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What Guides Pre-K Programs?

by Elizabeth Graue, Sharon Ryan, Bethany Wilinski, Kaitlin Northey & Amato Nocera - 2018

Background/Context: Early childhood education joined the standards movement in 2002 with the Good Start, Grow Smart initiative, with advocates arguing that standards were a tool for creating more continuity and coherence in Pre-K systems. Critics posed concerns about a perceived poor fit between standards-based and developmentally appropriate practices, pointing to standardization and pressure from the K–12 system. With growth in public Pre-K programs guided by state early learning standards, we set out to understand what guides Pre-K programs.

Setting: We sampled two states with mature Pre-K programs: New Jersey (NJ), a targeted, highly regulated full-day program for 3- and 4-year-olds and Wisconsin (WI), a universal, local control half-day program for 4-year-olds. Both programs implement Pre-K programs in schools, Head Start, and child care classrooms.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of the project was to compare the role of standards in Pre-K programs in NJ and WI, analyzing standards conceptualization and enactment by district administrators and teachers.

Research Design: We designed a multi-state, comparative case study including interviews with state actors who identified rural, midsize, and urban districts for fieldwork, weekly observations of Pre-K classrooms in elementary schools, Head Start, and childcare centers and interviews with the teachers in these sites.

Conclusions: Policy and standards alone were not very good predictors of the Pre-K programs’ enacted practices. The logic of practice embedded in standards evolved through policy enactment in the local context, through the work of actors, like local child care advocates, the administrative designs of district leaders, and the policies of the adjacent K–12 system. The nonlinear implementation of early learning standards in this study shows the importance of looking beyond policy inputs and child outcomes and the need to include the administrative and instructional practices between if we are to understand how to best support young learners and their teachers.

Early childhood educators have always danced to a slightly different tune than their elementary colleagues. Rather than organizing curriculum by content areas, early educators think in terms of developmental domains that are integrated through childrens experiences. They are more likely to create thematic units that teach developmental content in the context of the childs life. And they are more likely to think of the curriculum as coming from the child. While norms of development guide early education, early childhood educators expect that development varies and that expectations for children exist in broad bands rather than in single outcomes.

This generative notion of curriculum, depicted as developmentally appropriate practice (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009), is an odd fit with the current focus on early learning standards. Early learning standards delineate specific expectations for what children should know and be able to do, and by implication, what curriculum and teaching should look like in early childhood programs (Kagan & Scott-Little, 2004). Some argue that standards are one way to ensure consistency of quality across early education programs, which have historically been fragmented (Kagan, 2012). But when most early childhood educators hear this argument, they bristlestandards often come with high-stakes testing, curriculum escalation, and teacher evaluation programs. This is particularly depressing when we consult early critics of early learning standards who foretold many of the education reform trends we experience today.

It is axiomatic in early childhood education that children develop at different rates. Some children will be ready to meet the challenges of the new expectations associated with the standards movement, many will not. . . . Holding all children to the same standard guarantees that some will face failure. (Hatch, 2002, p. 258)

But it appears that the horse is already out of the gate. The standards movement continues to progress into the early education system. As the number of public Pre-K programs grows, and with the successive regimes of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, and the Common Core State Standards, standards are now a key element of early education in the United States. Every state has early learning standards (Barnett et al., 2016), and many also have standards for infants and toddlers (Administration for Children and Families, 2014).

In this paper we explore how the state standards in New Jersey (NJ) and Wisconsin (WI) state-funded Pre-K systems are enacted in practice. Our research suggests that while states have early learning standards in place to guide Pre-K programs, there is significant variation in how teachers and leaders have enacted these standards. In this paper we describe how Pre-K programs across three districts in each of the two states responded to early learning standards to address the following research question: What guides Pre-K programs in two states?


Early childhood education joined the standards movement with the George W. Bush Administrations 2002 Good Start, Grow Smart initiative, touted as a reform to tackle the low quality of public Pre-K (Brown, 2007). The legislation incentivized states to develop voluntary early guidelines in literacy and language that aligned with K12 (Administration for Children and Families, n.d., p. 3). States were required to provide detailed descriptions of the development of these standards to the federal government in any request for Child Care and Development Funds. The number of states with early learning standards tripled after Good Start, Grow Smart, and policymakers hoped that the new standards would inform curriculum and instruction (Scott-Little, Kagan, & Frelow, 2003). Four years later, Scott-Little, Lesko, Martella, and Milburn (2007) documented an increase in early learning standards, as well as an increase in the number of state-mandated accountability systems. By 2009 all 50 states had early education standards with significant variability in the concepts, knowledge, [and] skills expected from state to state (Bracken & Crawford, 2009).

Another branch of literature (e.g., Lowenstein, 2011; McCabe & Sipple, 2011; Rose, 2010) debated potential benefits and shortfalls of early childhood education standards. One of the leading proponents of standards in early childhood, Kagan (2012) saw the potential for greater continuity and coherence in Pre-K systems that had been described as fragmented, patchwork, and non-system[s]. Kagan (2012) focused on standards potential to create an integrated pedagogical subsystem that forms the basis for a comprehensive, well-articulated early childhood system (p. 56). Bowman (2006) argued that early childhood standards are at the heart of educational equity and suggested that implicit bias and inequity ensues when individual programs and teachers decide what children should know. Arguments supporting early childhood standards have generally appealed to the problems Kagan and Bowman identified: 1) the fragmentation of the Pre-K system and 2) inequities within systems.

Critics, however, have raised a number of concerns. One major concern is that state standards conflict with beliefs about developmentally appropriate practices (Neuman & Roskos, 2005). Developmentally Appropriate Practice calls for early childhood teachers to meet students where they are developmentally, which is not assumed to be the same for all children (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). Further, because state standards tend to be content standardsfocusing on areas like literacy and numeracythey inhibit a teachers ability to adapt and improvise based on a communitys needs (Graue, Whyte, & Delaney, 2014). Early learning standards rarely exist in isolation. Content standards are often coupled with standardized curricula and accountability systems. Critics have noted that these reforms have placed pressure on districts and programs to move away from early childhoods tradition of play-based/creative learning and toward a more didactic approach (Goldstein, 2007; Rose, 2010). To progressive early childhood educators, these reforms have been bad for young children and their teachers.

Regardless of their origins, standards are implemented at local levels and by institutional actors. Teachers and administrators report that one of the biggest challenges posed in standards implementation is the amount of time it takes (Berlin, 2004). Minnesota Pre-K teachers implementing standards-based reforms reported the feeling of being overwhelmed by expectations and having a lack of time or resources to implement new standards, curricula, and accountability systems (Rader, 2013, p. 170). In contrast, Head (2010) found that Ohio Pre-K teachers with higher educational attainment tended to be more supportive of the standards. As Rader (2013) noted, [t]eachers use their beliefs, knowledge and experience to interpret the demands of [standards-based reforms] (p. 161).

Another group of studies have explored the implications of early learning standards on classroom practice. Qualitative studies (e.g., Graue, Ryan, Nocera, et al., 2016a; Graue, Wilinski, & Nocera, 2016b; Brown, 2009; Goldstein, 2007; Rose, 2010) have highlighted how the standards movement has increased pressure for Pre-K programs to align with K12, resulting in a greater focus on academic instruction. This is because state standards tend to be content standardsfocusing on areas like literacy and numeracy and are typically coupled with standardized curricula and accountability systems. As a consequence, early learning standards in an aligned system may inhibit a teachers ability to adapt and improvise based on a communitys needs (Graue, Whyte, & Delaney, 2014).

