Closing the Early Childhood Opportunity Gap

By Rachel Chapdelaine
Virginia School Divisions Meet to Improve Equity in PK-3 School Experiences

Representatives from Virginia school divisions met at the University of Virginia to improve teaching practice and alignment across preschool through third grade to ensure that every child has the experiences they need to be successful in school.

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Every child should have educational experiences that ensure long-term success in school. But with 33% of children in Virginia entering kindergarten without all the critical skills they need to succeed, this vision is hardly a reality.

On October 1, nearly 30 school divisions across Virginia attended a conference at UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development on pre-K to third grade, or PK-3, to help close the opportunity gap and improve equity in young children’s school experiences.

“PK-3 is not currently a significant part of the narrative,” said Bridget Hamre, associate director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning and organizer of the conference. “We still see many examples of principals putting their best teachers in third grade because that is when kids start being tested,” she said. “Our goal with this conference is to attract schools that are motivated to learn about what is happening nationally and create momentum around better practices in PK-3.”

Co-sponsored by CASTL, the Virginia Department of Education, the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals and funded by a VPI+ grant, the conference is part of a larger initiative to broaden sustainability and continuity across PK-3.

Each participating school division sent a team that included a principal, a pre-K teacher, a K-3 teacher, a district-level administrator, and someone outside of the school system, such as Head Start or community child care, to work together on division-level strategies.

Two PK-3 experts presented keynotes at the conference: Kristie Kauerz, director of the National P-3 Center, and Sharon Ritchie, senior research scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and principal investigator of the FirstSchool initiative. Kauerz and Ritchie work on opposite ends of the PK-3 spectrum — Kauerz focuses on policy and organizational infrastructure, while Ritchie focuses on children’s classroom experiences.

Using Data to Guide Practice

During two breakout sessions, Kauerz shared her framework for planning, implementing and evaluating PK-3 approaches, including eight buckets of what effective PK-3 looks like. Divisions used the “teacher effectiveness” and “data use” buckets to do a self-assessment of performance, plan a more effective approach to PK-3 and engage in cross-division conversations about those plans.

In addition to formal data, Kauerz encouraged participants to use informal data to guide practice and strategy and to view the classroom as a place for investigation, where teachers and administrators should try new things. pk3-room-600.jpg“This is a paradigm shift, so we need to be creative risk takers when engaging in this work,” Kauerz said.

Winchester City Preschool Coordinator Angie Cain is one participant who plans to informally collect data to guide practice in classrooms. “We would like administrators to see the components of the CLASS observation tool, so when they go into kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, they can evaluate the climate and identify the things that make it positive or negative,” Cain said. “If we all adopt a similar observation approach, it will create consistency across PK-3.”

Continued Investment Beyond Pre-K

The Virginia General Assembly recently budgeted an additional $6 million for early childhood education. A large percentage of that funding will go toward the statewide expansion of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program, an assessment tool that measures the skills kindergarteners need to succeed.

While new investment from the state will help improve pre-K programs, investment in pre-K is not enough—we also need to invest more in K-3 and the alignment between preschool and third grade, Hamre said. “It’s important to remember that investment in a single year is never going to solve our problems. That investment will only pay off if we pay attention to what comes next,” she said.

Kauerz and Ritchie echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the need to focus more on PK-3. “If we think about children’s continuum of learning and brain development, it is not just one year that matters, it is a continuum of time that matters,” Kauerz said.

Although investing in a child’s brain development is optimal at a young age because of their cognitive flexibility, Ritchie said, “It is crazy to think you can do quality until age five and then not care what happens to children after that. It is like saying, ‘We gave you breakfast.’ But what about lunch and dinner? Quality has to happen all the way through.”

According to Ritchie, elementary schools often have a “push-down” curriculum, which makes pre-K look like kindergarten and kindergarten look like first grade, in an effort for children to learn at an earlier age and perform better on standardized tests. As a result, teachers spend more time talking and children spend more time sitting still and listening—the opposite, Ritchie said, of an effective way to learn.

“We need to focus on self-regulation and executive function translated into instructional practice to ensure kids learn how to be organized and control their emotions,” she said. “If we start doing this in pre-K and continue through third grade, we will have completely different children in 4th grade than the ones we have now.”

Equity in School Experiences

According to Hamre, only 45% of low-income children in Virginia attend preschool, compared to 65% of high-income peers. Every data source, from school entry data to third-grade testing outcomes, shows huge gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged children and across racial groups. “When we look at that data over time, there is essentially no improvement. We have to figure out how to support all of our students to be successful,” she said.

Children entering kindergarten come from different backgrounds and have varying levels of school readiness. Due to the inconsistencies in how we teach children across these early classroom experiences, these children often experience a culture shift. As one example, Ritchie referenced EduSnap data that shows the drastic changes in children’s activity settings from pre-K to kindergarten: individual activities increase from 8 to 24 percent, whole group activities increase from 10 to 52 percent and “choice” activities decrease from 45 to 8 percent.

“People do not know how bad it is—about these huge differences that happen to kids and how they impact boys and kids of color. All of a sudden, kids who have been successful are not because the demands on them are not developmentally appropriate,” said Ritchie.

How can administrators ensure teachers improve continuity in children's experiences across all grade levels? One of the greatest challenges facing administrators and teachers is the lack of communication across grade levels, schools and divisions that lead to inconsistencies in practice, Kauerz said. She suggests breaking down silos within divisions and schools and establishing a common language across programs.

The conference is another step toward improving communication—and closing the achievement gap in Virginia through effective practice. “Divisions have the power to make changes that will make a difference,” said Kauerz. “This is not just about getting kids to do better, it is really about getting adults and organizations to do better.”