How Policies and Policy Actors Shape the Pre-K Borderland: Implications for Early Childhood Educators’ Work Experiences

by Bethany Wilinski, Alyssa Morley & Jessica Landgraf - 2021

Background/Context: Public prekindergarten (pre-K) is increasingly common in U.S. public schools. The policy decision to house pre-K classrooms in public schools places pre-K teachers in a “borderland of practice,” where the separate worlds of the early childhood and K–12 systems collide. Borderland work has implications for pre-K teachers’ job satisfaction, professional identities, and sense of belonging.

Focus of Study: The purpose of this study was to understand how pre-K borderlands come to be constituted and how features of the borderland shape the lived experiences of school-based pre-K teachers. The context for the study was Michigan’s state-funded pre-K program, Great Start Readiness Program. We drew on scholarship in border studies to conceptualize the pre-K borderland as the space around the borders separating early childhood education (ECE) and K–12 systems. We sought to understand how the pre-K borderland was shaped by policies and policy actors and the implications this had for pre-K teachers’ work experiences and well-being.

Research Design: This comparative case study was conducted in two Michigan counties during the 2017–2018 school year. Data included interviews and focus groups with district officials (12), interviews with pre-K teachers (28), and interviews with principals (10) and kindergarten teachers (13).

Findings: Results indicate that school districts in Michigan provided pre-K through two main implementation models: elementary school and district early learning center (ELCs). This complicates previous literature that equates school-based pre-K with the elementary model. We found that pre-K teachers in both settings faced challenges that negatively affected their work experiences and well-being. All teachers, regardless of implementation model, struggled to build professional connections with elementary school colleagues. Many also felt unsupported by administrators who lacked an understanding of pre-K. Teachers in elementary buildings had to navigate conflicting policies and building colleagues who perceived their work as “just playing.” Pre-K teachers in district ELCs faced compensation disparities that resulted in low morale and threatened to push them out of pre-K. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that neither borderland—elementary school, district ELC—was ideal, suggesting that the solution to better supporting pre-K teachers does not lie in simply altering one aspect of their work experience.

Conclusions/Recommendations: School-based pre-K has multiple meanings and multiple borderlands of practice. Across these borderlands, we note the significance of classroom location decisions, teacher compensation, administrator support, and policy (in)compatibility. We advocate for (1) intentionality around the placement of pre-K classrooms within the district, (2) compensation parity between pre-K and elementary teachers, (3) increased attention to opportunities for collaboration and professional development, and (4) fostering elementary principals’ understanding of early childhood education so they can better support pre-K teachers.

Public prekindergarten (pre-K) is becoming a common feature of U.S. public schools. These programs, which are funded by the state and primarily serve four year-olds, are increasingly implemented by school districts. According to a national survey, 50% of elementary schools housed a pre-K program in 2018 (Fuller et al., 2018). The idea of locating pre-K, an early childhood education (ECE) program, in public school buildings remains debated even while the decision to do so becomes more mainstream.

Pre-K has been shown to contribute to children’s school readiness (Gormley & Gayer, 2005), yet the practices associated with high-quality ECE differ from those that have become commonplace in the early elementary grades (Brown et al., 2019). Locating pre-K in public schools thus initiates a tug-of-war over how the goals of pre-K should be articulated and enacted (Halpern, 2013). Juxtaposed with the elementary grades, pre-K practices seem unusual and different, even though they are grounded in a long history of research and practice in the field of ECE. For this reason, school-based pre-K has been conceptualized as a “borderland of practice” (Sumsion & Britt, 2003) characterized by the collision of conflicting ideas drawn from the separate worlds of ECE and the elementary grades. Borderland work has implications for pre-K teachers’ job satisfaction, professional identities, and sense of belonging (Delaney, 2015, 2018; Woodrow, 2007).

The goal of this analysis was to understand how pre-K borderlands come to be constituted and how features of the borderland shape teachers’ lived experiences. Pre-K teachers’ work environments and experiences directly affect children’s learning and well-being and influence ECE quality (Guo et al., 2010; Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2011). Despite this, most efforts to improve ECE quality have focused on “tinkering around the edges,” attempting to transform early childhood educators themselves, rather than the systems in which they work (Whitebook et al., 2018). In this analysis, we view individual teacher experiences as inextricably linked to the structures and policies in which they are embedded.

Through a deeper theorization of the pre-K borderland and its characteristics, we seek to illuminate structural changes needed to better support pre-K teachers. Our investigation is guided by border theory (Bruslé, 2013; Paasi, 2012) and the notion of friction (Tsing, 2005). Together, these concepts direct our attention to how policies and policy actors shape the borderland in locally specific ways as they assemble, remake, and reinforce the borders between the ECE and K–12 systems. Adopting an understanding of borders and borderlands as socially constructed helps us think productively about the potential for change in the borderland: Borders are human-made, which means they can be unmade.   


School-based pre-K—which we define as public pre-K administered by a public school district—is considered a borderland of practice because it is where the long-standing philosophical and structural differences between the ECE and K–12 systems come into contact most visibly. In this section, we set the context for our study by providing an overview of the expansion of public pre-K in the United States and of Michigan’s public pre-K program. To highlight tensions that emerge when ECE and K–12 are brought together in school-based pre-K, we then describe the philosophies and structures that have long defined the ECE system and how they differ from those that typify the K–12 system. We conclude by reviewing prior scholarship on the pre-K borderland.