This study builds on the small but growing body of research on standards implementation in early childhood settings. Our aim was to understand how Pre-K standards are implemented, when, and why. We do this through an in-depth look at the implementation of Pre-K policy in NJ and WI.


This paper comes out of a multisite, comparative case study (Stake, 2005) designed to explore how Pre-K policy is enacted in policy development and political exchange, constructed through administration, and experienced by relevant stakeholders. In line with a growing recognition that local practices and culture shape the implementation process, we are guided by an analytic lens that views policy as practice (Levinson, Sutton, & Winstead, 2009). This critical approach sees nonauthorized policy actorstypically teachers and students, but possibly, too, building administrators as inherently connected to the policy process, by making new policy in situated locales and communities of practice (Levinson et al., 2009, p. 768).

Paired with this notion of policy as practice, we worked with the concept of policy enactment, which Braun, Ball, Maguire, and Hoskins (2011) contrasted with a more traditional, technical approach to policy analysis:

In much writing on school reform and school improvement, the meaning of policy is taken for granted and seen unproblematically as an attempt to solve a problem, generally through the production of policy texts such as legislation or other nationally driven insertions into practice. In contrast, we understand policy as a process, as diversely and repeatedly contested and/or subject to interpretation as it is enacted (rather than implemented) in original and creative ways within institutions and classrooms. (p. 11)

From this perspective, policy implementation is not linear, with policies directly transported from the intention to implementation. Instead, policies are taken up in local social contexts where they interact with existing systems and participants beliefs. Policies are interpreted and translated by local actors into workable practices based on organizational ethos, professional theories, and perceived need (Braun, Ball, Maguire, & Hoskins, 2011; Coburn & Stein, 2006 ). This prompted us to carefully examine the varied paths by which policy was made and remade as it flowed from state policymakers through district actors and into the lives and practices of Pre-K teachers. It helped us recognize the values underpinning actions and to understand resistance to policy and the unintended consequences of some practices.


We sampled NJ and WI, two states with mature Pre-K programs, to provide a window on dimensions of policy enactment. The two states approach Pre-K quite differentlyNJ is a targeted program, providing services to children in high-need districts; WI is a universal program that is available in 93% of the states districts. NJ is a highly-regulated program with a number of state-dictated requirements; WI is a model of local control, with fewer state mandates. Both states provide Pre-K in public schools, child care centers, or Head Start. NJ teachers are all paid on a K12 schedule, and WI teachers are paid according to the local preschool market if they are working in a child care center. Tables 1 and 2 provide a demographic overview of the districts and sites in which we conducted our study.

Table 1. District Characteristics


New Jersey




Vale Park





Small, suburban

Large urban

Mid-size rural town

Small town

Small urban

Rural town








Pre-K12 enrollment







% White







% Black







% Hispanic







% Other







% Economic Disadvantaged







% English Proficient







*Data are for Pre-K8th grade only

Table 2. Pre-K Implementation by district


New Jersey



Public School





Public School

Number of sites

4 classrooms in primary school site, 7 off-site classrooms

36 public schools, 77 private Pre-K providers, 41 Head Start sites

40 public schools classrooms, 62 private child care classrooms

6 classrooms in community childcare sites

5 public schools, 14 private Pre-K providers, 1 Head Start

1 classroom in districts single elementary school

Site characteristics

Public Pre-K classroom in a converted special education classroom behind a large high school

Public Pre-K classroom in a Head Start site

Public Pre-K classroom in a child care setting

Nonprofit child care program

Nonprofit, NAEYC accredited, 4K programming combined with wrap around care

Rural school site housing 4K12

We began in 2012 interviewing state actors, including legislators and state education officials, and we analyzed a sample of state education documents to trace the history of the programs. These interviews were all done in person by Graue in WI and Ryan in NJ, in a location chosen by the participant, taking notes as backup to digital recording. All interview recordings were then transcribed verbatim. In consultation with state staff, we identified rural, midsize, and urban districts that would illustrate the states mature program implementation. Within the three sampled districts in each state we interviewed district administrators (superintendents and Pre-K coordinators) who provided insight into the local implementation and helped us identify Pre-K sites that represented the districts program.

In three sites in each state, we interviewed Pre-K program administrators who identified classrooms for our case studies and potential focal children in each class. To examine policy enactment at the classroom level, we conducted case studies of policy in practice, doing weekly ethnographic observations of the Pre-K classrooms, following instructional practices and teacher-child interactions. In addition, we conducted four semi-structured face-to-face interviews with teachers about what guided their programs and how they went about their daily work. We provide an example of the types of questions we asked the teachers in Table 3.

Table 3. Fall Pre-K Teacher Interview

Thanks so much for meeting with me today. We are conducting a study of life in early childhood settings from the perspectives of policymakers, administrators, program leaders, teachers, children, and families. Our aim is to create a descriptive portrait of how Pre-K policy is interpreted and experienced from state through to local contexts. As a Pre-K teacher, Id like to ask you some questions about the Pre-K program and its implementation. Is it okay if I turn on the recorder?

State Pre-K Program


Tell me a little about yourself and your history as a teacher.


Tell me what you know about WI/NJ Pre-K program?


Do you have a sense of what the districts goals are for the Pre-K program?

Implementation of Pre-K


What are your goals for children in the Pre-K program?


How do you achieve your Pre-K goals in practice?

a) How would you describe a typical day in Pre-K?


How would you describe the Pre-K curriculum to another teacher?


Who decides the curriculum you use?

a) Does your center/school use a particular curriculum in its Pre-K classrooms?


Are there things you would like to do in your classroom that you cant because of the stated curriculum?


What are the kinds of assessment you have to use?


Tell me about the resources that you have to be a Pre-K teacher?

a) Do you have enough space, people, materials, and information to implement Pre-K in your classroom?


How do you work with families in your classroom?


Can you give me some examples of how you make connections between home and school?

13. On a weekly basis, who would you say you talk to the most outside of your classroom?

14. Describe the assistance that the district offers you with implementing Pre-K.

a) Are there meetings, information or training sessions district wide? How helpful do you find these?

15. Anything else you want to tell me about your Pre-K program before I start observing in your classroom?

Thanks for your time.

Though not directly a part of this paper, we conducted case studies of two focal children in each site, following them and their families for the 4K year. We also followed the children into kindergarten, interviewing their kindergarten teachers to get a sense of each childs experience. Paper authors collected data over 18 months, from fall 2012 until the end of 2013. We provide this detail to reinforce the depth of the data from which we make our assertions. All names for individuals and places, beyond the state name, are pseudonyms.


Analysis was a recursive process that began with data collection and continued through the process of writing (Merriam, 2009). This process involved transcribing interview recordings, compiling field notes and documentary data by district and state. All interview, observation, and documentary data were then uploaded into Dedoose, a mixed methods analysis program.

Formal analysis for this paper began with examination of the state-level data, working to construct a framework and history of the program, then tracing it into the practices of districts and sites. To examine the policy implementation process at district and classroom levels, we coded all data by district for references to standards and Pre-K policies. For example, teacher lesson plans were coded for absence or presence of state early learning standards and the goals and objectives that informed the curriculum. In addition to deductive coding, we paid careful attention to the local context, noting the values and expectations teachers and administrators said guided their program. A minimum of two researchers in each state coded the study data. We then examined the data coded for each district, looking for patterns or themes that cut across codes and captured the factors informing Pre-K implementation. We used this thematic analysis to develop case portraits that illustrate the values/goals shaping Pre-K on the district level. We paid special attention to the way state policies and standards were taken up by local actors as well as how Pre-K-related policy was enacted in each classroom.

