Defining Quality in the Primary Grades
Research and education organizations, state and federal agencies, politicians, and the media communicate prolifically about key elements of high-quality preschool. This information is shared with policy makers, parents, teachers, administrators, and the public. Yet, we don’t highlight often enough the quality that is needed later in the spectrum of early childhood education (first through third grade). What does a high-quality second grade classroom look like? What types of experiences should first grade students have during their time at school? How do third grade students learn best?
At NIEER, in partnership with the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at Rutgers, with funding from the New Jersey Department of Education under the Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge Grant, we are addressing these questions for students and educators in the primary grades. It is important that the high quality the field asks for in preschool is carried through to third grade, the upper end of the early childhood continuum.
My colleague, Dr. Sharon Ryan, and I have led the development of the New Jersey First Through Third Grade Implementation Guidelines. The purpose of these guidelines is to outline best practices in the primary years of schooling and to assist educators with fusing practices that are both academically rigorous and developmentally appropriate. This document joins the NJ Implementation Guidelines for Preschool and Kindergarten to provide guidance for all early childhood teachers and leaders throughout the state and beyond.
The First Through Third Grade Implementation Guidelines offer teachers and leaders in the field a go-to resource for developmentally appropriate and academically rigorous teaching practices in the primary grades. The guidelines begin with a presentation of the young child. At these grade levels, with the pressures of accountability, it is easy to forget that the students are still young learners who need to be nurtured in a developmentally appropriate manner and that each child is a unique individual with unique strengths and needs. The guidelines further address how teachers can be academically, culturally, and linguistically responsive by working with families and communities. Next, we present a look into classroom space and time (including environments and schedules), teacher-child interactions, and the promotion of classroom management through developmentally appropriate practice. The Exploring Classroom Content section provides teachers with background about content areas and best practices for Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Technology, and English Language Arts. Teaching/Instructional Strategies offers a look at data-driven instruction, including collecting and using data, scaffolding and differentiation of instruction, and teaching and learning with an integrated approach through units and projects. Finally, Moving Beyond the Classroom provides teachers guidance about their work as professionals, with a focus on teacher evaluation and classroom observation measures.
Although the document provides strong guidance for educators, it is a hefty document that can be overwhelming. As a former reading specialist where my responsibilities included coaching teachers in high-quality literacy instruction, I heard the request “show me” quite often. “Please show me how to do that!” and “show me what it looks like!” Knowing that “telling” is not quite enough; we developed a companion video series for the first through third grade guidelines. These three videos show what six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds should be experiencing in school. They join the High-Quality Kindergarten Today video series NJDOE produced to accompany the kindergarten guidelines.
The first video in the series focuses on setting up the classroom environment to support children’s learning. The second video explores classroom content through effective instructional strategies and emphasizes assessment and differentiated instruction. The third video in the series demonstrates project-based learning, a pedagogical approach to integrating curricula.
State education agencies can use the guidelines and videos as a valuable component of their technical assistance toolbox used to provide support to local education agencies and to begin a dialog about classroom quality in first through third grade. Local school districts can use the guidelines document and videos to look for key policy changes needed to increase quality. For coaches and leaders working directly supporting teachers, these resources provide a model to demonstrate quality in action and can be used to demonstrate effective strategies to implement a developmentally appropriate academically rigorous program in the primary years.
We hope you find these resources valuable and useful as the field moves high quality through early childhood.
–Shannon Riley-Ayers, NIEER Associate Research Professor