Public pre-K has grown in popularity in the past two decades in response to evidence that pre-K participation can increase children’s readiness for kindergarten (Lipsey et al., 2018) and improve children’s academic outcomes (Yoshikawa et al., 2013). The expansion of public pre-K represents a significant shift in ECE provision in the United States both because it is publicly funded and because it brings together the historically separate worlds of ECE and K–12. With the exception of federally funded Head Start, ECE programs have typically operated through private tuition and state childcare subsidies. Although efforts throughout U.S. history to secure public funds for ECE provision largely failed because of perceptions of childcare as a private responsibility, support for public pre-K coalesced when, in the early 2000s, it was framed as an educational intervention that would enhance children’s kindergarten readiness (Bushouse, 2009). Public funding for pre-K led to the development of pre-K delivery systems involving public schools and school districts, yet this administrative integration did not minimize the profound differences between ECE and K–12 (McCabe & Sipple, 2011).

In 2019, 44 states and the District of Columbia provided state-funded pre-K programs that enrolled 34% of the nation’s four year-olds. These programs are all guided by early learning standards that address children’s learning and development. Beyond that common feature, there is wide variation in how states administer, regulate, and fund pre-K. For example, some states provide universal pre-K free of charge to all age-eligible children, while others limit participation to eligibility factors such as family income. Michigan’s public pre-K program, called Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) is a targeted program that provides free pre-K to four year-olds considered “at risk of educational failure” based on factors that include low family income, developmental delay or disability, English learner status, and environmental risk (Michigan Department of Education, 2019). In 2019, 32% of the state’s four year-olds were enrolled in GSRP across a range of settings, including elementary schools, private childcare centers, and charter academies (Friedman-Krauss et al., 2020).

GSRP is funded through an annual appropriation process in the state legislature. Intermediate School Districts (ISDs), a county-level administrative unit comprising several contiguous school districts, are the program’s grantees. ISDs can operate programs themselves or contract with subrecipients, including school districts, charter academies, and community-based organizations to provide programming. Early childhood specialists employed by ISDs evaluate GSRP programs and provide ongoing professional development for GSRP teachers. Although GSRP is regulated by the ISD, and certain policy mandates apply regardless of implementation context, subrecipients (e.g., school districts) make determinations locally about the physical location of GSRP classrooms and teacher compensation. The focus of this analysis is GSRP classrooms that were administered by school districts.     


In the field of ECE in the United States, developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) has become synonymous with high-quality ECE. DAP is defined as “methods that promote each child’s optimal development and learning through a strengths-based, play-based approach to joyful, engaged learning” (NAEYC, n.d.). DAP is not a prescriptive set of practices for teachers to follow; instead, it reflects an orientation toward children’s development and learning that sees the two as intertwined. Teachers enact DAP by identifying goals for individual children based on their developmental strengths and needs and then designing learning environments and experiences that scaffold children’s cognitive, physical, and social development (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).

Michigan’s pre-K policy, like that in many states, is tightly aligned with the principles of DAP. GSRP classrooms are required to adopt a child-centered curriculum that promotes participatory and play-based learning, and the policy discourages practices such as “calendar time” and “letter of the week,” which are common in the elementary grades but are not considered appropriate for preschoolers. The policy also limits whole-group and direct instruction and explicitly prohibits the use of worksheets, workbooks, and coloring sheets (Michigan Department of Education, 2019).

As public pre-K expanded in the United States in the early 2000s, ECE experts raised concerns about locating pre-K classrooms in elementary schools because the practices that typify elementary classrooms, such as seatwork and formal assessment, are widely viewed as inappropriate for young children and antithetical to the principles of DAP (Goldstein, 2007; Wilinski, 2017b). Critics of co-locating pre-K and elementary schools worry that doing so may precipitate an “academic push-down” into an ECE space and the erosion of the developmental and play-based approach that has long been a hallmark of ECE (Hatch, 2002; Stipek, 2006). Yet, advocates for school-based pre-K see the co-location of programs as a potential avenue to improve children’s transition to schooling and increase alignment across ECE and the elementary grades (Bogard & Takanishi, 2005; Little, 2020). Indeed, programs like Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers have shown the possibility for successfully bringing together high-quality ECE programing and the elementary grades (Temple & Reynolds, 2007).1


In addition to philosophical differences, structural differences between ECE and K–12 are amplified in school-based pre-K. In some states, like Michigan, public pre-K programs must comply with state licensing standards for childcare settings, even if they are in an elementary building. These standards, designed to ensure health and safety, dictate requirements such as maximum group size, child–teacher ratio, and minimum square footage per child. In addition, the physical spaces used by pre-K children must adhere to state licensing safety standards (e.g., lead testing, ensuring that classrooms are equipped with a bathroom). This can pose a challenge to the integration of pre-K into elementary schools, which may not have the resources to retrofit spaces to comply with these regulations.   

The qualification of teachers is another structural difference between ECE and K–12, though this difference is now less pronounced nationwide than in the past. ECE teaching has historically required minimal qualifications (e.g., a two-year child development associate’s degree). Calls for improved program quality in pre-K have recently led many states to increase educational requirements for public pre-K teachers, with 37 states now requiring a bachelor’s degree (Friedman-Krauss et al., 2020). In Michigan, there are two pathways to becoming a qualified GSRP teacher. GSRP teachers must hold either a bachelor’s degree in education with a teaching certification, or a bachelor’s degree in child development or a related field. However, a teaching certificate is required to work in an elementary school building.

Although many pre-K teachers are now required to have the same educational credentials, pre-K teacher compensation remains persistently low in relation to K–12 teacher compensation. On average, public pre-K teachers in the United States who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher earn $10,000–$13,000 less per year than elementary teachers (Whitebook & McLean, 2017). In Michigan, compensation disparities also correspond to the location of pre-K classrooms. For example, the median salary in 2018–2019 for GSRP lead teachers in public schools was $40,437, compared with $31,204 for lead teachers in private nonprofit community-based organizations like childcare centers (Wu et al., 2020). Such inequities are counterproductive to the vitality of the workforce and to program quality; as long as pre-K teachers with the same qualifications earn significantly less than their K–12 colleagues, there will be an incentive to leave pre-K for positions in higher grades. Such turnover undermines program quality (Whitebook & Sakai, 2003). In GSRP there is also lateral turnover that stems from differences in compensation policies across school districts; some districts pay GSRP teachers an hourly wage with no benefits, while others include GSRP teachers in the bargaining unit and pay them according to the district salary schedule.


