Preparing for Change: A Case Study of Successful Alignment between a Pre-K Program and K-12 Education

Article excerpt

Policymakers across the globe have taken an increased interest in the expansion of early childhood education and care services; with this interest, policies that further define and regulate the fields of early education and care have proliferated (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2006). For instance, policies implemented across Great Britain (e.g., Clark & Waller, 2007; Jones & Osgood, 2007) and Australia (e.g., Fenech & Sumsion, 2007; Hatch & Grieshaber, 2002) have led to increased training requirements for early educators and to more clearly defined early childhood curricula, assessment, and program expectations. Policymakers and advocates in the United States also are focusing on these issues (e.g., Kagan & Scott-Little, 2004; Stipek, 2006) and considering ways to increase access to early education. Such programs as state-funded prekindergarten (pre-K) are framed within this discussion as education opportunities that may prepare young children for later school success (Barnett, Hustedt, Friedman, Boyd, & Ainsworth, 2007; Pre-K Now, 2006).

This expansion of early childhood education programs, specifically in the United States, is heading toward their encapsulation within larger kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) education systems. As this occurs, early childhood educators are being asked to put into place policies that mimic K-12 education reforms. (1) These policies, such as the Bush Administration's Good Start, Grow Smart initiative (Office of the White House, 2002), which emerged shortly after the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, exemplify this point. This initiative required state agencies to establish early learning standards (2) for specific programs serving children ages 3-5 in alignment with their state's K-12 content standards. Additionally, this initiative required the implementation of the Head Start National Reporting System. Such reforms are designed to create a transparent policy environment in which specific outcomes in particular content areas are to be named and measured as a means to evaluate the program effectiveness.

Recent empirical research on the impact of these policy changes for early childhood education has highlighted some issues that arise as agencies and programs implement standards that define content and performance expectations for young children in their preparation for elementary school. For example, Scott-Little, Kagan, and Frelow (2006) found that across the United States, early learning standards at the state level tend to emphasize the development of the cognitive domain at the expense of others. Wien's (2004) and Goldstein's (2007) analysis of early childhood teachers in practice demonstrated how these performance-based expectations create dilemmas for teachers. Despite the presence of these reforms, researchers have questioned the appropriateness and accuracy of such initiatives as the Head Start National Reporting System (e.g., Meisels & Atkins-Burnett, 2004; Raver & Zigler, 2004).

Empirical studies such as these demonstrate how this vision of schooling, which emphasizes academic achievement and its role in preparing young children for later school success, does not fully capture the type of learning that is advocated for by such organizations as the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI). Thus, early childhood stakeholders are being asked to address these issues of alignment and define the content and performance standards that their students should meet (Brown, 2007).

In this article, we present findings from a case study of alignment that occurred between a Pre-K program and the larger K-12 system in which it was housed, to consider what this change process means for early childhood education. Specifically, we discuss and analyze the work of a collection of Pre-K stakeholders who proactively designed and successfully implemented a Pre-K assessment tool that clearly defined the academic knowledge, skills, and personal development traits that students needed in their preparation for the district's elementary school program. …