The CCSS don’t say we should exclude the play

March 30, 2015

The first responses addressing concerns about CCSS in early childhood education are from Kathleen A. Paciga, Columbia College Chicago;  Jessica L. Hoffman, Winton Woods City School District; and William H. Teale, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Rigorous standards may lead to reduced play and rich activity in preschool and Kindergarten classrooms.

There is no reason on earth that more rigorous early literacy standards should lead to reduced play in preschool and kindergarten. But there has been a dramatic decrease in the amount of “play” time in early education contexts (e.g., Frost, 2012; Gray, 2011; Sofield, 2013). The CCSS make no specific mention of play, nor do they specify the methods through which kindergartners are to demonstrate meeting the standards, so why is there a flood of commentary from practitioners (e.g., Cox, n.d.; Holland, 2015), professional organizations and advocates (e.g., Carlsson-Paige, McLaughlin, & Almon, 2015; Nemeth, 2012; Paciga, Hoffman & Teale, 2011[1]), larger media hubs (e.g., Kenny, 2013), and parents, too, about the role of play (and the lack of it) in early education since the release of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010?

Project set 5

We suspect it is a combination of several influences, two of which are especially pertinent to our comments here. One relates to the points we made about “drill and kill” instruction. The specificity and ramped-up expectations of the CCSS have prompted many administrators to issue mandates to spend X number of minutes teaching Y. The misconception here lies in what constitutes teaching in an early childhood classroom. The CCSS don’t really discuss play, one way or the other. But the experiences with language and literacy that young children need, and the freedom for discussion and exploration that play allows, are critically important. Dramatic play with embedded literacy props and language interactions; retelling stories through flannel boards and puppets; or, making characters from clay and discussing them; writing stories, lists, and letters; composing signs for structures created with blocks—these and other play-related activities offer so much more in the way of developmentally appropriate opportunities to teach the concepts and skills embodied in the CCSS.

The other—related—factor contributing to reduced play and rich activity is a topic that has been discussed in early childhood education for the past 30 years: the push down of the curriculum from the later primary grades into earlier education. Add to that the recent emphasis on Value-Added-Measures (VAM) for teacher evaluation and, voila, we find in K and pre-K increased emphasis on narrowly focused skills such as phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, phonics, and sight word recognition that are susceptible to being measured by standardized assessments. The trouble is that these skills can be taught without embedding them in a rich play context, and too often administrators are more worried about scores to prove value added, than about ensuring that children have deep understanding of both foundational and higher level understandings in early literacy.

As Pondiscio (2015) points out, “No one wants to see academic pressure bearing down on kindergarteners. That would only lead to uninterested children and with dim reading prospects. But focusing on language in kindergarten does not entail diminished play-based learning.” As early childhood professionals, we need to emphasize that our objection is to the administrative recommendations for how we prepare children for mandated assessments, rather than (1) including reading, writing, and language-based experiences in our school day, or (2) on the absence of play-based literacy learning…because the CCSS don’t say we should exclude the play.


[1] Paciga, K.A., Hoffman, J.L. & Teale, W.H. (2011). The National Early Literacy Panel Report and classroom instruction: Green lights, caution lights, and red lights. Young Children, 66 (6), 50-57.










Top concerns about Common Core State Standards in early childhood education

March 26, 2015

There’s been lots of discussion about the Common Core State Standards recently, and their impact on classroom activity and child outcomes. Common Core is a major policy initiative to reform K-12 classroom practices, raise expectations and implement a new generation of assessments (at least in grades 3 and up), so it has major implications for Kindergarten-3rd grade (and early childhood education) teachers, children, and parents. It must be examined critically and debated. As we know, even if the policy is sound, implementation matters.

children in classA recurring concern is that the Common Core State Standards were developed from the top-down (setting standards for 12th graders first, and then working backwards to set expectations for the lower grades, failing to take sufficient account of research-based learning progressions for children from birth-age 5. A related issue: Some feel there was insufficient involvement of early childhood research experts in language, literacy, mathematics, and child development in the standards development process.

Over the next few weeks, we plan to have experts comment on the top concerns and issues we’ve heard about CCSS.

  • Rigorous standards may lead to reduced play and rich activity in preschool and Kindergarten classrooms.
  • Literacy instruction may become limited to a few texts and drill-and-kill teaching.
  • The standards are complex and extensive, and there is little guidance for teachers to implement them in Kindergarten classrooms.
  • Parents don’t understand the CCSS and are concerned about what they mean for their children.
  • The Kindergarten standards for literacy are not appropriate for children that age.
  • Assessment related to reaching standards will not be developmentally appropriate, and results may be misused.
  • Alignment with K-12 standards will mean teaching methods, subjects, and assessments that are not developmentally appropriate will be pushed down to preschool levels.
  • Math standards will be too challenging for young children.