We also viewed writing analytically. Seeing policy enactment as a nonlinear and interactive process, we recognized that the written format should reflect the process of policy enactment. In essence, we decided that the process of policy enactment was best conveyed in narrative and descriptive form. Decisions about form are related to epistemological perspectives that underlie the work. For those who choose what might be seen as alternative forms (using standard APA form as mainstream), it is the form itself that provides another dimension to analysis (Graue & Karabon, 2013, p. 15). By presenting the trends in responses and the contradictions in policy, implementation, and discussion in a narrative style, we provide the reader with an opportunity to engage in the analytic process.

In the following section we compare the role of standards in Pre-K programs in NJ and WI. We start by describing each states Pre-K program. We then analyze how standards were enacted and how district administrators and 4K teachers conceptualized standards in their local contexts.


The state of NJ has provided some kind of targeted public Pre-K program since the 1970s. In response to the Individuals with Disabilities Act, the first state Pre-K programs served children with disabilities in public school sites. However, in 1981, the Education Law Center filed a complaint with the Superior Court, arguing that the states methods of funding education violated the states constitution, resulting in educational disparities between students in low income urban districts and those in wealthier suburban districts (Education Law Center, n.d.). In 1998 the Supreme Court of NJ mandated the 28 (now 35) urban school districts serving the states poorest students to create systems of high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children, beginning in the 19992000 school year.

High-quality programs are defined as having no more than 15 students, with one certified teacher (bachelors degree and P-3 teaching certificate) and one assistant teacher per classroom. Each program must use a research-proven, developmentally appropriate curriculum model (Abbott v. Burke [Abbott VI], 2000) and provide an educative experience for all children within the district for six hours per day. District administrators can choose from among the Creative Curriculum (http://teachingstrategies.com/creative-curriculum-preschool/), Tools of the Mind (http://toolsofthemind.org/learn/what-is-tools/), High Scope (http://www.highscope.org/Content.asp?ContentId=63), and Curiosity Corner (http://www.successforall.org/our-approach/classroom-programs/curiosity-corner/). The 35 districts providing Pre-K serve 48,000 students. From the states perspective, the public preschool program is targeted to serve children in areas of greatest need. The program is also universal in that all 4-year-old children living in these 35 school districts are eligible for free access to preschool.

Most districts collaborate with Head Start and childcare programs in their communities, and local education officials monitor programmatic compliance with state regulations. To meet this responsibility, each district has early childhood administrative and technical assistance teams. These teams include the districts early childhood supervisor, who develops the districts program improvement plan and budget, and supervises preschool professional development. A group of master teachers reports to the early childhood supervisor and works directly with preschool teachers and program administrators on curriculum implementation and quality improvement.

There have been efforts to expand preschool beyond the former Abbott districts. The Early Launch to Learning allows districts to supplement other funding sources to provide Pre-K. Currently an additional 110 NJ districts offer Pre-K in this way.


The NJ Department of Education, through its Office of Early Childhood Education, is responsible for the implementation and governance of the preschool system and has developed Preschool Program Implementation Guidelines (New Jersey Department of Education [NJDOE], 2015), to guide administrators through the decision-making and budgetary considerations that lead to high-quality practices. Developed by a group of key stakeholders in 2003, the guidelines provide district administrators, as well as child care and Head Start agencies, with a framework for implementing and evaluating the components of a high quality preschool for 3- and 4-year old children. The guidelines specify the number of administrative personnel and master teachers for the numbers of children in a district, the resources provided for English language learners and children with special needs, as well as what the curriculum should look like, right down to the amount of time spent on activities such as meal time and outside playtime. As the state director of the preschool program commented, With preschool, we really carefully [define] the inputs. While touted as guidelines, all components must be included in state-funded Pre-K programs in order for the program to be considered high-quality.

The state also has Preschool Teaching and Learning Standards, which outline in detail the markers of quality at the classroom level (New Jersey Department of Education [NJDOE], 2014). First instituted in 2000, the standards have undergone several modifications, the most recent in 2013 to ensure alignment with the Common Core Content Standards, which included a name change from expectations to standards. The standards specify expectations for childrens learning in subject matter areas (e.g., mathematics, technology, world languages, etc.) and developmental domains (e.g., socio-emotional learning and physical education), as well as appropriate teaching practices to support those outcomes (NJDOE, 2014). In keeping with developmentally appropriate practice, the standards describe supportive learning environments for children and how teachers might partner with families and communities to support young childrens learning. An additional section provides direction on documentation and assessment to ensure standards are met (NJDOE, 2014).

With significant public money tied to meeting the Preschool Program Implementation Guidelines, it is not surprising that all three of the NJ sites conformed to these standards. However, the presence of the Preschool Teaching and Learning Standards was less obvious in the observed local sites. Across the three sites we observed a developmentally appropriate, focused Pre-K program that tried to implement the preschool teaching and learning standards with fidelity, a program that foregrounded the needs of English language learners and emphasized academic readiness, and a Head Start program torn between differing federal, state, and district mandates.


Vale Park is a large town in a semi-rural area in the southern part of NJ. The Pre-K program is overseen by an administrative team that includes Nora Jones, the districts early childhood principal, and Madeline Burka, the districts early childhood supervisor. When asked about the goals of the Pre-K program, both administrators spoke of the developmentally appropriate intent of the preschool learning and teaching standards and the state policy. Nora stated,

The policy is a child, three or four on or before October 1 and has residency in Vale Park, has a wonderful opportunity to attend a six-hour preschool program that offers high-quality, developmentally appropriate learning activities, breakfast, lunch, a nap time, lots of language going on throughout the day, teachers and assistants and lots of problem solving. Were really teaching children how to think early on.


Similarly, Madeline told us that the goals of the preschool program were to accept all children where they are and to move them . . .  so when the time comes for them to enter the kindergarten program, our children are ready.

Meeting the standard of a child-centered and developmentally appropriate Pre-K program was also how teacher Suzanne Fuller described her role. Suzanne was committed to starting her curriculum planning with where the students were. As she explained, The goals for my kids in my classroom are different every year. Its like getting a new family every year. Youve got to think of them as a whole, where they are when they come through the preschool door because thats where you are starting from.

Yet Suzanne was fully aware that part of her role was to get them ready for kindergarten the best way I can. For Suzanne, preparing children for kindergarten was not directly in tension with being developmentally appropriate, but it required going beyond the strict fidelity to the curriculum.

Our policies are to implement the High Scope curriculum. We are required to reach our KDIs (Key Developmental Indicators) and our [standards], but we have to think of our lessons in a more creative way and how to implement them more hands-on for the children instead of being . . . direct [instruction] and doing it with dittos.

To ensure that Pre-K programs in the district implemented state standards, the district administration provided teachers with a planning template that was organized by the various components of the High Scope Curriculum Suzanne planned every week using the preschool teaching and learning standards, identifying the number and the domain in alignment with each of her intended actions for the instructional events of High Scope: planning, small group, work time/choice time, cleanup, and recall. The district had also emphasized particular priorities the year we visited, so Suzanne was expected to identify not only the standards she was addressing but also how she would modify each instructional event, even transition activities, for English language learners and children with Individual Education Plans.

