key factor in schools that built professional capacity, developed a student-centered learning climate, and strengthened parent-community ties.  A lead author of that study, Tony Bryk, refers to relational trust as a “lubricant for organizational change” and a “moral resource for sustaining the hard work” of local educational improvement.

Often overlooked, social capital is an important resource within organizations, but also across organizations locally and regionally. Large scale change of the type that the Birth-3rd movement is calling for requires cross-sector collaboration across the mixed delivery system of public and private early childhood education. Such cross-sector collaboration was integral to the success that Montgomery, MD, one of Birth-3rd’s leading edge communities, has achieved in dramatically reduced achievement gaps while raising learning outcomes for all.  Montgomery County’s former superintendent, Jerry Weast, set out to unify a mixed delivery system through an inclusive approach to collaboration and a deliberate blurring of lines across institutions, leading to a culture of shared accountability and deep engagement by stakeholders—an example of social capital acting, in Bryk’s language, as a “moral resource for sustaining hard work” (Childress, 2009; Marietta, 2010).

Montgomery County’s experience is consistent with research on high-performing regions and countries that shows that a common denominator across successful educational systems is the extent to which they invest in social capital by building local and regional networks. Social capital is important in these systems, says Thomas Hatch, in that it leads to sharing resources, information, and expertise while building political and public support. Through inclusive, blurred lines systems such as Montgomery County’s they cultivate collective responsibility for children and an understanding of schooling as, in Hatch’s words, “a communal and societal endeavor.” Facilitated by relational trust and shared understanding, expertise and will and capacity grow, leading to ongoing improvement and innovation. Hatch is in effect drawing a line between informal relationships in which principals call preschool directors in Springfield and innovations in strategy like Lowell’s emergent community school readiness agenda.

In next week’s post, I suggest that the Massachusetts’ experience thus far has several practical implications for how Birth-3rd partnerships go about building the capacity to improve through cross-sector collaboration.

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID. 

Teaching a New Curriculum in East Boston (#1)

How does classroom practice change as a result of Birth-Third work? How do children, teachers, and leaders experience these changes? Having summarized the strategies of the first five Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships in Massachusetts (Boston, Lowell, Pittsfield, Somerville, and Springfield), I am now posting an occasional series of articles describing the on-the-ground experience of implementing these strategies. I began these profiles of direct service by describing teacher professional development in Lowell’s Communities of Practice for family child care and center-based preschool teachers. Future posts will cover home visits in Pittsfield and literacy coaching in Somerville. This week I begin a series of three posts that examine the experience of implementing a new preschool curriculum from the vantage point of two teachers and the program director at the East Boston YMCA.

For this series I’m trying out a new blogging platform called Medium. When you click on the link below, a new tab will open in Medium with the first post on the East Boston YMCA. Medium provides an attractive environment for article-length posts and photos. The type is clean and big, and it’s a distraction-free place to read. There are no sidebars with links inviting you to go somewhere else. Medium also has improved notes and commenting capabilities. Click on the discreet numbers to the right of paragraphs for notes from me (like footnotes) or from other readers. You do not have to sign in to read posts, but if you sign in using your Twitter or Facebook account, you can comment on paragraphs or even sentences or words. Nothing will be posted to your account unless you want it posted. Click the plus sign (+) to the right of a paragraph (or highlight text and click the plus sign) to add comments.

I welcome your comments on the posts, and let me know what you think of Medium via comment or email.

Here is the first post:

Teaching a New Curriculum in East Boston

Snapshots of Birth–3rd Strategies in Five Communities

This week I’m posting short bulleted summaries of the core strategies of the first five EEC alignment partnerships, an idea prompted by a helpful conversation with Titus DosRemedios of Strategies for Children last week at an ESE Kindergarten Networking Meeting. These updated summaries may be helpful to the seven new communities coming on board in the Round Two grants. You can also find short paragraphs on each community here. Click on the EEC Alignment Partnerships category in the blue panel on the left to see all the posts thus far on these communities.

Pittsfield and Boston represent the ends of the continuum in the graphic above. Springfield, Lowell, and Somerville are all implementing two-pronged strategies that include both community-wide and targeted components.

