01/17/2013 06:10 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Turnaround 2.0: Solutions in Pre-K to Third Grade to Help Failing Schools


When education policymakers discuss how to improve low-performing schools, options such as adding pre-K, expanding the kindergarten day or focusing on instruction in the early grades are often left out of the conversation. And yet research tell us that quality early learning programs provide deep, lasting impact on children's academic and social-emotional development and help set them on the path toward school success, including reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

On January 14, the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation hosted "Turnaround 2.0: Tapping the Potential of the PreK-3rd Grades to Improve Schools" to highlight three promising strategies for turning around elementary schools. The event suggested a different path for addressing problems in low-performing schools than what's required under the federal government's School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.

In 2009, that program received a makeover and a one-time, $3 billion funding boost from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The U.S. Department of Education identified four models of improvement for schools to use: Turnaround (which requires the replacement of the school's principal and at least 50 percent of the staff), Closure (which requires the school to be closed and students to be transferred to a higher-achieving school), Restart (which requires a school to start over under different management) or Transformation (the most flexible of the four). While guidance from the Department of Education does say that, under the transformation model, districts "may also implement" full-day kindergarten or pre-kindergarten, that's as far as the guidance goes when it comes to early learning. But how many schools or school districts are doing so?

Recently released school performance data from the Department on schools receiving these grants do not provide an answer and instead raise more questions. For example, at Early Ed Watch we noted that a larger proportion of elementary schools saw student achievement gains in the first year of the SIG program, compared to middle and high schools. If those gains are deemed significant, this is good news. But we don't know what was done differently in those schools. Did schools find some sort of quick fix for boosting fourth grade test scores? Or did the reforms go deeper? Did access to early learning programs, full-day kindergarten, PreK-third initiatives, early literacy programs or initiatives that focus on building executive function or social-emotional skills affect student outcomes? Were early learning programs part of the schools' plan at all?

The Department's No Child Left Behind waivers have also focused on turning around low-performing schools, specifically on improving the bottom five percent of schools. But again, the guidance on how to improve those schools has included the same types of models, with little acknowledgement of the importance of taking a deep look at pre-K, kindergarten and the early grades.

The Department should provide incentives or even require schools to direct school improvement dollars, as well as federal dollars, to support early learning. If the federal government did so, superintendents and principals would need to take some important steps:

  • Identify the number of preschoolers in their districts and their needs, and
  • Reach out to community pre-K providers and collaborate with them on professional development, data collection, standards and curriculum alignment.
Then, using a variety of funding sources (such as the money from school improvement grants, regular Title I funds, state pre-kindergarten dollars, child care reimbursements and other resources), school districts and community agencies could hire more qualified early education teachers and create seamless programs so that children receive solid learning experiences that build upon each other throughout the early grades. It is not unreasonable to ask schools and districts to take these steps. Think about how differently schools and districts might operate and look if efforts to improve struggling schools started here:
  • Children and their parents would more likely experience a smooth transition from pre-K into kindergarten and into each grade thereafter;
  • Schools would have a clearly sequenced, developmentally appropriate and well-rounded curriculum;
  • Principals would lead the school in a way that recognizes the importance of pre-K and the early grades, supporting joint planning and professional development, PreK-third
  • Kindergarten teachers would be able to use information about the kinds of pre-K experiences their students had to guide their planning and instruction;
  • Teachers PreK-third would use data to determine where children are and collaborate on how to better meet the needs of both struggling and excelling children; and
  • Families would be engaged and welcomed into the school, establishing positive school experiences early on in their child's education.

Among the examples shown at the New America event this week, one was FirstSchool. FirstSchool is a PreK-third grade initiative that works with public school districts to promote efforts to become more responsive to the needs of an increasingly younger, more diverse population of children entering school. Their framework for school improvement addresses schools' ongoing struggles to produce equitable outcomes for African American, Latino and low-income students, the increased presence of pre-kindergartens within public schools, and the challenge of sustaining high instructional quality in every early childhood and elementary classroom. FirstSchool recently began working with the Lansing School District, which has led to a restructuring of the districts' schools, establishing 11 PreK-third schools.

Another organization spotlighted at this week's event was the AppleTree Institute, a network of early learning public charter schools in DC that has partnered with the NewSchools Venture Fund to implement an instructional model called Every Child Ready in three Accelerate DC public charter elementary schools. Every Child Ready drives how to teach, what to teach and how to evaluate teaching in early childhood classrooms. The instructional model includes robust professional development, coaching and a curriculum that helps teachers improve their effectiveness and children's learning. To build upon the strong social, emotional and cognitive foundations they provide to children in Accelerate DC preschool classrooms, preschool teachers attend training with early-grade teachers in order to share data about students as they progress and to collaborate to improve learning outcomes for children.

The third example on stage was the Community Learning Center Institute. This agency leverages public school facilities to become hubs (or community schools) of educational, recreational, cultural, health and civic partnerships in order to improve the conditions of learning for children and catalyze the revitalization of the community. In Cincinnati, community school leaders realized that early childhood programs needed to be part of their work and have started to transform every Cincinnati public school into an early learning community hub, providing home-visiting programs, parenting education programs and playgroups, as well as other health and social supports for neighborhood families with young children.

Each of these strategies also has a strong data component. First School and AppleTree help teachers to use data about their students to inform their instruction and practice. And Cincinnati's community schools, with their "partnership dashboard," track every service and program children participate in, as well as their academic progress.

First School, Every Child Ready and Cincinnati's community schools are promising examples of how districts and schools can focus on prevention rather than intervention to improve schools long-term and eventually reduce the need for "turnaround" initiatives. Of course there will always be schools that need to improve, just as there will always be struggling students. But the number of low-performing schools today and the dollars being spent to turn them around could be significantly cut by addressing problems that emerge in the earliest years and grades.