School-based pre-K collapses the physical partition between the ECE and K–12 systems, yet philosophical and structural differences endure. This space, the pre-K borderland, has some, but not all, characteristics of each system (Sumsion & Britt, 2003). It is shifting, struggled over, and not clearly defined. Pre-K teachers’ work in the borderland is governed by divergent and sometimes contradictory policies and overseen by policy actors delivering competing directives (Graue et al., 2018; Wilinski, 2017a).

The pre-K borderland is thus a “new conceptual space” that necessitates “new ways of working” for teachers (Peters & Sandberg, 2017, p. 229). Prior scholarship has conceptualized this new way of working as “border-crossing,” which emphasizes school-based pre-K teachers’ daily movements between the worlds of ECE and K–12 (Sumsion & Britt, 2003). Along these lines, research has demonstrated how toggling between ECE and K–12 practices creates dissonance for school-based pre-K teachers (Delaney, 2015, 2018; Sisson, 2018). Other research has highlighted the challenges that policy actors face in bringing ECE and K–12 together in public pre-K (Brown, 2009; Brown & Gasko, 2012). Our study, which investigates how pre-K borderlands in Michigan were constituted by policy and policy actors, extends pre-K borderland scholarship through a joint focus on policy and teacher experience, as well as a deeper theorization of the pre-K borderland as socially constructed and contingent.



We conceive of the pre-K borderland as the space around the borders separating ECE and K–12 systems. Drawing on scholarship in border studies, we envisage the pre-K borderland as both a conceptual arena and a physical place shaped by policies and policy actors. At the conceptual level, the pre-K borderland is a theoretical realm that is neither fully ECE nor K–12, but where these systems’ guiding philosophies commingle. Yet, pre-K borderlands are also physical spaces; there is a material reality to work in the borderland, just as there is a material reality to life on either side of a political border. We contend that the materiality of the pre-K borderland is articulated through frictions of encounter (Tsing, 2005).  

Like political borders, the borders that delineate ECE and the elementary grades have been constructed and maintained through a blend of historical, societal, and individual action (Bruslé, 2013). We view these borders not as fixed lines, but as “sets of sociocultural practices, symbols, institutions, and networks” (Paasi, 2012, p. 2304) that are made and remade by diverse actors (including policies). We draw on Tsing’s (2005) metaphor of friction to conceptualize how borders are articulated in pre-K borderlands. Friction is defined as “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (Tsing, 2005, p. 4). We see borders as produced through friction, or the “sticky materiality of practical [encounter]” (Tsing, 2005, p. 6) as the norms of ECE, inscribed in pre-K policy, come into contact with school district and school building norms, policies, and practices.   

These encounters (frictions) have material consequences. To live and work in the borderland is a particular kind of existence—undefined spaces can be difficult to navigate and even oppressive (Anzaldúa, 2002; Peters & Sandberg, 2017). By uncovering how pre-K borderlands are produced through the friction of encounter, we seek also to reveal the uncertainties that characterize life in the pre-K borderland. In doing this, we center structural conditions, rather than individual teachers, as a site for investigation and reform.


Creating and maintaining borders and borderlands is a multiscalar and multiactor process; even as borders are shaped by external forces such as policy, people in and near the borderland actively shape its contours by inscribing meaning on it and engaging in place-making (Bruslé, 2013). A sociocultural perspective on policy as practice, which takes policies as sites of “normative cultural production” (Sutton & Levinson, 2001, p. 1) provides a framework for understanding how policies and policy actors produce, maintain, and reconfigure pre-K borderlands. Each physical instantiation of the pre-K borderland is the site where the philosophical and structural differences between ECE and K–12 collide in particular ways and become materially consequential. Pre-K borderlands are thus produced as policy ideas are “[worked] out in particular times and places, through friction” (Tsing, 2005, p. 10). Because of the contingent nature of these encounters, pre-K borderlands are multiple and diverse, resulting in a range of locally constituted work environments.


In this study, we asked: How is the pre-K borderland constituted in different locales by policy and policy actors? Based on prior research, we expected that pre-K borderlands might be defined by the ways pre-K policy was enacted by diverse stakeholders and how it came into contact with school building norms and policies. We employed the comparative case study (CCS) approach (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017) to facilitate an investigation of the pre-K borderland across scales and implementation sites (Figure 1). CCS enables the researcher to trace how policies move across different levels of scale (CCS’s vertical axis) and to investigate, in great detail, how they are enacted and experienced in local settings (horizontal axis). We addressed CCS’s vertical axis through interviews with policy actors in different social locations (ISD officials, building administrators, pre-K and kindergarten teachers), with a goal of understanding how policy actors in different roles vis-à-vis pre-K enactment interpreted pre-K policy. We also compared horizontally across districts and school buildings to understand how the characteristics of different sites informed the way the policy was interpreted and enacted locally. Our use of CCS thus allowed us to surface the entanglements and sites of friction that defined pre-K borderlands.

Figure 1. Comparative case study design and data generation overview


We conducted this research in two ISDs—Barrymore and Howard—during the 2017–2018 school year. (All names of people and places are pseudonyms.) Both ISDs contained an urban center as well as rural and suburban school districts, with GSRP classrooms located across all these geographies. At the time of this study, Barrymore and Howard had similar student populations (46,551 and 44,203, respectively). Reflecting statewide patterns, White students comprised the majority in both ISDs (Barrymore: 61.87%; Howard: 55.58%), followed by African American (Barrymore: 16.64%; Howard: 18.95%), and Hispanic/Latino (Barrymore: 6.27%; Howard: 11.48%). In a state where about half of students fall into the category of economically disadvantaged, Barrymore ISD was relatively wealthier, with 32.19% of the student population labelled economically disadvantaged, compared with 49.85% of students in Howard ISD (Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information, 2019).  