In addition to the Preschool Teaching and Learning Standards, Suzanne relied on High Scopes Key Developmental Indicators (KDIs). According to the High Scope Foundation, these indicators align with all state standards and provide general goals for what teachers should be working on with children by developmental domain (e.g., physical development and health) as well as subject matter (e.g., math, language, literacy, etc.). She used the KDIs to help her plan her interactions with specific children: What I do is write down for each child what I know so far about them, where they are struggling, and thats how I plan. Ill pick the KDIs from where they are struggling.

There is some flexibility and workability with the High Scope curriculum, and Suzanne used this to meet both the needs of her students and the goals of the Pre-K program. During our observations, we saw how Suzanne used childrens interests and developmental needs to plan her instructional interventions in ways that also achieved her lesson plans. For example, sticky notes were used to remind her of words that she wanted to emphasize in different languages spoken by the children in her classroom, often when reading a story or leading a number-focused small group activity. When a child became interested in Bigfoot, Suzanne brought in extra backpacks and binoculars she had purchased from the dollar store. She placed these items in the dramatic play area so that she and the children could embark on expeditions to search for the monster. We also observed her building on childrens interests to achieve her academic goals. With the Bigfoot inquiry, children created maps, measured footprints, and kept a logbook to record sightings. This child-centered approach was balanced with a focus on academic learning in large group and small group times. Every whole group involved some sort of math activity or reading of a morning message that emphasized sounds and key letters. As required by the district, two weeks of each month, small groups were focused on literacy, and one week on math.

Suzanne worked to align her practice with the goals of the Pre-K program, as advocated by her administrators, which, in turn, reflected the states early learning standards. Despite this alignment, Suzanne reported that one of her biggest challenges was that the curriculum is not aligned with kindergarten expectations. According to Suzanne, the kindergarten teachers tell us we're not preparing them enough and we're giving them too many choices, and we're not doing our job. Madeline Burka, the early childhood supervisor, also commented, There is a disconnect with what some kindergarten teachers think we do and what actually happens. As a result, Suzanne worried about her students:

I do not think [the kindergarten teachers] are developmentally appropriate. Were sending them to kindergarten, they dont know all their numbers, and they dont know all their letters, but they have accomplished other milestones that were difficult for them, but [the kindergarten teachers] dont see that. You know, its kind of like expecting a child to act like a robot coming in from preschool to kindergarten.

According to the NJ Preschool Teaching and Learning Standards (2014), developmentally appropriate teaching practices scaffold successful implementation of the preschool standards (p. 5). The early childhood educators in Vale Park worked hard to implement this expectation, but while they were able to maintain their developmental focus, the early childhood supervisor noted that they continued to get pressure from the kindergarten teachers to become more like kindergarten. Thus, the state standards guided Pre-K programs in Vale Park, but local conditions were also shaping what took place in Pre-K classrooms in small and subtle ways.


In a district of changing demographics, preschool education in Robe was focused on improving learning opportunities for all children but especially English language learners (ELLs). The superintendent, Dr. Nydia Figueroa, mentioned that when she came to the district there had been tensions within the community due to a shift in the districts demographics. An increase in the Hispanic population was seen as an obstacle, more of a barrier in terms of what needed to be accomplished. The superintendent, one of only nine Hispanic superintendents in the state, was determined to change how these families were seen and how children were prepared for future schooling:

So it was almost helping the school system but also the entire community shift their thinking from, We have such a problem in our schools, as compared to Let's maximize the potential of our kids and provide them with the best possible learning opportunities as they were going to be with us, not only as three or four year olds, but obviously continuing through middle and going onto the regional high school.

A passionate advocate for early education, the superintendent applied for extra funding from the state as part of the Early Launch to Learning Initiative (ELLI) and through NJs Early Childhood Program aid to provide full-day preschool and kindergarten beginning in 2004.

One goal of the Robes Pre-K program was to ensure that every ELL student is academically successful by 3rd grade. As Meredith Bouley, the early childhood supervisor, observed:

Being such a diverse community and having so many ELL students, [our focus is on] giving them that strong literacy and vocabulary development. We have many field trips for the students in Pre-K, giving them those real-life experiences to be able to develop their language. With using Tools of the Mind [comes] the regulation of their behaviors and being able to self-regulate by the time they go to kindergarten.

The administrators emphasized that their goals for the Pre-K program were achieved through a carefully aligned Pre-K3 system. Meredith stated that The success of our 3rd grade students is not going to be there unless its fed. Alignment began with the use of the Tools of the Mind curriculum in both Pre-K and kindergarten. The continuity was also emphasized in 1st and 2nd grade. As Dr. Figueroa, the superintendent, told us, This alignment is borrowing some components of Tools into the first grade and then bringing it into second, techniques like buddy reading and the learning plans children complete.

Improving the experiences of English language learners was a goal communicated to the teachers within the district. Kimberly Daly, a Robe preschool teacher, echoed the superintendents goals when she said:

One of the goals of Robe is to have kids by third grade not really need the bilingual education. To filter them into the mainstream and to have them not rely so much on their home language. Its always important to support the home language, but I definitely know by third grade our goal is to have kids be able to succeed in the regular education all English setting. To be just as proficient in English as they are in their home language.

This goal was reflected in her weekly lesson plans where every instructional event also had a specified ELL support such as modeling speech and listening skills.

However, while the administration believed that Tools of the Mind would ensure their goal of ELLs being linguistically and academically competent in English, Kimberly disagreed. She noted:

Tools of the Mind is good for the typical, affluent child, who comes to school with a wealth of background knowledge on a lot of different things. And its very hard to . . . build that knowledge for certain kids who come from the demographic that we work with, because theyre not exposed to all of that, and you're having to do all of it for them.

With nine ELLs in a group of 15 Kimberly adjusted the curriculum to emphasize language and literacy learning. These adjustments included spending a lot of time doing more large group than small group to break things down and expanding the time she spent on themes from the prescribed four weeks to five weeks.

I spend a week building, a week ending, and three weeks kind of developing. I think they [the Tools of the Mind curriculum] push for four weeks, but when the kids are so little its hard because a lot of them come to school and they dont really have the language or the ability to really understand the themes. I mean, youre spending a lot of time literally building that idea for them from the ground up.

While the Tools curriculum guide called for the implementation of buddy reading, in which two children take turns reading to each other, Kimberly did not introduce this activity until four months into the school year, when she thought her students were ready.

In addition to making adjustments that slowed instructional pacing to meet her students developmental needs, Kimberly also felt responsible to prepare her students for kindergarten. Therefore she also included more kindergarten-focused content.

Throughout the year I base my curriculum just a little bit higher than what the Tools offers. I'm familiar with the Tools kindergarten program. So I do a lot of stuff in the classroom in terms of reading and sight words based off of what they do in kindergarten.

At the end of February we observed Kimberly introduce sight words to the morning meeting routine. She also created a large display on the classroom wall with words that the children should know and made a handout of the words for play planning. By mid-March, individual children were called on to circle sight words in the morning message, and a few were expected to write them on their play plans. At the end of most days, the children met in a large group while the teacher either introduced or reviewed a literacy concept, such as prediction while reading a book.