Pittsfield

  • Community Goal: The Pittsfield Promise–90% reading proficiency on the 3rd grade MCAS by 2020
  • Berkshire United Way as community backbone organization
  • Supported by a strategic plan and six committees
  • Focus
    1. Community-wide family engagement around literacy
    2. Home-visiting
    3. Preschool participation, quality and alignment
    4. Out-of-school time programming

Boston

  • Implement BPS K1 (preschool) model in 14 community-based classrooms
    1. BPS K1 (preschool) model
      • Integrated OWL and Building Blocks curriculum
      • Making Learning Visible professional development
      • Skilled coaching
      • NAEYC accreditation
      • Demonstrated results; national and international recognition
    2. Implement model in 14 community-based classrooms (Boston K1DS)
      • Teachers with BA degrees
      • K1 curriculum
      • Professional development
      • Compensation
    3. Potential to expand to additional community-based classrooms contingent on results

Springfield

  • District and community-based preschool collaboration
    1. Joint selection of community preschool curriculum
    2. Joint identification of shared standards
      • Priority Teaching Strategies Gold domains
      • Social-emotional standards
    3. Common formative assessments
    4. Common professional development and outreach
    5. Public/Private Professional Learning Community Meetings
      • Preschool teachers from two elementary schools and several community-based programs
      • Cross-site visits
    6. Define kindergarten readiness
    7. Expand teacher-to-teacher observations
    8. Share kindergarten assessment data

Lowell

  • Pilot project in two low-income neighborhoods (expanding to three this fall)
    1. One elementary school, center-based preschools, and family childcare providers in each
    2. Use of CLASS observations across settings
    3. Training in Teaching Strategies Gold
    4. Communities of practice for center-based and family childcare programs
      • Professional development workshops
      • Use of ECERS-R and FCCERS-R tools
      • Addition of coaching beginning this fall
    5. Family engagement workshops and activities
  • Emergent community-wide school readiness agenda

Somerville

  • Four strategies focused on early literacy
    1. Kindergarten Readiness Group
      • Public/private preschool and kindergarten teachers
      • Half-day workshops over three semesters
      • Cross-site visits
      • Using Play to Address Standards” theme
    2. Literacy coaching
      • 8 classrooms (public, private, and Head Start)
      • Two observations and debriefs with literacy coach each month all year
      • Pre- and post- ELLCO observations
    3. Teaching Strategies Gold training
    4. Website for families with young children
      • Outreach to parents on use of site through agencies
  • Universal Kindergarten Readiness Plan

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID. 

Communities of Practice in Lowell: Supporting Family Child Care and Center-based Providers

As discussed last week, there are multiple entry points for understanding Lowell’s Birth-Third work—the Leadership Alignment Team, the use of the CLASS tool, the emerging school readiness agenda—but a good place to start is with Lowell’s communities of practice. Supporting family childcare providers is a logistically more challenging and less common component of Birth-Third initiatives.[1] The communities of practice are a direct form of professional development that reaches both family childcare providers and community-based centers using the FCCERS-R and ECERS-R tools. They show that even within the boundary-spanning work that Birth-Third improvement requires there is a critical role for tailored work within sectors on improving quality.

Lowell’s communities of practice bring to life and make real the well-known challenges associated with supporting family childcare providers and small community-based preschools. We often refer to the egg crate nature of teaching in schools. School teachers are separated in classrooms and work independently and thus are isolated, or were traditionally. Now many K-12 schools are much more deliberate about creating opportunities for teachers to work together in teams or professional learning communities. In the case of family child care providers, however, the isolation is even more extreme. Rather than in a crate, each egg is packaged individually. There is simply no egg in the dimple next door. Likewise, many teachers in small center-based programs lack opportunities to collaborate with teachers and coaches outside their center. 

The child care providers in Lowell’s communities of practice explicitly acknowledge the isolating nature of their work (“we don’t network enough”). They also make it palpably clear—through their responses to the meetings—how valuable it is for them to come together in a structured way to work on their practice. They describe the experience as “eye-opening,” revelatory in some cases, and according to some it has impacted every aspect of their classrooms and their teaching.

