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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.

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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: 9/24/2021 8:37:00 PM

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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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