Data for this study included interviews and focus groups with ISD officials (12 participants total), interviews with pre-K teachers (28), and interviews with principals (10) and kindergarten teachers (13). Interviews with ISD officials provided insight into these policy intermediaries’ perceptions of the opportunities and challenges associated with school-based pre-K. ISD officials helped us recruit pre-K teachers, and we interviewed 28 of the 29 teachers who responded to our invitation to participate in the study—20 from Howard ISD and eight from Barrymore ISD (Table 1).2 Pre-K teacher interviews were conducted in-person by all three authors and lasted between 30-60 minutes. We followed a common interview protocol to ensure consistency, but each author asked follow-up questions as needed for clarification or additional detail. We sought to better understand pre-K teachers’ school environments through interviews with building administrators and kindergarten teachers at their schools. These interviews were crucial to locating frictions in site-specific borderlands.

Table 1. Pre-K Teachers Interviewed


School, District, ISD



Years Teaching GSRP

Teachers in elementary buildings

Paige Elliott

Fairmoor Elementary, Bedford District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in child development, minor in reading and integrated sciences


Elise Charles

Jones Elementary, Danbury District, Howard ISD

Paid hourly

BA in journalism, postbaccalaureate in education with ECE endorsement


Bella Zahr

Appleton Elementary, Evansdale District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in integrated reading science


Susan Case

Baily Elementary, Evansdale District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in ECE, master’s degree (field not stated)


Paula Danson

Carlton Elementary, Evansdale District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in elementary education, MA in elementary reading and math


Vicky Denison

Carlton Elementary, Evansdale District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement


Betsy Peters

Carlton Elementary, Evansdale District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement


Dana Abbott

Dawson Elementary, Evansdale District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in elementary education, MA in ECE


Beth Ender

Garrison School for the Arts, Evansdale District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement


Maggie Evans

Garrison School for the Arts, Evansdale District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

Associate’s in ECE, BA in ECE and elementary education


Lisa Mathews

Swift Elementary, Evansdale District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA (field not stated), ECE endorsement MA in ECE


Sammy Hays

Glenwood Elementary, Seymour District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and on pay scale at 0.8

BA in ECE and elementary education, minor in language arts, ECE endorsement


Danielle Jones

McDermott Elementary, Fillmore District, Barrymore ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity



Heather Kramer

McDermott Elementary, Fillmore District, Barrymore ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in elementary education, minor in ECE, ECE endorsement


Valerie Nelson

McDermott Elementary, Fillmore District, Barrymore ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in ECE, ECE endorsement, science endorsement


Brooke Tatum

World Academy, Fillmore District, Barrymore ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equitya

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement, MA in educational leadership


Stacy Regan

Monroe Elementary, Madison School District, Barrymore ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equitya

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement, master’s degree (field not stated)


Sarah Taylor

Monroe Elementary, Madison School District, Barrymore ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equitya

BA in education, ECE endorsement


Teachers in district ELCs

Bridget Roberts

Cassidy District ELC, Maplewood District, Howard ISD

Paid hourly

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement


Gina Collins

Stuart District ELC, Northgate District, Howard ISD

Paid hourly

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement


Kristie Emerson

Stuart District ELC, Northgate District, Howard ISD

Paid hourly

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement


Cathy Morris

Stuart District ELC, Northgate District, Howard ISD

Paid hourly

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement, master’s degree (field not stated)


Natalie Patterson

Stuart District ELC, Northgate District, Howard ISD

Paid hourly

BA in elementary education, in-progress MA in ECE, ECE  endorsement


Naomi Reed

Stuart District ELC, Northgate District, Howard ISD

Paid hourly

BA in ECE, ECE endorsement


Olivia Ryan

Hawthorne District ELC, Preston District, Howard ISD

Paid hourlya

BA in early childhood family community services


Irene Jopson

West River District ELC, Seymour District, Howard ISD

Union status, benefits, and on pay scale at 0.8

BA in elementary education, ECE endorsement


Wendy Sanger

Fillmore District ELC, Fillmore District, Barrymore ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equity

BA in ECE and reading, MA in reading


Denise Stevenson

Swanson District ELC, Swanson District, Barrymore ISD

Union status, benefits, and pay equitya

BAs in psychology and education, MA in ECE


Note. ISD = Intermediate School District; GSRP = Great Start Readiness Program; ECE = early childhood education; ELC = early learning center.

a Imputed based on district data.

All interviews were audio-recorded then transcribed, and we used MAXQDA to facilitate analysis. Primary data analysis activities included coding and memoing, which were interdependent and recursive processes (Emerson et al., 2011). In the first round of coding, we used deductive codes like “friction” and “borders” derived from our research question and theoretical framework to identify when tensions between ECE and K–12 policies and practices manifested in pre-K teachers’ experiences. To ensure reliability, all three authors analyzed a set of interviews using this initial set of codes and then met to refine code definitions and set rules for applying codes before continuing analysis. Throughout analysis, we met regularly to discuss our coding process and wrote analytic memos to explore the themes identified in the data (Emerson et al., 2011).

This initial analysis led us to identify four categories of friction in pre-K borderlands: curriculum, physical location, relationships, and compensation. We analyzed these frictions further by creating a data display (Miles et al., 2014) in which we sorted excerpts from the first round of coding into these four categories. Within each category, we coded data by implementation context (elementary school, district early learning center [ELC]). Through this process, we noticed that pre-K teacher experiences were, for the most part, consistent within each of these contexts. This helped us think about the role of physical location (and the attendant norms and policies of a space) in shaping borderlands, an idea we expanded in analytic memos by drawing on border theory. These analytic memos about the characteristics of these two implementation contexts, which we came to see as two types of pre-K borderlands, became the foundation of our Findings section.