The communities of practice are led by Teresa Harrison, who is trained in the ECERS-R, FCCERS-R, and CLASS tools and does a range of work related to the Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS) for the Lowell Public Schools. Ten family childcare providers began by meeting monthly with Harrison in the community of practice and then asked to increase the meetings to twice a month. Recruiting centers to participate in the work in the middle of last year proved more difficult, and thus the partnership took the opportunity to work intensively on a monthly basis with one center that was requesting support with the QRIS system. The teachers in this center are now better prepared to work with other centers, and the plan is to add teachers from more centers this coming year.

The ECERS-R tool includes 43 criteria organized into 7 subscales, such as “space and furnishings,” “language-reasoning,” and “program structure.” Using the ECERS-R or FCCERS-R tool as a framework, the communities of practice participants discuss a wide range of topics, including play, centers, math, science, hygiene, gross motor activities, art, drama, and dance.[2]

A good example of a community of practice conversation took place in one of the meetings with the center-based teachers. Through visits to the center and previous discussions with the participants, Harrison identified best practices in discipline and staff-child interactions as topics of interest for the participants and had begun to provide related support. At this meeting Harrison discussed staff-child interactions, drawing on the approach of the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). Lowell Public Schools has provided extensive professional development on CSEFEL for its pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers and advocates its use throughout the community.[3]

Clearly the center teachers understood the importance of their relationships with their students, yet they also appreciated the opportunity to come together off-site and think through how they could do their best in this regard. Harrison shared CSEFEL materials and a video and discussed research on the importance of the teacher/child relationship. She then did an activity using the metaphor of “relationship banks.” When teachers have positive interactions with a child, they are adding to the child’s piggy banks, making a deposit. Negative interactions are withdrawals. When a child’s bank is empty, it is harder to deal with challenging situations. The teachers thought of all the things they could do to make deposits (e.g., “listening,” “following through,” “validating their feelings,” “really listening,” “getting down to their level,” “talking calmly,” and “showing you care”) and withdrawals (“taking things personally,” “showing frustration,” “using a loud voice,” “not being sensitive to their needs,” and “nagging or controlling them”). The discussion served as a forum for exchanging practical ideas and an off-site opportunity to reflect on the tenor of one’s daily interactions with children.

The participants of both communities of practice emphasize that though they learn the expectations of the ECERS-R/FCCERS-R tool relative to the QRIS system, they also learn specific ideas and practices from their colleagues and from Harrison. The ECERS/FCCERS tools serve an interesting and helpful function in these discussions. Conversations typically begin with the participants sharing what they do with regard to a specific item on the tool (e.g., helping children understand language, fine motor skills, or dramatic play). Harrison adds what evaluators in fact look for with regard to the item, highlighting expectations that she knows to be particularly challenging or frequently surprising to teachers: for example, expectations that math be integrated not only during carpet or whole group time but throughout the day during free play; that nature and science activities be included every day; and that TV be limited to no more than 15 minutes at a time and no more than 30 minutes a day (and only for children above 24 months).

Eventually the participants rate themselves on each item within a given category or “sub-scale.” In route, however, discussion of the evaluators’ expectations naturally transition into the learning activities the participants typically do, do not do, could do better, and ideas they could learn from others. In effect, the tools serve to make the conversations less awkward as both of the communities of practice were in the process of building trust and the confidence to share and reflect on their own practice—conversations that can feel personally threatening both with close colleagues and with new acquaintances.

Out of this type of conversation at one meeting crystallized a number of pointers regarding QRIS expectations at one level, but about the current understanding of best practice at another: 

  • The importance of free play and choice (e.g., moving away from one whole group activity followed by clean-up followed by another whole group activity …),
  • Balancing independent exploration and the teacher role in providing structure,
  • Encouraging interactions among children,
  • Encouraging children to solve their own problems (with support),
  • Expanding the use of music, dance, and dramatic play and making art projects less “cookie-cutter” and more creative, and
  • Increasing the proportion of talking and listening that is not directed towards behavior management and control.

