Report highlights difficulties in aligning early ed with elementary school

Research shows that preK–3 alignment — coordinating preK–3 standards, curricula, instructional practices, assessments and professional development — can narrow achievement gaps by helping children sustain the gains they made in preschool, but many California districts say they are struggling to support alignment efforts.

Findings from a new Policy Analysis for California Education study presented at a Jan. 10 event in Sacramento show that one-third of 25 districts surveyed are not engaged at all in alignment efforts, while others are engaged to varying degrees.

School districts provided an array of reasons as to why strengthening alignment between early education and K-12 schools has proven challenging, with costs and varying opinions on the rigor of early education programs among the most common barriers.

“Funding is a big issue where alignment comes into play, and beliefs matter — it matters how the district views pre-K versus early elementary grades,” said Julia Koppich, co-author of the PACE report and president of J. Koppich & Associates, a San Francisco-based education-consulting firm. “In districts in which pre-K is viewed as just play, alignment was less likely. On the other hand, districts in which pre-K was viewed as a natural precursor to kindergarten, and that it was a fit both academically and in terms of development, alignment was much more likely.”

Koppich also noted a lack of cooperation between pre-K and elementary teachers stemming from different licensing requirements, varying salary and job expectations between the two groups, and little in the way of common professional development opportunities.

Pre-K prioritized, though challenges remain

Gov. Gavin Newsom has prioritized strengthening and expanding early learning opportunities for children throughout the state by investing $5.5 billion in child care and preschool during his first year in office. He proposes further funding in the 2020–21 budget to build and renovate preschool classrooms on school sites and add 10,000 more full-time preschool slots.

Though any increase in funding is welcome for districts and advocates for early learners, conflicting research has questioned the sustainably of the gains children make in preK programs — meaning that adding additional slots may not address the issue on its own.

Building on what children learn in their local preschool programs once they reach elementary school, however, can help support the momentum students build in high-quality preK programs. District leaders can help schools with alignment efforts by, among other things, aligning curricula and assessments across preK and early elementary grades; offering preK directors a significant place in the district’s administrative structure; and ensuring preK–3 teachers have regular opportunities to collaborate and participate together in professional development.

Deborah Stipek, a professor at Stanford University and PACE faculty director, told attendees that although it may be logistically difficult, allowing elementary and preK teachers the opportunity simply to visit one another’s classrooms can have a profound effect on how they do their own jobs. Some kindergarten teachers reported they were surprised to find that preschool involved real learning rather than solely playtime.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done at the district level to align the curriculum and the assessments, but I think more important than anything else is providing teachers with opportunities to collaborate and learn together,” said Stipek, who co-authored the alignment report. “Having opportunities, whether through shared coaching and professional development or even just time to sit together and collaborate on curriculum and instruction — it’s a powerful and critical tool.”

Solutions will require more funding

The study included state-level recommendations that could streamline and improve preK–3 alignment. In response to findings that principals surveyed reported feeling unsure of how to support and evaluate preschool teachers, for instance, researchers advise that training about early childhood education be added to administrative credential requirements.

Other issues raised by the report, especially those related to pay and licensing requirements, are likely to face lawmakers again this year.

“I think there’s a significantly increasing recognition of the importance of ‘deal with this before kids get to kindergarten if we want to close the achievement gap,’” said Debbie Look, a principle consultant for the California State Assembly. “One of the issues that really spoke to me in the report was the issue of inequities between teacher requirements, pay and status, and this certainly has been highly recognized within the Legislature.”

Addressing those issues will take money, Look said, noting that the state can’t continue to allow preK teachers to receive a “minimal salary and expect them to go back and get a full credential or bachelor’s degree.” Similarly, she said that without increasing overall education funding, districts cannot be expected to stretch their current dollars any further than they already are.

There is hope on the horizon though, Look said, noting that there “are some efforts underway to put some things on the ballot of the next few years that could potentially increase education funding.”