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Early Childhood Opinion

Ending Early Learning’s Haphazard Transitions

By Gerald L. Zahorchak, Harriet Dichter & Robert C. Hughes — April 15, 2010 5 min read
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Educators and policymakers are increasingly recognizing the contribution high-quality early-learning experiences make to long-term success in school and life. But they have paid less attention to the need for building strong relationships between early-childhood educators and elementary school leaders.

Even though there is often just a few months’ difference in the ages of the children in their programs, elementary school principals and child-care or preschool directors can differ drastically in how they prepare for their jobs, how they view teaching, and how they relate to parents and the community.

Research indicates that elementary school administrators often lack background in early-childhood development, and may have little knowledge of the many funding streams that are pieced together to finance early-childhood programs. They may think that assessment can be done only on paper, and are apt to view such child-centered learning options as “dress-up corners” as a waste of classroom space. Elementary principals are used to being part of a single delivery system, a school district, whose mission it is to educate children.

Child-care and preschool directors, on the other hand, are part of a diverse mix of early-care and education providers who focus on the broader needs of children, including social development, health care, and family relationships. They sometimes view the standards-and-testing practices used in the K-12 system as harmful to young children. “Children are not standardized,” as some say.

The disconnection between these sectors is illustrated in a 2008 survey of 205 early-childhood program directors in Illinois. In all, 43 percent of these directors said that they don’t participate in joint professional development with school districts, and 63 percent said they never meet with principals to talk about aligning curricula.

Of the 403 elementary principals surveyed, almost 40 percent said they don’t include preschool teachers in planning time with elementary teachers, and 67 percent said they haven’t invited family child-care providers to observe kindergarten classes so that they can learn about curriculum and classroom expectations.

This type of division cannot continue if we are to create the kind of seamless early-childhood-education system national leaders have envisioned. We need people across the broad spectrum of infant, toddler, preschool, and elementary programs who can comfortably straddle both the early-learning and K-12 worlds.

That is why the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Institute for School Leadership, or NISL, have developed a partnership that will draw together school leaders and directors of early-learning programs in a combined professional-development experience. Working together, these professionals develop local strategies that contribute to all areas of children’s growth across the birth-to-age-8 span.

This new Early Childhood Executive Leadership Institute, known as ECEL, builds on the success that NISL has had with more than 2,000 K-12 administrators as part of its statewide Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership program. The ECEL institute is a timely response to the Obama administration’s twin priorities of building better school leadership and strengthening the nation’s early-childhood-education system.

When leaders from these two worlds participate in professional development as a cohort, they develop solutions that can be applied in both settings. Projects they produce jointly might focus on the sharing of data, or collaborative planning for early-childhood and kindergarten teachers—all programs that will ensure that teachers across the early years are working as a team to help children achieve success.

Elementary principals who see their schools as the next step in this process will understand the role of play in early childhood. They will recognize the value of parents as part of the school community, and understand the importance of relationships for young children. They will allow their schools to become a hub for training and for health and other developmental services that can improve the surrounding early-childhood community.

Early-childhood directors who want their students to be successful after preschool link their curriculum with state K-3 academic standards. They will learn how to collect and use student data to improve instruction and services. They will seek out opportunities for their teachers to participate in joint professional-development sessions, and they will understand that transition is much more than just an August visit to the new elementary school.

Fortunately, education leaders are already learning to combine their efforts to benefit young children. In California, for example, early-childhood specialists from 13 school districts provide training and coaching to family child-care providers, giving them access to learning materials for their centers and guiding them toward higher-level education opportunities.

In a New Jersey school district, all preschool and kindergarten classrooms use a common curriculum to make the transition for children smoother when they move from one program to the next. Here in Pennsylvania, school districts like Bethlehem’s are creating closer ties between child care, pre-K programs, and elementary schools by focusing on curriculum connections and joint professional development.

Pennsylvania’s Pottstown School District has initiated the Pottstown Early Action for Kindergarten Readiness, or PEAK, program—a partnership between the district, area early-childhood providers, and various community agencies that is designed to provide high-quality early-childhood education, including an aligned and coherent preschool-to-elementary-school transition.

As participants in the first pilot cohorts of the ECEL institute complete their training at the end of next February, our communities will benefit from educators who believe that early-learning providers and the K-12 system are stronger together. This doesn’t mean that infant-and-toddler programs have to be under the same roof with 3rd grade classrooms—or even next door to one another. But it does mean that principals, preschool directors, and child-care providers will have mutual respect for one another, be aware of the challenges each one faces, and develop measures to improve transitions and take best advantage of a coordinated system of development and education.

When more leaders possess this combination of skills—and when states begin to enact policies that encourage this kind of collaboration—the focus will be less on the structures that adults have created and more on what young children need to be successful, wherever they are on their path of learning and development.

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Ending Early Learning’s Haphazard Transitions

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