Early grade teachers in New Jersey are learning how to implement developmentally appropriate practices — a key early-childhood education principle — while still providing rigorous instruction as part of a partnership funded by a Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant.
The Preschool to 3rd Grade Initiative, presented as part of a featured session Thursday at the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference in Atlanta, involves teachers and administrators in more than 20 school districts, the New Jersey Department of Education and researchers from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The project focuses on how to create curriculum that challenges students, is responsive to their individual differences and helps them connect to content knowledge they already have.
In beginning the work, the researchers wanted to have a better understanding of how children in the early grades are currently spending their time, explained Shannon Riley-Ayers, an associate research professor with NIEER and with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes.
Using an instrument called EduSnap, developed by Sharon Ritchie at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they measured the amount of time students spent in transitions, in teacher-led whole group or small group instruction, working collaboratively with peers, working individually, or having some choice of activities.
Before sharing with the attendees what they learned, Riley-Ayers asked them what their ideal school day would look like for students in K-3. They threw out answers such as 10-15% of time in whole group settings, 20% in choice time and 15-20% in small group settings or working collaboratively.
But in reality, the researchers found that K-3 students spend more than 40% of their time in whole group instruction, 25% doing individual work and 16% percent transitioning from one activity or arrangement to another. There was little to no time allowed for choice of activities.
The results suggest “a lot of listening and sitting and not active engagement,” Riley-Ayers says. “No teacher wants her classroom to be like this. Somehow we have created this culture of 'This is what school is.'”
While the results were collected in New Jersey, she added that the data are similar in other states as well, and that there is little variation across all four grade levels.
As part of the project, which involves three full days and two half days, trainers are focusing on developmentally appropriate practices, which teachers with an elementary education background sometimes misunderstand, says Kaitlin Northey, also of NIEER. They also address myths about rigor, such as teachers — and parents — thinking it means assigning more homework. The professional development covers how to organize groups and create interdisciplinary experiences, and teachers share how they are shifting their practices toward a more center-based format in which children can explore.
In addition to working with teachers in the cohort groups, the project has developed an “implementation guidelines” document for 1st through 3rd grades. And a Professional Learning Community Guide has been created for any district interested in making these changes.
The speakers also addressed the fact that many elementary school administrators are unfamiliar with high-quality teaching practices for young children and might not think a teacher is actually teaching if he or she isn’t standing at the front of the room talking to the whole class.
But they added that in other cases, administrators would like to see more variation in teaching practices and that teachers are not ready.
“This is not a teacher problem; this is not an administrator problem. This is s system problem,” said Vincent Costanza, formerly the executive director of New Jersey’s Early Learning Challenge initiative and now the chief academic officer with Teaching Strategies, which developes early-childhood curriculum materials. ”We need to do something to change that.”
Constanza noted that only Illinois requires school administrators to receive some training in early childhood.
Several attendees agreed that they are working within school districts where making such changes would be hard and principals might not be supportive. “What we think as appropriate,” one teacher said, “might not be appropriate for them.”