Throughout analysis, we ensured validity by continually checking for disconfirming evidence and through data triangulation, which we accomplished by interviewing a diverse range of individuals (Maxwell, 2013). Seeking disconfirming evidence enabled us to identify divergences between pre-K teachers in different location types (elementary schools vs. district ELCs). We also engaged in member checking by sharing an initial write-up of findings from the study with ISD officials, who provided feedback and insight that helped to shape our ongoing analysis. The findings we present are ones where there was broad support across teacher groups and sites. If teachers articulated different views/experiences, we acknowledged that and/or refined our arguments accordingly.


Our identities as researchers influenced our ability to gain access to sites and participants, how participants perceived and interacted with us, and how we interpreted the data. We are all White women with teaching experience in a range of settings (childcare, preschool, K–12). The first and third authors’ extensive ECE experience enabled them to easily connect with participants. The first and second authors had developed a deep understanding of national and state-level pre-K policy issues through prior research on public pre-K in Wisconsin and Michigan. Their identities as mothers of young children facilitated another point of connection to the research topic and participants. Although our collective ECE expertise and pre-K knowledge informed our questions and provided credibility, we were aware that familiarity might lead to misinterpretation. To counter the tendency to make assumptions based on our prior experiences, we actively positioned our participants as experts and ourselves as learners. This created a context for asking authentic questions about aspects of pre-K policy, programs, and teachers’ work that may have seemed mundane to participants but were critical to our understanding of pre-K borderlands.


This study was guided by the question: How is the pre-K borderland constituted in different locales by policy and policy actors? We found that the school districts in our study provided pre-K through two main implementation models, which led to a unique set of policy frictions that characterized each of these borderlands. In the elementary co-location model (elementary school), pre-K classrooms were located within elementary school buildings. Previous scholarship has equated school-based pre-K with this model, and our assumption going into the study was that all school district pre-K teachers worked in elementary school buildings. Yet, we found that districts also provided pre-K in district-run early learning centers (district ELC). In this model, pre-K classrooms were administered by the school district but located in an ELC that included other ECE programs such as Head Start and tuition-based preschool. In this study, 18 of the pre-K teachers we interviewed were in elementary schools and 10 were in district ELCs, and although the individual sites differed, we identified patterns in the frictions that shaped pre-K teachers’ work elementary schools and district ELCs.3 We conceptualized each of these models as a unique pre-K borderland. Our analysis showed that these borderlands were locally constituted, but we saw patterns in this process across school sites within each of these models, which we describe later.


Physically Present but Isolated

The assumption that putting pre-K and kindergarten teachers in the same building will facilitate collaboration was not borne out by our data, even in instances in which these classrooms were next door to each other. Although pre-K teachers desired collaboration and saw it as essential to their ongoing development and practice, most elementary school pre-K teachers and kindergarten teachers described their relationship as “nonexistent.” Despite close physical proximity, the encounter between GSRP policy and building policy created new borders that made collaboration difficult. GSRP followed its own schedule and teachers had few, if any, breaks during the school day. They also ate lunch in their classrooms, with children. These factors constrained opportunity for interaction across grade levels.

Beyond scheduling, that GSRP classrooms had to comply with state licensing guidelines limited the extent to which GSRP could be incorporated into the life of school buildings. GSRP students were only allowed to use physical spaces in elementary schools that met state licensing requirements. For Bella Zahr (Appleton Elementary), this meant that she and her students could only use their classroom, the neighboring GSRP classroom, and the gym. She and other teachers described feeling disappointed that they were unable to bring their students to the library, to the auditorium, or to visit a kindergarten classroom in the spring.

The borders that relegated pre-K teachers and students to particular physical spaces were reinforced by GSRP regulations that prevented pre-K classes from participating in some schoolwide events, such as holiday celebrations and “Popcorn Fridays.” Building administrators and kindergarten teachers expressed frustration that plans for buildingwide activities were often stymied by GSRP regulations. From kindergarten teacher Becky Dunn’s (Baily Elementary) perspective, nearly every time a schoolwide event was proposed, the response from GSRP teachers was, “We’re not allowed to do that.” Pre-K teacher Paula Danson (Carlton Elementary) worried that this led principals and elementary teachers to view GSRP as the “evil stepchild” in the school building. The rationale for GSRP policy regulations was sound, but misalignment between building norms and policies and GSRP policy created borders that became obstacles to including GSRP in building life.

We did hear a few examples of pre-K and kindergarten teachers who were able to work around these borders to develop strong and consistent patterns of interaction. In all cases, the teachers made intentional efforts to connect or had long-standing relationships with each other (Vicky Dension, a pre-K teacher at Carlton Elementary referred to a kindergarten teacher as a “dear friend”). In a rare case, a teacher who had moved across levels (a former pre-K teacher who now taught kindergarten at Carlton Elementary) acted as a bridge between the two. The elementary buildings where our participants worked lacked formal structures for collaboration between pre-K and kindergarten, and we did not hear examples of building leaders or policies explicitly fostering connections between pre-K and elementary teachers. Instead, teachers were left to seek out opportunities for collaboration on an individual basis, and on their own time. Although some teachers found creative ways to navigate borders erected by conflicting policies, this was an individualized effort that did not result in structural change.   