In Robe, what guided the Pre-K program was not so much the early learning and teaching standards but a commitment to ensuring the growing Hispanic population would be academically successful. With this goal in mind, the Pre-K teacher felt comfortable adjusting the mandated curriculum to meet the needs of her ELL students, sometimes slowing things down and, later in the year, accelerating the literacy content she taught.


Norwood is a large urban and racially diverse district under state control because of persisting academic underachievement. Laura Gomez, the executive director of early childhood programs, is a girl born and raised in Norwood and a passionate advocate for early childhood education. As she told us, I believe that its my right to protect children. Ive walked into classrooms where Ive heard adults talk to children like theyre felons. And the kid doesn't bat an eyelash. Why? Because he gets it all the time. So we have to be that change agent.

To ensure change, Laura explained that there was a focus on academic preparation that was achieved through the Common Core, the newly revised standards and alignment with GOLD (assessment system of Creative Curriculum), alignment with the Creative Curriculum. In addition to this alignment, she expected all of the Pre-K teachers in the district to focus on what she called the three pillars of excellence. As she explained:

The first pillar is the teaching of phonological awareness. Lets sing, lets chant, lets read nursery rhymes. The second thing is the development of oral language. Lets stop with the damn teacher talk already, I want to hear children marinating on their own thoughts. Children are brilliant as they are, and we need to allow them the opportunity to make that real for us, right? The third pillar is the reading of both fiction and non-fiction texts, throughout the day by either the teacher or the TA. And beyond the reading, theres a bullet right underneath that says the asking of text dependent questions. That last pillar bridges us into kindergarten expectations with the Common Core.

Celia Garcia emphasized literacy goals every day in her Head Start classroom. Her school was located in a Spanish and Portuguese neighborhood of the city where there was a fast-growing Arab community as well. Celia took a lot of effort to help her students practice speaking, writing, and reading in English. A lot of this literacy work took place in the morning when she brought together her students for circle time. With each new theme, Celia would read key words and ask the children to repeat after her before putting them on a word wall in the childrens writing center. By November, the class had moved from individual letters and words to constructing sentences. To do this, Celia would randomly select a childs name from a bag and ask that student to create a sentence with one of the words they were focusing on. The child had to sound the parts of the word out and then identify other words that started with the same sound. As the year progressed, Celia had the children reading more detailed messages, circling sounds in particular words, and identifying punctuation. Celias focus on academic readiness was not isolated solely to literacy. As she told us, We usually have a literacy activity for the morning and a math for the afternoon. In addition, Celia sent the children home each night with homework that included tracing letters, writing words, and completing various math problems.

Driving all of Celias interactions with children in the classroom was her goal of kindergarten preparation. She commented, I want them to learn that so then theyre ready for kindergarten, they don't struggle and are not behind. If they don't have the literacy and the mathematics, they're going to fall behind because they expect so much now of the preschool children.

In this respect, Celias practices with her children reflected the districts goals of academic readiness. However, because her classroom was one of a large number of Head Start contracted Pre-K classrooms in Norwood, she had to follow not only the district mandates but also those required for Head Start:

So basically, we follow the same policies as in the public schools, plus the Head Start policies. So we have both and we have to adhere to both. So it makes it . . . difficult. The kids, they don't notice anything, it's the same to them, but it's stressful for us because they contradict each other.

The two sets of expectations Celia spoke of were evident in her planning and reporting practices. Despite being required to record lesson plans online using GOLD, she also had to complete a Head Start weekly plan by hand that was structured according to a developmental domain listed in the Head Start Child Outcome Framework (Administration for Children & Families, 2015). To show that she was addressing the state preschool learning and teaching standards, Celia would also list the number of the early learning standards she was meeting next to planned activities. Similarly, when it came to assessment, Celia collected and planned using strategies defined by both Abbott (Creative Curriculum GOLD) and Head Start (portfolios).

Because we are also Abbott, we have to do what Abbott requires, which is all the GOLD documentation, every day they want us to put the GOLD [observations] online. But in Head Start, we have to do the portfolio. In that portfolio that Head Start requires, we have to keep a tracking form of everything we do.

The different Head Start and state expectations meant that Celia often used daily instructional events that were part of the Creative Curriculum to meet Head Start expectations. She told us:

Its [GOLD] very time consuming; you have to evaluate, see what level they are, then based on that you do your small groups. And then of course sometimes my small groups also have to do with the Head Start with the portfolios, like in the morning I was doing the self-portrait for the portfolio.

Meeting two sets of expectations was time-consuming and frustrating. In Celias words, I feel like we should just be Abbott. Its too confusing, and it's difficult and more work.

Referring to the contracted classrooms in Head Start and private child care sites, the district director of preschool Laura Gomez asserted were using one code and were using one set of expectations. Yet, we witnessed Celia being constantly torn between two sets of standards that she was expected to use to guide her practice.

Standards in NJ

Pre-K policy in NJ is highly explicit to ensure quality across Pre-K programs in a community and standardization across districts offering Pre-K. With funding tied to these requirements and oversight at the district level, it is perhaps not surprising that all of the NJ sites regardless of whether a classroom was housed in a Head Start center, a public school, or a child care site, the teachers were qualified, class sizes were kept to a maximum of 15 children, and every site implemented a full-day program using one of the state-approved curriculum models. However, what guided programs on a day-to-day basis was not always the preschool learning and teaching standards but a mix of standards, local values, and administrative priorities. One consequence of this mix of influences was that the developmentally appropriate intent of the NJ preschool learning and teaching standards was being supplemented with more academically focused goals and practices in most of the sites we studied.


Even in a period of increasing accountability and standardization, education in WI is a local matter, and this approach is extended to the evolution of 4K. The 1848 WI constitution included free voluntary education for 4-year-olds; this was enacted in 1873 with the creation of the 4K (the name of WIs Pre-K program) program. 4K waxed and waned throughout most of the 20th century, until it was reestablished and funded in 1984. Recently, the number of districts offering 4K has exploded, from 72 districts in 1996 to 386 in 2014. Ninety-three percent of WI school districts now offer 4K programs, serving 48,000 students (http://ec.dpi.wi.gov/files/fscp/pdf/ec4yktrend2014.pdf).

In contrast to the NJ program, 4K regulations are minimal. The major state-level requirements are that districts must operate for at least 437 hours per year, provide student transportation, employ appropriately licensed teachers, and charge no program fees to age-eligible children (Department of Public Instruction [DPI], 2008). WIs Department of Public Instruction (DPI) stresses that curricula are locally determined and should be based on best practice (2008, p. 9).

School districts can offer half-day 4K programs in schools or community programs with district or community staff. This hybrid model brings together the childcare community (overseen by the Department of Children and Families), the schools (overseen by the DPI), and Head Start (federal and local oversight). This public-private partnership was formed to alleviate any negative impact of 4K on the private childcare sector. Just over a quarter of WI districts include community sites in their 4K programs.


Prompted by Good Start, Grow Smart, WIs early care and education systems joined forces to design standards that met the federal K12 accountability goals. Yet, reflecting a tradition of local control and a respect for the variability of the early childhood community, state officials aimed to create a flexible system of standards (Brown, 2007). The result was the WI Model Early Learning Standards (WMELS). Aligned with WIs K12 standards, WMELS were organized around developmental domains and designed to minimize potential assessment misuse (Haglund, 2005, p. 3). As DPI noted, WMELS provide a shared framework for understanding and communicating developmentally appropriate expectations for young children from birth to first grade (DPI, 2008, p. 9). WMELS were designed to be double voicedreflecting the logic of K12 standards-based accountability while embodying early childhood values focused on protecting children from inappropriate practices (Brown, 2007).