We welcome your participation as well. Please comment and weigh in on the concerns and our experts’ responses.

Developing P-3 Guidelines in New Jersey: Collaboration and Communication

March 24, 2015

The Center for Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes is committed to building the capacity of state early education administrators to advance the state’s goals for children. This year CEELO is focusing specifically on the theme, Leading for Excellence in Early Childhood Education. 

As part of an ongoing series of interviews with leaders in early childhood education, CEELO spoke with Vincent CostanzaExecutive Director, Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge at the New Jersey Department of Education, about the process of developing guidelines for Preschool-to-Grade 3 program implementation and best practice in New Jersey. They will provide guidance to school districts, private providers, and local Head Start agencies on planning and implementing high-quality programs for children, with alignment through the early elementary grades, and with NJ Teaching and Learning Standards.

Can you briefly discuss the P-3 guidelines and the timeline for developing them in NJ?

Initially the Division of Early Childhood was very focused on the implementation of Abbott preschool—that was the charge of the office. We developed preschool guidelines, and they were fantastic and outlined best practices in the preschool world.

But around 2011 there was some discussion that there was nothing like the preschool guidelines for Kindergarten, so we developed them then. Ironically, the same discussion came up and people said we don’t have them for first to third grade either—and there were not great examples around the country. With the award of the Early Learning Challenge Grant, we leveraged the funds to develop first-to-third-grade guidelines.

How are the guidelines a part of the larger P-3 systems building picture, and how has the process developed?

Yearbook set 6

We have a partnership with NIEER and with the Rutgers GSE, and we have a draft of guidelines already. Year 1 of the grant was mostly about entering an MOU with higher education groups to draft the guidelines, and identifying partners.

We didn’t have the personnel in the office to do the work in a timely fashion.

Now the guidelines are out for expert review, and being reviewed by focus groups throughout the state.

What role has the state played in leading implementation of the guidelines?

The state has distributed the draft guidelines to practitioners; teachers from first to third grade; and administrators, for review and feedback on the usability of the guidelines. We want something that say the things that need to be said and aren’t currently being said; that conceptualize academic rigor and developmentally appropriate practice and show what it would look like. It’s not like the 1st thru 3rd grade guidelines could be 300 pages (triple the size of the K guidelines, because there are three grades), because people wouldn’t read them.

The review process will go through the remainder of the [school] year and be finalized in September.

What kinds of meetings, tools, technology, have been provided for districts, school, and teachers working on or with the guidelines?

There will be workshop modules, and training. The guidelines will be available on the website; and there is a communications plan around that. The DOE, and contacts at NIEER and the Rutgers GSE have put out applications to get on the presentation circuit.

There have been a lot of requests to see the guidelines from the State specialist listserv as well. People want to do this in other states and see how we are approaching it.

Has there been any work on K-12 Alignment?

We’re not really working on 3+ alignment yet. There are governance issues: people are talking about Birth-to-8 systems, but the reality is there haven’t been that many people who have been involved in it. Teachers and administrators in early education struggle with teacher evaluation and growth objectives, for example.

We’re now working with the teacher evaluation office, in a collaborative effort, working together to put together good examples. The evaluation office has been great. We have been aware of needing to collaborate, to know the right people, on the right issues. You have to really be focused on the issues that the field is struggling with. The teacher evaluation struggles have motivated us to have answers in these areas, and in order to have answers we have to work collaboratively within the DOE. We’re doing the same in the areas of social-emotional learning, as the department considers how to development K-12 supports in this area.

How are districts and teachers supporting the work?

For the teachers and districts: working with NIEER and the Rutgers GSE has helped to legitimize the work. People at the Department don’t know everything there is to know; so it adds a lot of legitimacy to work with higher ed.

Even before the Early Learning Challenge funds we had a guidelines work group: 50 educators, superintendents, first-grade teachers, people in higher education. They helped to put together a draft outline of what to include, what they need to hear.

Teachers and districts have been very receptive and interested. The focus groups want more state involvement. They appreciate the supports, concrete examples, expertise. They want to keep doing more of what they’re doing. Not only is the field supportive, they want much more engagement. Therefore we do need people who are in the bus and foot on the pedal to get the work done.

Teachers and administrators are excited about it too.

Has the Early Childhood Academy been involved in this project at all? If so, can you discuss how?