Compensated but Struggling for Status

Many participants spoke of the importance of compensation in attracting and retaining pre-K teachers. The elementary school pre-K teachers in our study stood out because they were well-compensated in comparison with many ECE professionals. Of 18 elementary school pre-K teachers, 16 had union status, benefits, and pay equity with elementary teachers in their district. Of the remaining two, one was paid hourly, and one was part of her district’s bargaining unit but earned only 80% of the full-time equivalent on the salary schedule because pre-K was not considered a full time position.4 Principal Samantha Kirby (Monroe Elementary) noted that it was easier to fill GSRP teaching vacancies when they were part of the union and on the same salary scale as elementary teachers because this demonstrated that “GSRP teachers are considered the same as . . . K–12 teachers.” Administrators at ELCs were aware of this dynamic, too. Tracy Christiansen (Fillmore District ELC) asserted that pay equity made GSRP teachers feel “comparable” to their colleagues in the building. Pre-K teachers who had compensation parity described an awareness that this was not the norm and saw their position as one of privilege. They were generally satisfied with this aspect of their job and viewed the district’s compensation policy as a factor that positively affected their work.

Although they enjoyed compensation parity, many elementary school pre-K teachers related stories of their struggle to be recognized by their building colleagues as professionals. Many principals and elementary teachers lacked an understanding of the GSRP curriculum, and some elementary teachers did not realize that GSRP teachers had the same educational qualifications they did. The friction between how GSRP teachers understood their work and their colleagues’ perceptions of pre-K teaching amplified the border between the philosophies and structures of the ECE and the K–12 systems. It fell to individual teachers to try to correct their colleagues’ assumptions and misinterpretations. Sammy Hays (Glenwood Elementary) felt that she had to convince people that GSRP teachers were not “babysitters.” Similarly, other pre-K teachers perceived that colleagues who viewed pre-K teaching as “just playing” did not value their work or see them as equals. Several teachers even described having to deal with their elementary colleagues’ shock upon learning that pre-K teachers were required to have the same educational credentials that they did.

The perception of pre-K as “just playing” (rather than academic or educative) was most materially consequential in the context of evaluation. Pre-K teachers in elementary schools were evaluated by the ISD, using a tool that aligned with GSRP curriculum and pedagogy, and their principal, using a tool designed for elementary classrooms. Wendy Sanger (Fillmore District ELC), who worked in a district ELC but had previously taught GSRP in an elementary building, was able to provide a poignant perspective on the challenge of these divergent evaluations. From her perspective, elementary pre-K teachers had to “walk a fine line” to “make everyone happy” at evaluation time. They continually toggled between ISD and school district expectations. Betsy Peters (Carlton Elementary) expressed her exasperation with principals who “[expected] you to be sitting there, drilling them on academics” even though this was antithetical to GSRP’s philosophy and contradicted GSRP policy.

Some principals were able to mediate the tension between the divergent priorities of GSRP and the K–12 system expressed in evaluation tools. For example, when Paige Elliot’s (Fairmoor Elementary) principal noted in an observation that her “walls were really bare,” Elliot explained the state licensing rule that only 20% of her walls could be covered with flammable materials. The principal, whom Elliot described as “super supportive and receptive,” did not “mark her down for it” on the district evaluation. Although Elliot experienced a positive outcome at this point of friction, it is worth noting that this required additional labor because her principal lacked an ECE background and was unaware of GSRP requirements. This additional labor was a consequence of an unresolved tension between expectations for pre-K and the elementary grades.

In elementary buildings, compensation parity for pre-K teachers removed a border that historically demarcated the work of ECE and K–12 teachers. Yet, the border between pre-K and elementary practices remained intact, which forced pre-K teachers to engage in the emotional labor of asserting their status as professionals to building colleagues and adapting their practice to meet the expectations of whichever evaluation system their work was being understood through at the moment.


Separate, yet Connected

District ELCs were physically separate from elementary schools, and teachers in these locations almost uniformly described their sense that GSRP was invisible or “forgotten.” This perception was shaped by district discourses and actions (or inaction) and by pre-K teachers’ lack of connection to elementary teachers in the district. For example, at one site, Stuart ELC, several teachers cited a districtwide survey that failed to include their building as evidence that they were “out of sight, out of mind” for the district. An omission like this one, even if it was unintentional, acted to reinforce the border separating ECE from the K–12 system, even though the ELC was operated by the school district.

ELC administrators and other pre-K teachers echoed this feeling of invisibility within the district. Cynthia Harris, the director of Stuart ELC, expressed her belief that the district had no idea what happened her building. In an attempt to educate them, she regularly invited school district officials to visit but noted that they rarely came. Harris viewed high teacher turnover in her building as a reflection of teachers’ sense that the district did not value GSRP. What we heard from pre-K teachers at Stuart ELC and other sites corroborated this. For example, when asked what might cause a GSRP teacher to leave the profession, pre-K teacher Denise Stevenson (Swanson ELC) said that teachers at district ELCs were probably more likely than elementary pre-K teachers to leave their jobs because of lack of connection and feeling that they were “operating on an island.” At ELCs, she explained, it could feel like you are just “tucked away somewhere,” and “no one’s paying attention.” The perception that a lack of recognition by the school district could be linked to teacher turnover is borne out by recent research suggesting that early childhood teachers may be more dedicated to the profession when they receive the support and recognition that helps them feel competent and successful (Lipscomb et al., 2021).  

Despite their tenuous relationship with the school district, pre-K teachers in district ELCs reported feeling well-supported and having a strong professional community within their building. Naomi Reed, who had previously taught GSRP in an elementary building, said she had a greater sense of “community and collaboration” at Stuart ELC because she had ample opportunities to collaborate with other ECE professionals. Perspectives like this reverberated across our interviews—because these teachers had other ECE colleagues in their building, collaboration was easy.