While 4K programs could choose to implement WMELS or a local form of standards, reforms have pulled 4K increasingly into a standardized model of education. Since 2014, the state has required all 4K programs to use the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screener twice a year. In addition, community sites receiving state childcare subsidies are subject to a Quality Rating Indicator System (QRIS) called Young Star (http://dcf.wisconsin.gov/youngstar/). While very different in intent, these reforms set the stage for a transition for a new way of thinking about 4K.

With 4K implemented at the intersection of accountability and local control, instruction and child experience were shaped by 4K policy enactment through standards. In the next section, we explore how teachers work, the nature of the curriculum, and childrens opportunities reflected a local interpretation of the early learning standards ranging from completely aligned to K12 to locally generated standards.


Rural Pickering is home to small manufacturing and agricultural businesses that attract migrant workers. In 2003, despite resistance of the community, the district implemented a school-based 4K, extending the K12 system to 4-year-olds. With tight alignment with K12, 4K focused on preparing children for kindergarten through socialization and an introduction to school routines and expectations. Future expectations informed 4K instruction; the location of 4K in the elementary school supported communication between 4K and 5K teachers:

We share information; making sure that what I'm doing is enough for what theyre going to need in kindergarten. Halfway through the year, we always check in and say, Is there anything else? What did you notice about this group? Is there anything that they lacked in? Or any suggestions you have for what we can continue on for this year so they're ready next year? (Diane Lanham, 4K teacher)

Two 4K classrooms were woven seamlessly into the life and culture of the districts single elementary school, making 4K part of the K12 map. When we asked about the goals of 4K, teacher Ms. Lanham replied:

To prepare them for kindergarten. I mean, the standards for kindergarten are so different nowadays. My personal feeling is I want them socially ready. I guess teaching the social stuffhow to get along and problem solving . . . if you can't interact and get along with somebody and problem solve, you're going to have a hard time in life.

There was a curious contradiction in the way Ms. Lanham talked about her goals for 4K and what we observed in her classroom. While we regularly observed academically oriented worksheets and a strong emphasis socializing children into school routines, we saw little emphasis placed on social-emotional learning. It looked like an early childhood space, but the daily routine felt more like elementary school.

We began to understand this contradiction when we listened carefully to 4K conversations in relation to 4K practice. When expectations for kindergarten shifted, as they have in so many other districts (Graue, 2009), 4K had to fill in the gaps. Pickerings superintendent, Stacy Clifford, predicted that Pre-K would become a new and improved version of kindergarten, motivated by persuasive data:

We are moving things down in our curriculum. Were going to have to move more, and when the teachers see [the scores], theyre going to have an even more graphic and visual example of what were sayingits a different standard. I think one of the hardest things to overcome is this sense that Well, but kindergartens supposed to be this. Not anymore. We cant afford for kindergarten to be colors and counting to ten and memorizing ABCsit can't be.

With changing kindergarten expectations, 4K needed to be realigned to boost low math scores. 4K students would follow the kindergarten math curriculum, news that did not sit well with the 4K teachers.

And I struggle with that because . . . they're four. Theyre not in kindergarten yet. Theres so much more we need to do before we can start sitting down and doing workbook work. We need to figure out how to share our blocks. We need to figure out how to clean up together. And so you need those free choice times. You need those social times. And I feel like it's been forgotten that we're not kindergarten. (Diane Lanham)

Ms. Lanham worried that 4K would lose sight of the importance of social-emotional skills. To her dismay, she noted that there was talk at our last staff meeting how developmentally appropriate isnt necessarily whats done any more, as the Common Core has been brought in. She felt as though her colleagues had soured on DAP because everything had been amped up. However, she resisted claims that DAP was no longer relevant or that because more was expected of older students, more could be expected of younger students. For example, she disagreed with her colleagues expectation that children learn to write numbers in 4K. Rather, she felt they first needed to get a sense of the number. In the case of the number nine, Diane wanted students to learn its ninenesshow much is it, what does nine look like, and so on. Ms. Lanham felt that writing numerals only made sense after a child had a sense of cardinality.

And then there was the problem of how she would find time to implement the new curriculum. Ms. Lanham struggled to see how she would implement math as a stand-alone subject. Math had always been integrated into centers or projects. With limited minutes in the day, Ms. Lanham knew something would have to go, and that would mostly be time devoted to child-centered activities: [W]eve already looked at the schedule, and the only place we can put it is free choice. And I have a really hard time with that. It is worth noting that, unlike many Pre-K programs in WI that do half-day five days a week, Pickering operated an alternate-day, full-day program. Yet, even with the luxury of a full day, free choice was the only expendable time slot.

The Pickering 4K program was fully assimilated into the K12 system. A vision for 4-year-olds was now structured around standards for what students should be able to do later in elementary schoolthe question is how 4K might prepare them for that future.


Dickson is a small, blue-collar city struggling to recover from the recent economic downturn. Responding to community concern about confining 4K implementation to schools, Preschool for Dickson (P4D), brought together child care, preschool, Head Start, and district personnel to produce a program with diverse formats and sites.

The 4K negotiations began with the development of early learning standards that represented a shared vision for 4K. Molly Korbet, the district 4K coordinator invited all licensed providers in town, asking them:

What do we want all children to know and be able to do prior to entering kindergarten? And so that was our leading question. And then we used the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards to drive our path. . . . What is developmentally appropriate? . . . and then we took each of the standards and went right through and developed a standards and curriculum guide as to what does this standard mean.

Molly felt that the process of WMELS had helped to achieve cohesion in the early childhood community. Molly told us that they were able to create something that was inclusive of a range of programs using different methods but coming to the same place in the end.

The product of this process, called the Integration Matrix, was a cross of the WMELS, the Dickson Early Learning Targets, examples of activities and assessments, and resources for implementation. Table 3 is an example of the Matrix.

Table 4. Dickson Standards Table

Wisconsin Model Academic Standards for Early Learning

Dickson Early Learning Targets/Benchmarks


Examples of Activities/Strategies/Assessment

Examples of Resources/Tools

B.EL.3 Using complex scenarios in pretend play

Negotiate roles

Sustain roles

Explore their options

Use materials, actions, words, and people to represent something else

Initiate and cooperate in play situations

Provide dramatic play area w/ props and numerous centers in the environment that encourages pretend play (with props)

Use media, field trips, music, visuals to help create scenarios

Using webbing techniques for thinking through the pretend play to reinforce what is seen on a field trip

The Creative Curriculum

Field trips (police station, fire station, etc.)

Childrens videos, trade books, posters, music CDs, real life props (cash registers, old phones, cameras)

Building Language for Literacy (Scholastic)

Tools of the Mind by Elena Bodrova

Though standards are often assumed to lead to standardization and accountability, Dicksons implementation of 4K reflected diverse values and models of early education. While teachers used the locally developed standards to guide their practice, the community also felt strongly that, in order to meet the diverse needs of children and families, sites needed to be able vary their approaches. In Dickson, 4K quality was defined by the match between the child and the program.