From the vantage point of the participants, key take-aways included the need to be more deliberate and organized in setting up centers as discrete areas for specific activities, being mindful of which centers are placed next to each other (i.e., not placing loud centers next to quiet areas), attending to sight lines and the placement of furniture, how not to use time-outs, how to use routines to make activities run more smoothly, and the importance of choice among activities.

The Lowell partnership is planning on deepening its community of practice model with the addition of an on-site coaching component that will complement the monthly meetings. Among other benefits, coaching will provide support in translating the pointers and take-aways from the meetings into practice. We also find this combination of off-site whole group professional development and on-site coaching in Somerville’s literacy coaching model and the Boston’s K1DS curriculum implementation support.

The two communities of practice are soon to come together for a joint CSEFEL training. Lowell’s plan for Round Two of the EEC Alignment Partnership includes continuing these two communities of practice, adding one for administrators of public school and community-based preschools, and developing a pilot community of practice for families led by a parenting coach.

Lowell’s communities of practice broaden the range of professional development and coaching arrangements we find across the first five EEC alignment partnerships. They demonstrate the use of the ECERS-R and FCCERS-R rubrics and a model tailored to family child care providers as well as community-based preschool centers. One family child care provider summed up her experience of the community of practice saying,

“You look at your daycare differently, which is hard to do unless you are in a class like this.”

 


[1] The Pittsfield Promise also works with family childcare providers and family childcare systems.

[2] A study published last month called into question the relationship between quality as measured by the ECERS-R and child academic and social outcomes. The authors suggest that since that many centers meet the baseline levels of quality the ECERS-R measures, a more nuanced tool may be needed. Nonetheless, most states, including Massachusetts, currently use the ECERS-R as part of their QRIS systems. Further, as will become clear, in the context of the Lowell community of practice, the ECERS-R is being used as a formative professional development tool to guide conversations about best practice with an experienced coach. Used in this way the ECERS-R has the potential improve practice independent of the link between ECERS-R evaluations and child outcomes. We will continue to track the research on the ECERS-R and related tools.

[3] For more on Lowell’s adoption of district social-emotional standards, use of CSEFEL training, and home visiting protocol, see page 36 of Improving Early Years of Education in Massachusetts.

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID. 

Joint Professional Learning in Somerville and Springfield

Last week’s post described how both Somerville and Springfield have developed professional learning initiatives that bring together prekindergarten and kindergarten educators. The work of Somerville’s Kindergarten Readiness Group and Springfield’s Birth-Third PLC begins to suggest what the content of these workshops can be and what the participants get out of it. These examples also raise a number of helpful questions to consider when designing joint professional development experiences.

COMMON THEMES

“Demystifying What We Each Do For a Living.” In both Somerville and Springfield the PreK/Kindergarten collaborations began with discussions and cross-site visits in which the participants recognized many similarities in practice across settings. Public school teachers remarked that circle time and transitions felt familiar and expressed surprise in seeing the age range in the preschool programs; the community-based teachers found public kindergartens to be warmer and “more loving” than they are typically reputed to be and were impressed by the extent of literacy and writing activities they observed. Lisa Bakowski, the principal of the Boland Elementary School in Springfield, refers to this stage as “demystifying what we each do for a living.” In both communities, participants refer to their first meetings as leading to a cultural shift, an “opening up,” and laying a foundation of trust and relationships.

Sharing Teaching Practices. From the participants’ perspectives, the appeal of these meetings lies in the opportunities they create to share practices, to see different environments and classroom settings, and to learn more about the learning expectations and assessments found in each sector. At a recent Birth-Third conference in Springfield, a panel shared their experiences in the 2010-11 public/private PLC, and the teachers emphasized that they learned about many new ideas and lesson strategies that they brought back to their classrooms. Likewise, teachers at the Somerville Kindergarten Readiness Group readily share lesson ideas, ranging from using a storytelling bracelet in which each bead stands for a part of a story to a discussion of the use of turn and talks as children become developmentally ready to engage in this practice.

