Quality Classrooms for the Littlest Learners

For all the noisy debates in education these days—on everything from what students should be learning to how teachers should be paid—there seems to be one thing almost everyone can agree on: Early childhood education (ECE) is a good thing. Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan identified expanded access to pre-K as one of his priorities for ESEA reauthorization. Earlier this year, President Obama announced an ambitious agenda for universal preschool and in early December, the Race to the Top Preschool Development Grants award winners were announced to support states and districts around the country in developing and expanding universal pre-K.

There’s good reason to expand access: Research shows that children living below the poverty line start kindergarten already behind their more affluent peers. A quality preschool program can put a child on a positive trajectory, resulting in higher educational attainment, economic performance, crime prevention, and health benefits as far as 40 years into the future

But in the midst of this focus on expanding access to early learning, the issue of quality is sometimes overshadowed. Not just any early learning experiences will make the difference for kids, after all—only high-quality early learning experiences will. 

So what exactly does quality look like in a pre-K classroom? ECE isn’t just childcare. Effective ECE teachers bring together developmentally appropriate but challenging tasks—like exploring quality texts to build early literacy and engaging with mathematical concepts to build conceptual understanding of numbers—with the development of social-emotional skills and plenty of time for imaginative play. Achieving that mix isn’t easy: It requires highly skilled and supported educators. If we are going to ensure that all students have the type of high quality early learning experiences that lead to life changing outcomes, we need to ensure there is an effective teacher in every pre-K classroom. But too often, pre-K providers struggle with recruiting and retaining effective teachers.

This year, TNTP will be partnering with states and districts to help them build the systems and teams they need to create high-quality learning experiences for their youngest students. We’re focusing on four key priorities:

Expanding coaching access for ECE teachers. Research and our own experience agree—one-on-one coaching on the job is more likely to improve the performance of new teachers than other professional development methods. But few early childhood teachers have access to hands-on classroom support. Early childhood teachers must be every bit as supported to provide quality instruction as teachers of every other grade level. In Detroit, coaches help ECE teachers design and deliver rigorous but developmentally appropriate instruction that prepares students for kindergarten readiness aligned to the Common Core. Teachers also learn how to integrate academic and social-emotional skills in their lessons.

Supporting school leaders. Research points to the pivotal role of strong instructional leadership in improving teaching and student achievement. Leadership also has a great influence on effective teachers’ decisions to stay or leave their program or school. ECE Leaders need to set a clear vision for excellence in early learning, by working backwards from what the Common Core expects of students in kindergarten. With coaching support themselves, school leaders can build the skills and strategies to help their teachers to achieve that vision and to remain invested in creating stimulating classrooms for our youngest learners.

Paying excellent ECE teachers what they’re worth. Compensation plays a big role in deciding who enters the teaching profession and how long they stay. Yet early childhood teacher salaries—often 40 percent less than the salaries of K-12 counterparts—are far from competitive, making it difficult for school leaders to attract and retain their best teachers for their youngest students. To attract and retain great teachers to early childhood classrooms, compensation systems must align ECE salaries with K-12 teachers and pay for what really matters: effective teaching. 

Expanding access without losing quality. It’s challenging to expand access to early childhood options while maintaining quality. States and districts need to determine where and when they will need additional early childhood openings, recruit more highly effective teachers and school leaders, and ensure that families take advantage of programs in schools and community-based organizations. In Houston, we’re partnering with the district to assess which communities will be in need of additional openings and to develop phased implementation plans to open up new spots gradually, so quality can be closely monitored and teachers and leaders can be supported and coached. We are also helping the district to improve internal processes to support access to high-quality ECE placements. With clear priorities and a roadmap for how to achieve them, districts and states can expand opportunities to more families without compromising the quality of their early childhood programs.

As states and school districts rightly ramp up their efforts to expand access to pre-K to all children, we believe the discussion about ensuring quality early learning experiences should remain front and center. Whether they are designing universal pre-K programs or training teachers for early childhood settings, everyone involved in this work must keep asking: What do excellent learning experiences look like for our youngest learners? What will it take to get a great teacher in every pre-K classroom? And most importantly, how do we get there? This year, we’ll be stepping up our own efforts to answer those questions.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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