Implementing SEA Policies Cohesively, with a Focus on Early Childhood

A common New Year’s resolution is to be better organized. This often refers to closets or file cabinets, but we can begin to consider the benefits of better organizing our work on initiatives in education. One way to do this is by strengthening the connections between the reforms underway, so that we are working on them in tandem, and ensuring that development in one area is linked to progress in others. Educators are implementing the Common Core State Standards, for example, while working through new approaches to teacher evaluation across the country.

For State Education Agencies (SEAs), this means working diligently to support local education agencies (LEAs) as they interpret and implement these policies and initiatives. SEA early childhood personnel have the additional responsibility and challenge of interpreting and helping others view these through an early learning lens, to ensure developmentally appropriate practices even among those who may not be familiar with those practices and their importance.

Instead of looking at implementation of standards, examination of quality, and adherence to new teacher evaluation methods as separate (and each individually daunting) tasks, we suggest that SEAs and LEAs approach these with coherence. The brief Creating Coherence: Common Core State Standards, Teacher Evaluation, and Professional Learning, from the Center on Great Teachers & Leaders at American Institutes for Research, is a great resource for starting the process. In this guide, the authors present four detailed steps to creating a cohesive approach to implementing Common Core, teacher evaluation systems, and professional learning. The steps are:

  1. Identify the instructional practices that support Common Core implementation.
  2. Determine how well the Professional Practice Framework supports the core instructional practice.
  3. Review and refine the professional learning supports.
  4. Based on the review, consider next steps for refining, enhancing, or using teacher evaluation and professional learning reforms.

In New Jersey, NIEER and our partner the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) have partnered Small group learningwith the Division of Early Childhood Education, NJ Department of Education to initiate a professional learning community (called the Early Childhood Academy) to support coherence, incorporating these practices. It offers a forum for LEAs to come together to discuss critical initiatives underway in the Garden State.  These include teacher evaluation, Common Core State Standards implementation, and improving classroom quality. Incorporating steps 1-3, teachers have had an opportunity to review teacher evaluation requirements and consider specific examples of how the requirements work within early childhood. Participants reviewed an evidence-based document designed to guide observers using teacher evaluation rubrics by providing evidence from an early childhood perspective. Each district will work on creating their own district evidence-based document specific to district curricula. In this academy, we’ve committed to understanding these reforms in the early childhood classroom; considering how to interpret and support implementation without compromising what makes early childhood different from other elementary grades; and keeping developmentally appropriate practice at the forefront.

The goal of the Early Childhood Academy is to build communities of practice among New Jersey school districts to provide support in their understanding of critical topics and their application to early childhood. Districts learn from and support each other as they address new issues, or provide an early childhood context for K-12 planning. The EC Academy brings representatives from districts together to discuss key topics guided by literature, expert and district presentations, and facilitated discussions across and within districts. Intended as a long-term project, the Academy will grow in year two to include cohorts of districts that engage in systematic data collection for continual improvement guidance– which will assist in implementing Step 4—using responsive coaching practices, and intentional and facilitated cross-district visits, in addition to group meetings. Furthermore, the focus of the EC Academy will continue to grow from preschool and kindergarten into the early elementary school years to develop a comprehensive and seamless focus on school district issues from preschool through third grade.

Through this academy, we have generated a strong communication network among key stakeholders within and across districts. First, within-district communication has been fostered through requirements for district team attendance and participation. Each district team includes a central office administrator, a building administrator, and an early childhood teacher. Second, across-district communication is generated; as one participant noted, “you can borrow practices from other districts to make your district stronger.”

I strongly encourage others to consider school level, district level, or state level peer learning communities (PLCs) around EC-specific interpretation and support on key initiatives, to help districts and individuals interpret policies cohesively and specifically for early childhood. District participants quickly recognize the benefits of a coherent and organized approach, and we expect benefits to children’s learning and development to grow from this strong foundation.

– Shannon Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER & CEELO

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