Motivation. The participants on the Springfield panel also emphasized the motivational impact of seeing a wider variety of classroom practice through the cross-site instructional learning walks. One veteran community-based preschool teacher shared the moving story of losing her entire classroom of materials, which had taken years to accumulate, when a large tornado hit Springfield last year. The teacher started over in a new classroom in a new building but felt demoralized professionally. She described the experience of seeing a prekindergarten teacher in an elementary school teach as a “refresher course” in all the strategies she had learned over the years but that in some cases had fallen by the wayside and needed to be brought back into the forefront of her practice. The visit provided her with new ideas and inspired her to begin re-incorporating a broader range of effective strategies into her teaching and helped her re-engage professionally. Conversely, teachers also found motivation in being visited by colleagues. As principal Bakowski explained, “We don’t know all the great things we are doing until we see it through others’ eyes.”

The kinds of topics under discussion by the members of Springfield's Birth-Third Professional Learning Community (some of these were changed due to snow days).
The kinds of topics under discussion by the members of Springfield’s Birth-Third Professional Learning Community (some of these were changed due to snow days).

Learning Standards. In addition to sharing lesson ideas, the teachers in Somerville and Springfield were eager to explore their respective standards and assessments. For the meeting in Somerville referred to earlier, the meeting organizers had excerpted and matched sections from the EEC and ESE standards documents so that small groups could identify similarities and differences across the two sets of preschool standards and then compare the preschool standards to kindergarten standards. The participants found these activities highly useful, in particular as many community-based preschool teachers were unfamiliar with the new Common Core-aligned Massachusetts frameworks. Community-based preschool teachers in both cities expressed much interest in learning more about kindergarten expectations. As one Springfield preschool teacher said,

“I feel like it would make me a better teacher to really know what is expected of my students. What do you really need to know for kindergarten? I think they are ready. I think I am getting them ready. But I’m not 100% sure, and I want to be. Learning about kindergarten makes me look at myself as a teacher.”

Snowball Effects. Project directors in both Somerville and Springfield emphasize that the public/private early childhood collaborations in their communities are having snowball effects. Once a platform for collaboration is established, it is leading to additional collaboration. Now that principals and preschool directors have established relationships, when a principal realizes that a struggling prekindergarten child is also spending half of his or her day in a community-based preschool program, the principal is more likely to pick up the phone and call the preschool director. During Springfield’s first iteration of public-private PLC in 2010-11, community-based preschool directors expressed an interest in learning more about autism, which led to a workshop by an autism expert from the Springfield Public Schools that benefited both public and community-based preschool teachers. Likewise, the collaboration around the Birth-Third Alignment Partnership in Somerville has led to the incorporation of community-based prekindergarten teachers into the public schools’ annual Teacher Talks event, in which prekindergarten teachers go from table to table, meeting with kindergarten teachers to discuss the children moving into kindergarten. This additional intelligence about rising kindergarteners has had a large impact on how kindergarten class lists are formed.

LEARNING FROM EARLY EFFORTS

The joint professional learning projects in Somerville and Springfield raise for the field the kinds of structural design decisions that leaders of public/private early childhood education collaborations face. These design decisions stem from the overall purpose of the collaboration (e.g., standards alignment, assessment literacy, lesson design and teaching strategies, improving developmentally appropriate practice, and so on).

  • What should the balance of teachers and leaders be?
  • How often should the groups meet?
  • What activities should they carry out? How can partnerships structure activities to make the most of valuable professional development time?
  • Will a community-wide group best serve a community’s needs or is a pilot in a few neighborhoods preferable?
  • Is it more important to expand the number of participants/schools/centers or to extend the work of a few groups more deeply into the analysis of assessment results and lesson study?
  • And importantly, how do representatives from schools and centers share their experiences with their colleagues who do not attend?

Future posts will pursue how partnerships in Massachusetts and other states address these as well as the critical underlying question:  What is the sought-after impact and how will we monitor progress in achieving it?

Top Image:  An activity planning web from Somerville’s Kindergarten Readiness Group. Mixed groups from different programs/schools outlined units based on four different books.

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID.