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Preparing for change: a case study of successful alignment between a pre-K program and K-12 education.

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. Pre-K stakeholders' willingness to address a key issue head-on within this process of standards-based reform offers early childhood stakeholders an opportunity to consider steps they might themselves take to prepare for and align their program's policies and practices with a K-12 education system.

In presenting this case study, we recognize that not all early childhood programs face the same hurdles as this Pre-K program, nor do they operate in the same educational and/or political situation. Consequently, to provide context to our work, we briefly detail the state policies that undergird this Pre-K program, provide a short description of this school district and its Pre-K program, and discuss our methods for investigating this case study and analyzing the data. Next, we outline issues of alignment addressed by this assessment tool drawing attention to the strategies these stakeholders used to implement their tool successfully. We end by highlighting steps these stakeholders desired in their creation of a better tool, and we reemphasize the importance of early childhood stakeholders addressing the various issues of standards-based reform. Our focus in this piece is not on standards-based reform per se. Rather, we view the work of this task force as providing guidelines for early childhood advocates to consider as they face a range of policy challenges that might arise as the field expands and becomes part of the larger public education process.


Pre-K in Texas. Texas policymakers created the state's Pre-K program in 1985 as a half-day intervention program. The Pre-K program was designed to prepare 4-year-old children (3) identified with characteristics that may place them at risk for not achieving success in the state's elementary school systems. These at-risk characteristics included living in a family with a low household income, not having English as the first language, being homeless, or having a parent/guardian who was an active member of the U.S. military.

In 1999, the Texas Education Agency implemented a set of voluntary content guidelines for the state's Pre-K programs to assist local school districts in designing curricula that would align with expectations outlined in the state's mandated K-12 content standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Once children leave Pre-K and enter their local school district's K-12 education system, they participate in the Texas assessment program. Beginning in grade 3 and continuing through grade 10, students are assessed on their attainment of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. In grades 3, 5, 8, and 10, this test is high-stakes, meaning that students' performance determines grade promotion or high school graduation. Finally, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills meet the requirements of the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act.

The South West School District, Its Pre-K Program, and the Pre-K Report Card (4). This case study took place in the South West School District, a diverse urban Pre-K through grade 12 school district that serves over 80,000 students. (5) Its Pre-K program is a state-supported (6), full-day program in which over 300 Pre-K teachers work with over 5,000 children on almost all of the district's 70 elementary school campuses.

In 1997, the district's pre-kindergarten program implemented its first standardized, district-wide report card. It is divided into two major categories: academic performance and personal development. Under academic performance, six categories address students whose first language is English (pre-reading/concepts of print, oral language, writing, listening, mathematics, and social studies/science/health); a seventh category, English as a second language, applies to students for whom English is a second or other language. The 14 categories under personal development include such items as "follows directions" and "solves problems appropriately." Students are evaluated using a four-point performance scale in both categories on the report card. For academic performance, a student is rated a I in each area if she needs improvement, a 2 if she possesses a basic understanding, a 3 if she is skilled, and a 4 if she is advanced. For personal development, the student is given a 1 if she rarely displays that development expectation, a 2 for occasional display, a 3 for frequent display, and a 4 for consistent display. The South West School District's administrators did not provide Pre-K teachers with any guidelines about what to measure in each content area, and it was this lack of information that led to the development of the assessment tool that is central to our study.


The data examined in this article come from a larger instrumental qualitative case study (Stake, 1995), in which the first author investigated the process of standardization for early childhood education programs located within K-12 education systems. In this article, we present findings from this larger case study of standards-based reform, to highlight strategies that early childhood educators should consider to align their program's practices and policies with those of partnering K-12 systems of education.

Data Sources. The first author began this study in the fall of 2005, just as the second version (7) of the South West School District's Pre-K assessment tool was being implemented, district-wide. The primary source of data about the reform process within the South West School District emerged through interviews (n = 21), and the first author continued to meet and talk with the district's Pre-K stakeholders, some of them on numerous occasions, through the summer of 2007. In addition to conducting interviews, the first author took field notes from Pre-K team leader meetings, from the mandated district-wide inservice day for Pre-K teachers that occurred at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, and from meetings of the Pre-K Assessment Task Force (ATF, the committee that designed the assessment tool). Other data sources included the district's standardized Pre-K report card, the ATF's Pre-K assessment tool, Texas' Pre-K Guidelines, the district's Prekindergarten Expansion Grant Evaluation Report (2005-2006), and the Pre-K Teacher Survey, which was conducted by the district's department of program evaluation.

