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New Study from Assistant Professor Michael Little Finds Principals Play Key Role in Promoting P-3 Alignment for School-based Pre-K Programs

NC State College of Education Assistant Professor Michael Little

Research shows that childrens’ school readiness improves if they attend a preschool program, but the initial benefits of Pre-K don’t always reliably persist as kids progress through elementary school. To combat this “Pre-K fadeout,” many scholars have called for preschool through third grade (P-3) alignment, but a study by NC State College of Education Assistant Professor Michael Little, Ph.D., recently demonstrated that attending a Pre-K program located within an elementary school does not guarantee that a student will be better prepared.

“Educators’ Views on the Location of Pre-K Programs and its Relation to Features of P-3 Alignment: An Exploratory Study” was recently published in Children and Youth Services Review. The paper explores how educators view the differences between Pre-K programs located within elementary schools and those housed in off-site centers, as well as how these different location types relate to P-3 alignment.

Little specifically examined the theory that preschools located in elementary schools better facilitate P-3 alignment, finding that school-based Pre-K programs may be useful in setting some conditions for alignment including improved collaboration between preschool and kindergarten teachers. While center-based preschool programs may often have resources that are more appropriate for young students — for example, tables and equipment that are the proper size for 4-year-old children — school-based programs are able to help “normalize” school and can more easily offer richer transition practices, such as allowing preschoolers to visit kindergarten classrooms.

However, the study demonstrated the location of a school-based Pre-K program was not sufficient to guarantee alignment on its own.

“In some ways, I was surprised by the finding that locating Pre-K programs in schools, alone, did not do more to ensure features of P-3 alignment,” Little said. “I assumed that this physical proximity would facilitate greater collaboration and coordination between Pre-K and the early elementary grades. While I did find some instances of this type of work, it was not assured. Ultimately, it comes down to the dynamics of the individual actors in the school building.”

The key to the most successful P-3 alignment for school-based preschool programs, Little found, was the extent to which principals created conditions in which Pre-K programs were included in the broader elementary school context.

The study cites examples from North Carolina principals who integrated preschool programs into elementary schools to promote alignment strategies and teacher collaboration across grades. For example, one school principal created “Vertical Professional Learning Communities” in which all teachers from preschool through third grade came together to coordinate their instruction.

Principals can also provide more informal support by taking simple steps to include Pre-K in the overall elementary school environment by inviting preschool teachers to bring their students to school-wide assemblies and occasionally stopping by the Pre-K classroom, the study said. These supports are especially important as many schools only have one preschool classroom, leading Pre-K teachers to feel a sense of isolation compared with their K-5 peers.

Little said his study demonstrates a need to better prepare and support elementary school principals to facilitate P-3 alignment work through Pre-K inclusion in order to improve young childrens’ school readiness.

“By creating a seamless continuum of high-quality early education, efforts to improve P-3 alignment aim to provide students with early learning gains in Pre-K that are sustained into elementary school and beyond,” Little said.

To further improve P-3 alignment, Little concludes his paper by offering three recommendations for policy and practice.

  1. Consider a focus on delivering professional development to administrators and teachers in school-based Pre-K locations that focuses on creating vertical alignment and informing educators on what developmentally appropriate practices look like for each grade level.
  2. Consider staffing more than a single Pre-K classroom within an elementary school when possible to reduce isolation or make efforts to provide opportunities for Pre-K teachers to develop rich networks where they can discuss issues of practices, even if they are located in separate schools.
  3. Pre-K administrative agencies at the state and county levels could consider options to foster stronger connections between center-based Pre-K programs and local elementary schools by providing transportation for visits to elementary schools and professional development for preschool teachers to visit K-3 teachers to collaborate around instruction.

Although his study focused on teacher perceptions of school-based and center-based Pre-K programs, Little said he hopes his findings will help spur additional research on the differences in Pre-K effectiveness based on location. Specifically, he believes that additional research to examine student outcomes in different Pre-K locations will be necessary in the future.

“I hope that my study helps focus our field on understanding Pre-K effectiveness beyond the Pre-K year. Pre-K effectiveness ultimately depends on what happens after Pre-K, when students are in elementary school,” Little said. “I hope that this research and future research on the topic helps to inform policy and practice changes that support elementary school principals with Pre-K programs in their buildings. To date, their importance in Pre-K effectiveness has been understated.”