The latest edition of Research That Matters, "Passion & Promise," explores how the UW College of Education is approaching the biggest challenges in education with a spirit of possibility. The following story about the College's efforts to improve early learning also appears in the online version of the magazine.
The 48 administrators and principals gathered around tables in a large meeting room at the UW have come from every corner of Washington State. They’re preparing to spend a weekend working and learning together at the Washington P-3 Executive Leadership Institute.
It’s the second time this statewide group of educational leaders has gathered. They joined together earlier in the year for a full week of intensive work. They’ll convene once more later in the year for a final weekend. In all, they’ll log 100 hours of professional development over the course of their 10 months in the program—and invest thousands more hours implementing all they’ve learned back in their home districts.
It’s a unique, even unlikely, combination of people. Some are principals or administrators for large, urban school districts, and hold doctorates. Others run small, rural community preschools, and may not have a college degree at all. Almost all applied and enrolled for the Institute as teams, with public school administrators and preschool educators from an area partnering together for their course of study.
What they all have in common is the belief that, by working together to coordinate and improve the way they teach kids in the early years of learning—from the earliest preschool experiences through 3rd grade (P-3)—they’ll make a big difference in kids’ lives.
Institute Co-director and College of Education Associate Professor Gail Joseph invites the participants to stand and share something about what they’ve accomplished since they last met.
A principal from a small town in Eastern Washington tells about finding and networking every preschool educator in his area to coordinate everyone’s efforts to get kids ready for kindergarten. An administrator from a large district on the I-5 corridor tells how efforts to fund a new early learning facility have progressed from proposal to actual planning. A principal of a medium-sized city talks with pride about bringing more than 800 families to a Pre-K jamboree event. Another small-town educator tells how she more than tripled enrollment in a Pre-K summer camp.
Leaders make things happen
One unique aspect of the Institute, now in its second year, is that it consists entirely of principals and administrators. No teachers are included. That’s by design, according to College of Education Research Assistant Professor Kristie Kauerz, who co-directs the Institute, and also directs the College’s National P-3 Center.
“Leaders, administrators, and early learning site directors are critical linchpins in this work,” Kauerz said. “You can train teachers all you want, but if they go back to a school or a program where the administrator is unsupportive at worst or indifferent at best, we’re not going to get change at scale. That led to thinking about a leadership institute that coenrolls from both the birth-to-five system and the K-12 system—bringing them together to learn about changing their practice.”
This is the paradigm shift—focusing on both building and site-level administrators and co-enrollment across the traditionally disparate birth-to-five and K-12 systems—that Kauerz asserts will be a game changer for improving children’s learning opportunities and success in school.
Kauerz, a national leader in P-3 efforts for more than a decade, said the UW is the first university in the country to try this intensive, academically rigorous, team-based, administrator-focused approach to P-3 improvement—and other states are taking notice.
“Over the past year, I’ve presented at a number of national and state conferences around the country, including a convening hosted by National Governors’ Association,” Kauerz said. “Since then, a handful of states have decided to replicate what we’re doing. For example, the University of Connecticut is partnering with the Connecticut Department of Education to create a P-3 leadership institute modeled after ours.”
Kauerz said the UW’s Institute has found just the right combination of ingredients to make it a great model for other states.
“One of our magic ingredients is our scope. It’s not just a brief weekend workshop, but a meaningful, intensive educational experience. The fact that it’s credit-bearing is also important,” Kauerz said. “We held focus groups with principals and early learning directors. The biggest thing we heard is ‘we’re so deeply interested in the content—but we’re also so stretched and so overwhelmed that we need to get something from it.’”
What they get, Kauerz said, is 9-12 UW credits, for which they pay a special reduced rate. Even better, the credits are leveled so they’re equally applicable to undergraduate, master’s, or doctorate programs, reflecting the cohort’s unique educational range. Kauerz said the next step, currently being applied for through the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board is to make participation in the Institute fulfill the Washington State professional certification requirement for principals.
Kauerz said she and co-director Joseph, along with their staff, have learned other important lessons from the participants that they’ve applied to this year’s Institute, as well.
“Probably the biggest shift we’re making is in the nature of the homework assignments,” Kauerz said. “This year, we’ve tried to make the assignments strategies they can use to actually start changing things in their own home settings. For example, since we’re focusing on helping birth-to-five and K-3 work together better, they have to do cross-sector site visits. If they’re an elementary school principal, we ask them to find an early childhood program and visit it, walk through the classrooms, meet with the teachers, understand what the programming looks like. And we ask the early learning people go to an elementary school.”
Kauerz said participants are also partnered with someone in the program with a role similar to theirs, and to another participant with a different role, for one-on-one conversations to gain a broader perspective on the work. They’re also required to write vision statements for their own work, that become guiding tools for their engagement with teachers, families, and others.
“We’re trying to disseminate P-3 approaches, in which young children experience strong early learning from birth through 3rd grade, deeper and deeper into the trenches where the work is really being done,” Kauerz said. “What we really need to do is to penetrate down to where the children actually are, in the schools and early learning centers, and change the practices of the adults who are working with those young children. It’s about taking the big ideas and making them consumable and implementable.”
National prominence brings challenges
While Kauerz has been a leader in this field for over a decade, she says she’s seen a significant shift, just in the past few years, in the national emphasis being given to the work of coordinating preschool and early elementary learning.
“Now, P-3 is being worked on in dozens of states and hundreds of school districts. That’s a really positive change,” Kauerz said. But there’s a downside, as well.
“One of the negative changes is that the politics of these issues often land on assessment data and on the importance of children reading by the end of third grade,” Kauerz said. “But my fear is that is just too narrow a perspective. Yes—this work is about ensuring children are successful readers by the end of third grade. But that’s not enough. We need them to be successful early mathematicians, we need them to be socially and emotionally competent and well adjusted. But most importantly, we need them to be deeply engaged in learning.”
Kauerz said that for that reason, the Institute’s faculty and staff have put a strong emphasis on a holistic, comprehensive approach.
“I think we’re being really thoughtful about crafting a program that’s not only highly rigorous, taps into the smartest, most cutting edge thinkers from around the country as guest faculty, but is also highly practical, meaningful in the participants’ home context, and professionally relevant,” Kauerz said.
“This is much more than another academic endeavor. I really feel that we are changing practice. We’re changing adult perspectives. We’re shifting paradigms. I think they’re going back to their communities and making truly meaningful changes for kids.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications