Sprig Learning is committed to providing every child a fair shot at success. Part of that commitment lies in identifying and addressing the main challenges in early learning—those systemic challenges from which all other challenges arise.
This is a follow up to our last post 5 key challenges faced by schools and programs in early learning where we identified the challenges. In this post, we review one solution for each of those challenges.
The research and real-world results unequivocally say that high-quality early learning is an exceptional investment that leads to improved learning and life outcomes.
Despite how deep-rooted each challenge is, it’s not an insurmountable task to uproot them. What we do know is that the payoffs are worth it.
Challenge: Lack of Time for Educators
Educators often have to wear many hats. Especially in early learning, they often have to serve the role of both the teacher and caretaker. When non-classroom management administrative duties are mandated for health and safety reasons, the core teaching activities often get pushed to the periphery.
A Solution: Prioritize Planning Time Over All Else
There is only so much time in a given day, and ECE educators want to teach students more than anything else. Afterall, it is why they chose the profession in the first place.
Eileen Merritt, assistant professor at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and former elementary school teacher says “the time that I had each day for planning in my elementary classroom had a direct effect on the quality of my teaching”.
When teachers are asked what would have the greatest positive impact on their ability to help their students, more planning time during the school day is the top choice. Lack of planning time reduces educators’ ability to implement evidence-based practices, which all districts intend on using to ensure the success of every student.
In a study of large school districts in the US, over half of elementary school teachers stated they received 45 minutes per day for planning, 16 percent of the districts gave their teachers an hour, whereas 4 percent of them only gave their teachers 15 minutes.
The fact that such discrepancy exists is troubling. When setting blocks in an educator’s daily schedule, it’s best to ensure that there is sufficient time reserved for planning. Using intuitive technology to monitor each student can save time from keeping handwritten notes or paper files.
Planning includes both individual planning and collaborative planning with other teachers. In our Unrivaled Guide to Introducing Differentiated Instruction in Early Learning, we discuss at length on the importance of collaborative planning.
Challenge: Lack of Pay in Early Childhood Education
The lack of pay in ECE stalls career progression, where educators can lack motivation to continue in the midst of facing all other challenges. There is also a scarcity of institutions which offer affordable high quality programs for professionalization. But things are slowly changing.
A Solution: Use Quality as a Driver For Pay
Thankfully, wage increases for early childhood educators are on the radar of policy makers. The Government of Saskatchewan in Canada recently announced a $3 per hour wage increase for early childhood educators. In British Columbia, front-line ECEs working in licensed child care facilities will receive a wage increase of $4 per hour.
In the US, the Build Back Better framework proposes increasing wages and creating a salary ladder for early educators across the board.
Trying to address something like a lack of pay is challenging. Devoting more funds in one area often means cutting costs in another, which can reduce the overall quality of the early learning program.
It could also mean passing the cost down to the end beneficiary, which is the child’s parents in this case. But affordability of early education is an important issue in its own right.
Thus, the only way to ensure staff are compensated adequately is to increase the size of the overall budget. From the examples cited before, it’s good to see that more funding is being earmarked for developing a high-earning and happy ECE workforce.
But one thing that’s true for both public and private schools is that the quality of early learning cannot be sacrificed, which would make it even more difficult to justify any sort of rise in budget, and thus a pay rise. We’ve covered what a high-quality early learning program looks like in a previous post.
There are new early learning centers, and community colleges who offer specialized programs for those who want to have a career in ECE. This has the potential to increase the qualification for those joining the workforce, and also upskill incumbents who are in the workforce. But schools can join the effort too.
Superintendent Jerry Weast of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, formed an early-learning-focused collaborative involving the district, county agencies, nonprofits, and businesses. It’s purpose was to reinforce the district’s comprehensive professional development system.
It’s important to brainstorm with all institutions in the community as to how quality can be ensured and maintained in a certain district.
Challenge: Lack of Professional Development and Training
This is potentially the most pressing issue in early learning. Professional development (PD) needs to be ongoing and educators feel they could be better supported in their time at schools. Even if they had more time, and were paid better, educators would ultimately need the right support to deliver the best learning experience to young students.
Solution: Have An Alignment Plan Between Early and Primary Learning
Having a plan for the youngest learners, how their learning transfers over to elementary school, and from there to secondary school, is of the utmost importance.
Grier Park Elementary School in Lansing, MI used several strategies to ensure integration between their preK classroom and the rest of the primary school to create a preK-3 structure that was optimized for early learning.
They used professional learning communities to create opportunities for educators across grade levels, provided strong PD for preK teachers to match that of K-3 teachers, and planned for the preK to kindergarten transition during staff meetings.
SchoolFirst, an initiative of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, favors a consolidated curricular approach for students in preK-3. The approach is said to provide a seamless brand of education and best supports early learners as they gain foundational knowledge in literacy, math and other areas. The consolidation of preK-3 into one school building is not necessary, but the integration between the two grade configurations is vital.
A frequent challenge to preK–3 alignment is the disconnection of preK from primary grades due to its curricular materials and processes. But when you have a uniform plan in place that connects the two, there is better PD due to the increased degree of collaboration between teachers in planning and reviewing different instructional strategies.
In Nooksack Valley School District, Superintendent Mark Johnson brought together preK and elementary school teachers to collaborate on the district’s instructional core. They focused on the key interactions between the teacher, student, and content that form daily instructional routines.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that coordinating preK–3 standards, curricula, instructional practices, assessments, and teacher PD is more likely to set young students on a positive development path.
Certain technologies can ensure that the students’ learning profiles are carried over from preK to kindergarten, so their learning gaps can be identified and addressed at the right time.
Challenge: Battling the Early Learning Slide
In the early formative years, particularly from birth to age 8, learning is gained through achieving certain age appropriate milestones. There are many theories on the best way to achieve this, but if such milestones are not met, then progress in future years is impeded.
Solution: Have Achievement Indicators at Each Grade Level
As literacy is the building block of so many crucial academic milestones, it’s important to use measurements of key literacy skills when setting the district’s preK-3 goals.
In Bremerton School District, the short-term goals included raising the percentage of entering kindergarteners who could identify all the letters of the alphabet. Superintendent Bette Hyde oversaw an increase of 62 percentage points in eight years, of kindergartners who knew their letters upon admission.
In Montgomery Public Schools, a combination of a state kindergarten-readiness assessment and its own standards-based literacy assessment was used. With over 141,000 students, Montgomery County Public Schools boosted 90 percent of existing kindergartners ready to learn and 89 percent of third graders reading proficiently.
Montgomery County’s key objective was that 80 percent of its students leave high school college-ready. The district connected this end outcome to evidence-based indicators at each grade level all the way back to preK!
Whenever there are measurable outcomes in place, the superintendent can show community partners the value of preK-3 efforts in preventing any learning slides. Be it the summer learning slide, a pandemic induced learning slide, or any other form of learning slide.
Challenge: Lack of Resources
As the population grows, and inflation rises, funding for public early learning schools and programs can be difficult to acquire, unless there is some strategic bottom-down planning.
There are always grants available which makes it possible to acquire the necessary resources. But it’s not just about adequate funds. It’s also about spending it in a way that ensures a sustainable long-term advantage and reduces dependency on funding policies that could change in the future.
A Solution: Attract Residents to Your Community
When early learning is not well integrated into the overall educational framework of the district, it provides an additional headache for parents. Whether the districts are funded on a per-pupil formula or through different taxes in that community such as property taxes, both are dependent on people wanting to move into the neighborhood. It requires a certain upkeep of reputation.
A study in California showed that 17 of 25 school districts are involved in some type of preK-3 alignment work. But this work was on a single dimension of alignment such as curriculum, standards, assessment or PD. Clearly, there is much room for improvement when it comes to incorporating early learning into the primary school system.
There is a strong case to be made about having the right vision and commitment to that vision. Districts that engaged in alignment work gave interviews that suggested a stronger belief in the value of PreK compared to districts who did not. The latter interviews suggest that they saw PreK as something totally different from the elementary level.
The PreK director, or other relevant early learning role placed in the district’s administrative structure, is indicative of the seriousness of commitment.
Only 3 of 25 preK directors in districts studied were part of the superintendent’s cabinet. The remainder attended district leadership meetings but were not involved in the district’s central decision-making structure.
The needs of the youngest learners in the community will receive its fair share of attention, when the right people are involved. It will strengthen the community’s desirability in the mind of potential residents.
Overcoming Early Learning Challenges with Solutions
The solutions presented in this article are not exhaustive. But they are specific and have proven to deliver results. It’s possible that taking a systematic approach to implementing some of these solutions could have surplus benefits addressing any unmentioned challenges. Thus, each solution’s importance cannot be overstated.
Sprig Learning works with educators, school leaders and parents to design holistic early learning programs that consider a wide range of factors. If you need help on any particular challenge, we are here to help.