Several district ELC teachers also viewed access to more relevant professional development opportunities as a benefit of being in an ECE-only site. Wendy Sanger (Fillmore ELC), who previously taught GSRP in an elementary building, said that a benefit of being at an ELC was “not having to sit through . . . whole building staff meetings that don’t pertain to us.” Many pre-K teachers in elementary buildings said buildingwide professional development was rarely focused on ECE and typically did not apply to GSRP. Thus, although the border between the ECE and K–12 systems was maintained by the school district’s lack of involvement in some district ELCs, these were also professionally fulfilling spaces for teachers because they were part of a community of ECE professionals.

Qualified but Underpaid

Nine of the 10 pre-K teachers we interviewed in district ELCs held a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certification—the same credentials as pre-K teachers in elementary buildings. Yet, seven of the 10 district ELC teachers (across three different sites) were paid an hourly wage with no benefits. Low compensation in district ELCs was an issue that came up repeatedly. Melissa Castel, ECE director for Howard ISD, saw teacher retention as GSRP’s greatest challenge and blamed low compensation for high rates of turnover. Her solution was straightforward: “Pay them well.” Teachers’ reflections on compensation issues brought this to life. Naomi Reed, who received an hourly wage with no benefits at Stuart ELC, was deeply committed to teaching GSRP but worried that she would be unable to repay her student loans if she stayed at Stuart. She felt she would need to change careers in order to “live.” Reed’s colleagues shared similar narratives of hardship. What made their situation especially difficult was the knowledge that it could be different—they were acutely aware that pre-K teachers in a neighboring district received a salary and benefits on par with K–12 teachers.

There were three district ELC pre-K teachers (in three different schools) in our sample who were part of a bargaining unit. One teacher, Denise Stevenson (Swanson District ELC), had a straightforward situation—she was part of the teachers’ union and paid according to the district salary schedule even though she did not teach in an elementary building. In Seymour District, Irene Jopson (West River District ELC), like all GSRP teachers in the district, was part of the teachers’ union but was paid 80% of the full-time equivalent because GSRP operated only four days per week. This was a point of contention because GSRP teachers used the day they did not have children in their classroom for planning (they typically had no break during the school day) and meeting GSRP family engagement requirements. Wendy Sanger (Fillmore District ELC) was also part of the teachers’ union but worried that her district was headed in a similar direction. At the time of this study, Fillmore School District was creating a separate salary schedule for GSRP teachers, whose earnings would be capped at $35,000 per year.

In most district ELCs in our study, compensation policy reinforced a border that defined pre-K teachers as second-class professionals, even when they had the same credentials as K–12 teachers. Low compensation reinforced teachers’ sense that the district did not see or value them and seemed to contribute to the likelihood that they would seek out new opportunities. This constant churn of teachers, whether to a different GSRP classroom, an elementary position, or out of the profession altogether, has negative ramifications for program quality.  


Although we generated a significant amount of data to support our understanding of pre-K borderlands, there are limitations to what can be known about the pre-K borderland through interviews alone. By including the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, we sought to contextualize the experiences of pre-K teachers; however, we were unable to recruit as many principals and kindergarten teachers as we would have liked. This was due in part to pre-K teachers’ lack of relationship with kindergarten teachers in many cases. That many pre-K teachers could not refer us to a kindergarten teacher was in itself telling. Another limitation to this study is that we may not have identified all possible borderlands in Michigan pre-K. Our sample included 11 local school districts and captured two mechanisms for implementing public pre-K (elementary school and district ELC); other mechanisms for implementing pre-K may also exist but were not detected (e.g., through charter academies and partnerships with Head Start). Finally, although the importance of the physical location of pre-K classrooms was central to our findings, we did not gather data about how decisions about the location of pre-K classrooms were made at the district level. Interviews with school district officials would have provided helpful insight into this process.


Previous research has presented the pre-K borderland as a monolithic space, defined by a set of differences between ECE and elementary grades that are experienced most acutely when pre-K is located in a public school building (Delaney, 2018; McCabe & Sipple, 2011; Sumsion & Britt, 2003). In this study, we found that school-based pre-K has multiple meanings in Michigan because there are multiple implementation models through which school districts administer public pre-K. In this article, we explored two of these models—elementary school and district ELC. We consider each of these models a form of school-based pre-K because they were administered by the school district, yet our findings showed that these pre-K borderlands were differentially produced through frictions of encounter (Tsing, 2005), with consequences for pre-K teachers.

Our findings also show that neither borderland—elementary school, district ELC—was ideal, suggesting that the solution to better supporting pre-K teachers does not lie in simply altering one aspect of their work experience (e.g., compensation or physical location). Pre-K teachers in elementary buildings had compensation parity with their elementary grades’ colleagues but little opportunity for professional collaboration despite their close physical proximity. These teachers also faced an arduous task of navigating evaluation structures with divergent expectations. District ELC pre-K teachers experienced greater professional support in their buildings but described feeling that their work was not seen or valued by the school district. This was exacerbated for teachers who earned a low hourly wage while possessing the same qualifications as K–12 teachers.

The composition of each of the pre-K borderlands in this study meant that teachers experienced “a constant state of displacement” (Andalzua, 2002, p. 1). In elementary buildings, pre-K teachers experienced internal displacement, because co-location did not guarantee opportunities for collaboration or an understanding of their work. In district ELCs, pre-K teachers experienced isolation because they were physically separate from the school district. Because of conflicting evaluations systems and their colleagues’ limited understanding of ECE, pre-K teachers in elementary buildings learned to perform, adjusting their practice and discourse in response to who was in the room and the system they represented. The stakes of this “existence of calculation” (Ball, 2003, p. 217) were perhaps higher for district ELC teachers, who were forced by low wages to make determinations about whether to continue teaching pre-K. In each case, the work of navigating these complexities fell almost entirely on the pre-K teachers themselves. Operating under these conditions contributed to demoralization for a group of individuals already at the margins.   

While our findings highlight that there is no singular policy prescription to best support school-based pre-K teachers, they do provide insight into a set of guiding principles for creating more supportive work environments for pre-K teachers. First, there is an urgent need for compensation parity in pre-K. The economic plight and marginalization of ECE teachers is well-documented (Whitebook et al., 2016). Yet, because these inequities persist, it is critical to continue naming them and highlighting the consequences they bear for teachers and students. Compensation disparities are particularly egregious in the context of public pre-K, where heightened requirements for teacher qualifications have not, for the most part, been accompanied by commensurate increases in compensation. Compensation parity is “critical to delivering the promised returns on investment in high-quality early education” (Whitebook & McLean, 2017, p. 2), and districts must take this seriously across all implementation contexts if they are committed to providing high-quality programs for young children.

Our findings also point to a need for greater intentionality in physical location decisions, which create opportunities and constraints for teachers’ sense of belonging in their building and district, as well as their ability to access and engage in professional communities that go beyond pre-K. As a starting point, decisions about co-locating pre-K in elementary buildings must involve consideration about whether the policies that guide the two programs complement each other. One of the reasons pre-K teachers in elementary buildings in our study felt disconnected from their building and colleagues was that they were not allowed to access most of the building. Integrating pre-K into elementary buildings must be done with intentionality to mitigate such side effects.

There is also a need to develop mechanisms that connect pre-K teachers across implementation contexts to professional communities. In our study, teachers in ECE-only buildings felt connected to other early childhood educators but completely disconnected from the school district. Yet, pre-K teachers in elementary buildings did not necessarily feel more connected to the school district or a professional community within their building. Taking intentional steps to promote professional connections between pre-K and elementary teachers can enhance teachers’ practice while also promoting a shared understanding across the ECE and K–12 systems (Whitebook et al., 2016). Enhanced connections between pre-K teachers and elementary colleagues may contribute positively to pre-K teachers’ sense of belonging, which has been found to mediate teacher job satisfaction and motivation to stay in the profession (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2011). The prospect of collaboration is also among the factors that contribute to preschool teachers’ self-efficacy, which is positively associated with children’s learning (Guo et al., 2010; Lipscomb et al., 2021).

Finally, this analysis suggests there is room for growth among elementary school principals, who typically do not have a professional background in ECE. Teachers’ relationships with their administrator and perception of administrator support have implications for job satisfaction and retention (Wells, 2015). While few teachers we interviewed considered their principal a key resource for teaching pre-K, those who did described principals who were knowledgeable about ECE or made an effort to learn. Those principals were able to use their knowledge of ECE and GSRP to mitigate some of the tensions between pre-K and the elementary grades, which improved pre-K teachers’ work experiences. As elementary schools increasingly house pre-K programs, principals are critical to building a coalition of stakeholders whose support for ECE is not just rhetorical, but reflected in their actions (Garrity et al., 2021).

Taken together, our findings demonstrate that there are no binary issues of policy or practice in the borderland; there are no quick fixes to improve school-based pre-K teachers’ work conditions. The pre-K borderland is complex and intensely local, shaped by a constellation of factors that come together differently in diverse settings. There is a need to understand the borderland and attend to these complexities in order to inform decision-making at the building, district, and state level that contributes to the development of a rich and appropriate environment for children and adults in school-based pre-K. To do this successfully, all parties—from policy makers to kindergarten teachers—must work to understand the pre-K borderland.


Our findings show that a broad commitment to improving the quality of ECE and to supporting pre-K teachers’ well-being requires attention to the pre-K borderland. Yet, challenges that teachers experience in the pre-K borderland are often overlooked in the discourse of ECE investment and learning outcomes. As a result, the burden of navigating sites of friction in the borderland falls largely on public pre-K teachers. Our findings suggest that, as a population, public pre-K teachers are not being supported in ways that align with discourses about the importance of ECE programs like pre-K and that, in some cases, teachers are being denied many of the things we know they need to be successful.

Paradoxically, public pre-K programs like GSRP, which aim to support the most marginalized children, may provide only uneven support to early educators who are, themselves, a marginalized faction. In this article, we drew on border theory and the notion of friction to explicate why this was the case across a set of pre-K borderlands in Michigan. A recognition of borders (and thus the borderland) as socially constructed opens up the possibility that what pre-K teachers are experiencing now can change. If we expect the promise of pre-K to be achieved, we must commit to remaking pre-K borderlands to better support teachers.


Our sincere thanks to the ISD officials, administrators, and teachers who participated in this research. We appreciate you and your willingness to share your experiences with us. We also acknowledge Rachel Larimore’s contributions to the literature review and Alyssa Hadley Dunn for her feedback on an initial draft. We would also like to thank the Spencer Foundation Small Grants Program and the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, Michigan Applied Public Policy (MAPPR) Grant Program for their support of this study.



There are encouraging examples of ECE centers co-located with early-grade elementary classrooms, such as Chicago’s Child Parent Centers; they rely on a comprehensive set of family and child interventions, as well as extended support through the early elementary grades and an ECE-specific school-based administrator (Temple & Reynolds, 2007). These conditions are quite different from the ways we observed public pre-K operating in this study.


One teacher did not respond to our request to set up an interview, and our attempts to recruit additional participants from Barrymore were unsuccessful.


The decision to adopt a particular implementation model was made at the school district level. Some school districts, such as Evansdale, exclusively followed the elementary model. Maplewood and Northgate districts placed pre-K classrooms in district ELCs. Others, like Seymour and Fillmore, distributed some pre-K classrooms in district ELCs and others in elementary schools.


We did not ask participants to report their salary, but we did ask whether they received benefits and whether they were paid hourly or salaried. Elise Charles (Danbury District) was an outlier because she taught in an elementary building but did not have a teaching certificate and was paid hourly. We surmise this may have been a creative solution for space issues in a small school district.  


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 10, 2021, p. - ID Number: 23849, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 9:10:10 AM

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