Education Week - February 14, 2018 - 22
Ready for Public Pre-K
By Suzanne Bouffard
ost educators are keenly
aware of the importance of a child's transition to school. That
transition now starts
earlier for many children, as some school
districts across the
country open their doors to 3- and 4-year-olds
with prekindergarten programs. The growth of
these programs is due largely to research showing that early childhood is a critical window
for brain development and to corresponding
improvements in grade retention, achievement
gaps, and high school graduation for older students who attended pre-K.
But only high-quality, developmentally appropriate programs achieve the kinds of impacts
seen in cities with successful models, such as
those in Boston and Tulsa, Okla. While policymakers debate the best training approaches for
pre-K teachers and states tweak their earlychildhood rating systems, a key piece of the
quality puzzle is too often overlooked. Public
school principals, superintendents, and instructional leaders, whose responsibility for pre-K
classrooms is growing, have little or no training
in how they should guide and evaluate teachers
of young children.
Before the 1990s, most preschool programs
Jonathan Bouw for Education Week
Pre-K may be common now, but training
for principals around best practices
for pre-K teaching and learning still isn't."
were housed in community centers and overseen by directors with backgrounds in earlychildhood education. Although many children
continue to enroll in such programs, more than
1 million children annually attend public school
pre-K programs overseen by elementary school
principals. And many of those veteran school
leaders weren't trained to oversee these programs and likely never expected they would be
responsible for them.
Pre-K may be common now, but training for
principals around best practices for pre-K teaching and learning still isn't. A 2015 survey of new
principals by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that only 1 in
5 felt well trained in early-childhood education.
Even in districts considered national models of
pre-K, principal training is usually voluntary, if
offered at all, and often funded by outside philanthropy. While some districts have early-childhood
departments to provide training for leaders, others rely on instructional coaches and support
staff who have no early education background.
I spent two years researching the state of U.S.
pre-K classrooms, including visiting more than
a dozen schools, for a book about how to give
all children a solid start in school. I saw many
missed opportunities for quality practice. One
principal in New Jersey thought that an appropriately bustling classroom was "chaotic" when
preschoolers were simply active and engaged.
In the nation's capital, I met teachers who had
For ESSA to Succeed, State Leaders Need Support
By June Atkinson & Dale Chu
hen the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law
two years ago, leaders from
both sides of the aisle hailed
it as a rare and remarkable
display of bipartisanship. The
measure represented a significant rollback of the federal
government's footprint in education policy and the dawn of
a new era of state autonomy. Both of us see the new law as
an opportunity for states to sidestep the gridlock that has
overwhelmed Washington and to take charge in determining a new path forward.
We have been watching the action closely in states, and
there's no point in sugarcoating: ESSA has gotten off to
a rocky start. Turnover in leadership at both the federal
and state levels wasn't a surprise, but complicated matters. In many states-including the states where we helped
shape education policy, North Carolina and Indiana-the
process of drafting new accountability plans surfaced tensions among the multiple entities responsible for putting
the new law into effect.
In spite of this turmoil, states-to their credit-have
come to the table to fix things with a sense of urgency.
Every state has now submitted an ESSA plan. Some have
already been approved, and it shouldn't be long now before
the rest follow suit.
One of us (Dale Chu) examined important aspects of
state ESSA plans as part of an independent peer review
that highlighted what these plans got right (including
broadening accountability beyond test scores), as well as
what they got wrong. Specifically, too many failed to provide details about how their systems would address the
performance of students, especially those that are too
often marginalized by society. It is not wrong to lament the
yawning performance gaps that persist between American
students and our international competitors or the gaps between affluent students and their low-income peers. States
can and must do better, but they can't do it alone. The key
question in the coming weeks and months is this: How can
we-as parents, educators, and concerned citizens-support states to optimize their success?
The answer rests outside the Beltway. With the federal
government signaling its intent to take a more laissez-faire
approach to enforcing these plans, the responsibility is on
all of us to help provide capacity that state departments of
education may not currently have. Together, we must work
with state leaders to ensure these ESSA plans are specific
about how to support low-performing schools and to pick
up the pace when it comes to ensuring every student is
For example, ESSA provides states an opportunity to empower parents and communities by improving how education data are publicly reported. Will state report cards now
be easier to understand? Easier to find? Will the data be
up-to-date? Historically, the answers to these questions
would have been a resounding no. While state education
chiefs have shown steadfast leadership on ESSA at a time
of unprecedented funding and staffing pressures, ordinary
citizens need to be proactive in offering their assistance
and input as these plans are implemented.
We believe states are serious about their obligation to im-
22 | EDUCATION WEEK | February 14, 2018 | www.edweek.org/go/commentary
There's no point in sugarcoating:
ESSA has gotten off to a rocky start."
prove education and increase equity. But given the current
political climate, they will need more tools and supports if
we want to see a positive outcome out of this new law. In
the meantime, the jury is out as to whether ESSA will be
a step forward when it comes to accountability, or a retreat
to the days when stark racial and wealth gaps were largely
hidden from view.
While the law gives states greater flexibility in designing accountability systems and determining performance
measures, some states continue to place a heavy focus on
proficiency and results on statewide assessments. States
should continue to revise these systems to reflect more adequately the role of student growth and other measures
that give a much broader picture of students' career, college, and citizenship readiness.
With no rest for the weary, the next major hurdle is already upon us, as many state legislative sessions are currently meeting, or will soon. In some states where the governor and the state education agency did not see eye to eye
on their state ESSA plan-such as Louisiana and Maryland-there has been a brewing desire to undo or ratchet
back what's in these ESSA plans, in which case all bets may
be off. It will be in the face of these headwinds that states
must stand firm for their students. As former state educa-