This decentralized approach could be seen at Dickson Day Care (DDC), a local nonprofit child care center serving children 2 years through school age. It had a reputation of working with diverse behavior challenges, succeeding with children expelled from other centers. Serving primarily working-class families, DDC considered behavior a critical foundation for readiness. DDCs success with challenging behavior was not without cost. An elaborate behavior system, with group rewards for individual behavior, was a prominent element of the 4K classroom, requiring intense amounts of time and often diverting attention from other kinds of learning.

The curriculum at DDC mixed district-imposed programming and center-developed instructional practices. From the district, the center implemented Jolly Phonics (http://jollylearning.co.uk/overview-about-jolly-phonics/) and Handwriting Without Tears (https://www.hwtears.com/hwt) and chose a local variation of Tools of the Mind. Children seemed to float through this instructionHandwriting Without Tears was implemented during the time between early drop-off and the official beginning of the P4D program. In this porous context, instructions were often given before most of the students arrived, resulting in a game of telephone among the children to identify the task. Literacy skills were developed through play plans written within Tools of the Mind and further through deciphering a morning message. In each of these activities, teachers emphasized identification of the number of words in a sentence rather than phonological awareness.

Like the teacher at NJs Norwood, DDC teachers struggled with multiple layers of assessment. In addition to the district-created assessment tool, DDC teachers were required to complete the daycares assessment tool for each 4K student. Ms. Zelda, a teacher there, told us that it was difficult to find the time for all of this and required significant flexibility on her part. Sometimes you feel like youre just doing assessments. And that can be straining, too, if you dont know how to just say, We're just doing this little bit today of assessments and were moving on. And we'll fit this in.

The Dickson-developed standards were not meant to be prescriptive. The districts commitment to local variation meant that 4K sites had diverse curricula and ways to meet the standards. P4Ds shared standards-within-planned-variability was no longer a sure thing in an increasing standardization K12 context, however. Alignment enforced by building administrators seemed to be looming in the future. During an interview Dr. Karol Schauble, the district superintendent, whispered that Dicksons dirty little secret was that school-based 4K kids came to kindergarten better prepared than those who attended community sites:

The P4D sites in our schools . . . we hire highly qualified teachers . . . And those teachers are overseen by our principals. And we feel very strongly that principals need to be in those classrooms and monitoring whats being taught, how it's being taught, validating everything. So we don't have that kind of oversight exactly in the off-site locations.

The careful consensus that Molly Korbet had so painstakingly developed at the launch of 4K in Dickson was one of the programs strengths. It seemed in line to be eclipsed by a standards-dictated version.


A town of just over 20,000, Belford serves primarily working and low middle class families working in agriculture, manufacturing, and healthcare.  When Belford implemented 4K in 2006, the program was housed at community child care centers because the schools had limited space and the community was committed to preserving child care jobs. The 4K coordinator, Erin Castell, was the liaison to the district. Among competing perspectives, her ideas about early childhood education were the most influential. Erin was committed to keeping the focus in 4K on individual childrens development and a curriculum that comes from the child. Erin emphasized the use of Creative Curriculum, which provides a flexible framework rather than standards:   

So weve done training over the years. We need to do probably the Early Learning Standards again just to brush people up because we have new team members. But I always give opportunity for the Creative Curriculum just because its a good guide. Theres better stuff out there, but its best practice in terms of development. And you can really work with it.

Erin was not unaware of 4K expectations. She told us that she wanted to see teachers bump up math, science, and literacy instruction in their classrooms, but she was focused on strategies for doing this through play and integrating this content into learning centers.

While the curriculum served as the main guide for the Belford 4K program, this did not lead to standardization because curriculum comes from the child. Erin defined a high-quality 4K program as a creative learning environment where a child is able to go to the next step and that its more child-directed than teacher-directed. Within this, she stressed awareness of the childrens skills and dispositions and tailoring individual expectations for learning rather than adhering to a standardized benchmark. The curriculum has to be developmental . . . because kids are at such different levels.

Erin trusted teachers to use professional expertise to make decisions about tailoring the curriculum for individual children. She provided all 4K sites with the same resources with the understanding that each site would have its own personality. Her approach to professional development reflected this decentralization; rather than mandating attendance at workshops, Erin wanted teachers to plan for professional development each year, and she would provide funding to pursue it.

Okay, tell us where you want to go, what is your goal for the year, how are you gonna get there, and what do you need? If its to buy a book, lets buy a book. Thats great. Or if you want someone to come and work on something with you, thats great! It doesn't have to cost money. But what is your plan?

During our year in their classroom, Mrs. Martin and Mrs. Jenson co-taught a Pre-K class, working to provide more opportunities for writing into the school day. They attended trainings to implement the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum and created opportunities for children in the class to be authors.

Daily classroom life and the way 4K teachers talked about their work reflected Erins emphasis on a child-centered, developmental curriculum. With the exception of two large-group meetings, the 4K day was child-directed; children were able to select learning centers based on their interests. Teachers evaluated childrens learning in 4K based on growth over time. Mrs. Jenson struggled to communicate this growth to kindergarten teachers who viewed many children as ill-prepared for kindergarten.

So it shows their progression just so that the teachers know where they came from, because thats not always able to be communicated effectively, and a lot of them in the past have been like, Oh, what did you really do with them? if they havent gotten very far. Oh, you didn't even see them last fall, of what we had to start with.

The focus on the individual child did not insulate teachers from the world of standards and standardization. As they watched expectations for kindergarten readiness increase, they felt pressure to ensure children were leaving 4K adequately prepared. In earlier years, 4K was primarily about social skills but now, with kindergarten only doing a brief review of letters that ends by October,

[A] lot of those kids, if they didnt have even the little bit that we do they would be really, really lost . . . The first couple weeks of school are a harsh reality for a lot of kids, and if some of these certain little kiddos, if they didnt have an early intervention, I could not imagine them being successful in kindergarten . . . The expectations that are placed on kindergarteners . . . I guess now they have to be on at least at a level D reading level by the end of kindergarten. Sandra had said that three years ago they just had to be on B. So its just a lot of expectations for still only 5-year-olds, and are they really ready? I mean that stuff kind of scares me. (Mrs. Jenson, Belford)

Changing expectations led to new conceptualizations of kindergarten readiness. The pressure to ensure that children leaving their 4K class would be ready for the demands of kindergarten produced anxiety for 4K teachers, who worried about students who left 4K being able to identify only several letters of the alphabet. As Mrs. Martin noted, I look at the benchmarks or the learning targets for kindergarten to guide me. Then I also have some experience in the kindergarten classroom so I know from past experience where they should be, or we would like them to be.

Although standards and standardization were not prominent features of 4K in Belford, efforts to create greater alignment between 4K and the K12 system have the potential to change this. The new district superintendent recently introduced systems to bring 4K under the K12 umbrella. These included assigning half of the 4K coordinator duties to an elementary school principal and assigning each building principal a 4K site. While the effects of this new policy were unclear, they were indicative of Belfords superintendents broader agenda to standardize 4K.