The Early Learning Academy participants (5 New Jersey districts engaged in leadership development activities)—have received copies of the guidelines. We’ve solicited feedback and comments; some have provided feedback. In April, Sharon Ritchie will be presenting; there is lots of correlation, so it will be a topic.

What advice would you give to other states wanting to implement this kind of project?

Looking outside of the department has been a very important aspect for us; for legitimizing the work, and getting it done in a timely fashion. For Kindergarten this took 18 months; for this draft, the focus groups, and expert review have happened within 6 months. Get some friends.

Really appreciate the issue of having people that are just going to own it. I’m not making an argument for silos, but there are times when maybe we over-learn it, and some compartmentalization may be good, devoting someones’s full attention to it.

Involve stakeholders. What’s different about the early childhood guidelines is to reach stakeholders and really involve them. Year 1 of the Kindergarten Entry Assessment is another example; we have people who can’t wait to sign on to them.

Can states move forward effectively on this without the kind of funding you have with the challenge grant?

We were set to move forward with this before we got the grant. It’s hard to imagine the quality and timeliness would be the same.

How has CEELO (if at all) been involved in developing/enhancing this work?

CEELO has been involved through the extension of the Academy, which they support , and with things like the teacher evaluation brief, our first-third grade guidelines, helping to put the issues on the radar that need to be in early elementary guidelines.

Are there any other resources you would like to highlight for your state or other states?

No other resources in early elementary, but our teacher evaluation document, developed in early childhood, has been timely as far as ‘here’s the issue people are dealing with.’

Also the KEA work; the work of first-third-grade guidelines will be informed with approaches we have going on with KEA. Nationally it’s talked about as if K has a monopoly on talking about children are doing at the beginning of the year, but that could expand to second and third grade as well.

–Kirsty Clarke Brown, NIEER & CEELO, Research and Policy Advisor

Time well spent: Principals as early learning community leaders

March 11, 2015

Former principal Sue Maguire from Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington, Vermont, told her teachers she expected only two things of them–excellent teaching and a welcoming school environment. With these expectations and the recognition that kindergarten was too late for some children, this leader reached beyond the school walls to embrace early childhood.

Yet a recent CEELO report showed that she may have been an exception, with many principals underprepared to tackle the complexities inherent in the P–3rd grade realm, where transitions for children from home, to pre-K, to elementary school, may feel more like chasms than bridges. Few administrator preparation programs or certification requirements include early education coursework or field experience, and administrators quickly realize that 4-year-olds approach learning quite differently from 4th graders. Preschool classrooms look dramatically different from a typical elementary arrangement (as well they should), and effective pre-K teaching strategies may be unrecognizable in the primary grades. For elementary principals to be key instructional leaders in their buildings and communities, which increasingly include pre-K, their responsibilities of supervision, coaching, and evaluation must incorporate a broader understanding of how young children learn, teachers of young children teach, and collaborative relationships across settings develop.

Addressed in a recent webinar “Supporting Principal Leadership for P–3rd Grade Learning Communities” sponsored by CEELO, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, the critical role of principal continues to be redefined. More than 600 principals, administrators, and early education leaders from almost every state and the District of Columbia registered, signaling the pivotal role played by principals to ensure greater continuity across what have been traditionally separate birth-five and K-12 systems. In what has become a “don’t wait until it’s too late” stance toward education, the importance of the early years has become everyone’s business.

While the role of principal remains demanding in every sense, a sigh of relief can be heard as principals realize there is a broad base of support available for them. High quality early education may already be happening throughout their communities in Head Start, child care, and children’s homes; it’s a matter of developing partnerships with these programs rather than starting from scratch. In addition to NAESP’s Leading Pre-K – 3 Learning Communities: Competencies for Effective Principal Practice and Kauerz & Coffman’s Framework for Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating PreK-3rd Grade Approaches, resources are plentiful, from the PreK–3rd Grade National Work Group, Foundation for Child Development, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and others. States such as Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, and Pennsylvania are providing leadership to support principals as P-3 leaders through conferences and institutes, influenced by programs such as the University of Washington Certificate in P–3 Executive Leadership and the National Institute for School Leadership.

As challenging as the role of principal is, they have a front row seat when it comes to witnessing the fruits of their labor by embracing a P-3rd grade approach. Principals have the opportunity to look beyond school report cards to watch the joy of learning each day. And when the time comes to send the children off to the next level of education and life, they can rest assured that their time has been very well spent.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, National Institute for Early Education Research and Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes

%d bloggers like this: