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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