Standards in Wisconsin

The pluralistic model enacted in educational practice and state 4K policy allowed multiple approaches for 4K implementation. In the three districts we studied, the initial instantiation of 4K included school-based 4K embedded in the K12 system, a mixed model system anchored by community-developed standards, and a set of programs in community sites guided by the broadly framed Creative Curriculum. This variation, representing the value of local control of education (Graue, Wilinski, & Nocera, 2016), had both economic and educational roots, with the local child care community playing a role in ensuring that child care programs housed at least some of the sites. The advisory nature of WMELS left the door open for a force that was stronger than a commitment to local control: the impulse for greater alignment. This impulse, so strongly ingrained in K12 leadership in the accountability era, was extended to 4K. It was like a game of rock, paper, scissors. The logic of school-based programs did not stand up in a context that favored local values. But the imagined affordances of local control faded in the light of increasing standardization. If these sites were evaluated on how they implemented stated 4K policy, all three would have been rated well aligned with the states core regulations. However, if we look at them in terms of how they reflected the initial intentions of local design, all were shifting from local site variation in programming to a district focused on alignment through district oversight.


In this paper, we examined policy enactment in Pre-K programs through a study of NJs highly regulated Pre-K program and WIs locally determined mid-regulation program. We found that standards were part of the complex architecture that structures the experience of Pre-K for teachers and their students. However, policy and standards alone are not very good predictors of the enacted curriculum or the standards-focused quality of a Pre-K program. In what follows we use the findings of this study to respond to two of the most pervasive assumptions made about standards in early education. The first of these is that standards will lead to standardization. The second is that early learning standards will ensure alignment and prevent developmentally appropriate practices.

Standards will lead to standardization. Many critics (e.g., Hatch, 2002) of standards argue that the heterogeneity that characterizes early childhood practice will be replaced with programs that look consistently the same. That is, if program and learning standards are implemented with fidelity, it will result in one-size-fits-all Pre-K classrooms. Across our studys six classrooms, there were stunning similarities, with shared ways of interacting, organizing space, and planning instruction. The primary colors, the types of centers regardless of curriculum, the rituals like morning meeting, the fingerplay and songs, were all instantiations of a way of thinking about children and their needs. These scripts have long histories and deep roots (Graue, Whyte, & Karabon, 2015).

And yet, there is more to the story. In the NJ sites, where one would expect strong similarity given the states regulatory approach and economic investment, there were discernable differences in the issues of salience for Pre-K. What practices were emphasized in most of the local sites was not derived from the standards so much as from a perceived community need. In Robe this need was ensuring every ELL student was able to read, speak, and write academic English by 3rd grade, while in racially diverse Norwood, academic competence was the goal. In contrast, sites within the low regulation WI 4K context, designed to reflect local variation, looked more alike than different. These similarities came about not because of early learning standards but because early educators chose to enact certain practicesthe script of early childhood education.

Early childhood standards will ensure alignment and prevent developmentally appropriate practices. Borrowing from the logic of K12 standards, it is assumed that strong policy and standards will leverage an explication of expectations, which will make educators accountable. In addition, it allows alignment across disparate elements of the non-system (Bowman, 2006; Bredekamp, 2009). For critics like Hatch (2002), the standards framework is a slippery slope, shifting attention from a developmental to an outcomes mentality.

In NJ, the Preschool Program Implementation Guidelines (NJDOE, 2015) ensured alignment across Pre-K sites regardless of district context. However, the goals and practices of the Pre-K program were not completely aligned with those preferred by all system stakeholders. The Preschool Teaching and Learning Standards (NJDOE, 2014) were only one policy shaping teachers practices in the NJ communities. The expectation from administrators and others in the K12 system, along with their own concerns about their students transition to kindergarten, meant that two of the three sites emphasized particular academic goals. While the educators in Vale Park continued to employ developmentally appropriate practices, they still felt pressured to up their academic expectations for children.

Early learning standards created and reinforced community in two WI districts but were rarely referenced in the third, which was already assimilated into the K12 system. In that district, they were bracing for the move of the kindergarten math curriculum into 4K, in accordance with Hatchs (2002) predictions. The two community-based programs were in line to have the early learning standards eclipsed by K12 accountability and program alignment. The perceived sanctions in the K12 system made a K12 mindset more salient than the WMELS. The flexible nature of the WMELS, which was created to support children developmentally through an open framework, was losing relevance as 4K was subsumed into the K12 system.

The findings of this study illustrate that the logic model underlying a particular policy, or the visions that are embedded in standards, evolve in the process of enactment, as various actors and diverse needs make their marks on a program. Rather than a beacon that illuminates the path for our ultimate goals for children (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009), standards might be more reasonably seen as a proposed endpoint that may or may not precisely guide daily practice. The trajectory of the policy and standards from text to practice can be mediated by many factors, including the advocacy of local child care providers, the administrative designs of district leaders, and the policies of the adjacent K12 system.

The assumption that standards will be implemented with fidelity is too simpleit is not just a matter of doing things as designed. What is designed at the state level is remade, adapted, adopted, ignored, and translated in local contexts, a reflection of Braun et al.s description of enactment:

The way that policy problems are solved in context is a multifaceted, iterative process. The rich underlife and micropolitics of individual schools means that policies will be differently interpreted (or read), and differently worked into and against current practices, sometimes simultaneously. (2011, p. 586)

We cannot judge the investment in Pre-K by analyzing only the relation between policy inputs and student outcomes. All of the action between these two set the stage for what children experience and what teachers are able to do.


1. We use pseudonyms that reflect the naming practices in each center, district and state. For this reason, some people are called by their first name, others by last name.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 8, 2018, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22196, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:50:53 AM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Graue
    University of Wisconsin, Madison
    E-mail Author
    BETH GRAUE is Sorenson Professor of Childhood Studies in the Dept of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. A former kindergarten teacher, Graue does research on early childhood policy and practice, studying kindergarten readiness, home school relations, class size reduction, and the use of mindfulness training with teachers. Recent articles include Graue, M. E., Ryan, S., Nocera, A., Northey, K., & Wilinski, B. (2016). Pulling PreK 1 into a K–12 Orbit: The Evolution of PreK in the Age of Standards, Early Years: An International Journal of Research and Development, and Graue, M. E., Whyte, K. L., & Karabon, A. E. (2015). The Power of Improvisational Teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 48, 13–21.
  • Sharon Ryan
    Bank Street College of Education
    SHARON RYAN is Director of the Straus Center for Young Children and Families at Bank Street College of Education. Dr. Ryan's research focuses on early childhood teacher education and professional development, curriculum, and policy in practice. One of her recent publications includes the 2016 chapter with Megan Gibson, "Preservice Early Childhood Teacher Education," in the Handbook of Early Childhood Teacher Education.
  • Bethany Wilinski
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    BETHANY WILINSKI is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. Her research in the United States and Tanzania focuses on how early childhood education policy is enacted and experienced. Wilinski’s forthcoming book When Pre-K Comes to School: Policy, Partnerships, and the Early Childhood Education Workforce (Teachers College Press, 2017) examines how school-community Pre-K partnerships intersect with the daily work of Pre-K teachers in diverse institutional contexts.
  • Kaitlin Northey
    Rutgers University
    E-mail Author
    KAITLIN NORTHEY is a doctoral candidate in the department of Learning and Teaching at Rutgers University. Her dissertation examines the pathways and experiences of state early education systems leaders and provides insights concerning the types of preparation and support these leaders need to do their jobs well. She has a published in Early Years and contributed a chapter in the Handbook of Play and Learning in Early Childhood.
  • Amato Nocera
    University of Wisconsin, Madison
    E-mail Author
    AMATO NOCERA is a graduate student in the department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His research focuses on early 20th century philanthropy and its influence on African-American education, though he has been known to dabble in early childhood education. He has published articles and reviews in Early Years, Education Policy Analysis Archives, and Theory and Research in Education.
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