Data Analysis. Using traditional qualitative analysis, we revisited the first author's previously coded data, which was stored as a project in QSR's NVIVO 7, and extracted instances in which South West School District's Pre-K stakeholders discussed the successful implementation of the ATF's tool (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003). The primary external codes (Graue & Walsh, 1998) that we extracted were: need for rubric, implementation, purpose of rubric, and rubric impact. (8) The primary internal codes (Graue & Walsh, 1998) that we extracted were: revisions-general, implementing revisions, and audience for report card. Using this coded data as a baseline, the first author contacted five members of the ATF to discuss strategies that they perceived as essential to the success of their tool. Additionally, he asked them to provide suggestions for others to consider when embarking on such a project.

After coding and then combining this new information with the previously coded data, we derived a set of themes, which we read against all interviews for contradictory evidence. Upon establishing a core set of themes, we developed a narrative text of creating a Pre-K assessment tool. We then analyzed this narrative text, using empirical and theoretical work that describes developmentally appropriate assessment practices (e.g., Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Shepard, Kagan, & Wurtz, 1998).

Aligning an Early Childhood Education Program to a Larger K-12 Education System

Being Proactive. The Assessment Task Force designed a district-wide Pre-K report card assessment tool (9) to align their program's conceptions and measurement of student performance with the practices found in the larger K-12 education system. The idea for the ATF and the tool came from Leah Apple, the district administrator in charge of South West School District's Pre-K program. She recognized that something had to be done to address "principals' concerns" over measuring student performance and from Pre-K teachers telling her "there was a chasm between what we're doing with our instruction and what we have to report." Essentially, the district stakeholders wanted a clear understanding of what academic skills and knowledge these pre-kindergarten students possessed in order to better prepare them for the state's high-stakes test in 3rd grade. As Molly Shrug, a district administrator who has been evaluating the effectiveness of the pre-kindergarten program for over 15 years, points out, "With the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills starting at 3rd grade, we started looking back down at the grades and they finally realized how important Pre-K is, [and] I think it's become more important in what can we do in each grade level to help the next grade level."

In creating this tool, Kris Stevenson, a member of the ATF who has taught both Pre-K and Head Start, noted, "Before the instrument, we didn't have any clarity about what the standards are for each nine weeks, so everyone was sort of doing their own thing. The instrument standardizes everyone's thinking for what is appropriate assessment." Moreover, ATF members, many of whom were classroom teachers, recognized that their own assessment practices might be circumspect. Susan Boland, a former upper elementary teacher who has taught Pre-K for the last six years, commented, "I was uncomfortable with not knowing if the standards I was holding children to were ... widely regarded by other people as being reasonable." Nancy Walla, an ATF member with over 15 years of experience as a bilingual Pre-K teacher, added, "I wanted a good assessment piece, and we didn't have anything in Pre-K."

Defining Success. The ATF spent a year and a half developing an assessment tool for the Pre-K report card in order to align teachers' assessment practices across the district. While this assessment tool has had a range of critics and supporters throughout its implementation, it has been a success overall. Since the 2005-06 year, the tool has been mandated for use district-wide, and Terri Jones, South West School District's Pre-K professional development coordinator and a former Pre-K teacher, commented that other grade levels, such as kindergarten, are considering implementing a similar tool. A district-wide survey of Pre-K teachers in 2005-06 further revealed that the majority of Pre-K teachers within the district viewed the tool as an effective communication device (see Table 1), which is the purpose of any report card (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2005). The success of this tool emerges from several factors; we now consider steps that stakeholders might take to align their program with a K-12 education system in a developmentally appropriate manner.

Creating a Successful Response

Time for Change. Having sufficient time to gather research and feedback was a central theme that emerged in our analysis of stakeholders' comments over the success of the rubric. The ATF addressed their districts and the state policymakers' emphasis on improving student performance by putting a standard measure in place for all of their Pre-K teachers. Because they did this under their own volition, they did not have a time line to follow; as a result, as Susan Boland noted, they were able "to come back and revisit it [the tool] after getting feedback from people trying it out." Terri Jones thought that anyone who is about to embark on an endeavor like theirs would need "probably a year of fieldwork [whereby] teachers really start looking at the standards, and then have teachers do really intensive kid-watching, so that they are hypersensitive to how children meet those standards defined in the rubrics."

The extended amount of time allowed the ATF to pilot the tool. Nancy Walla added that piloting the tool allowed the ATF to ask such questions as, "How's the wording? How did it work?" Using what Nancy termed "valuable information," the ATF continued to re-write the tool, which it has done four times as of the 2007-08 school year. Consequently, the ATF's continuous effort to revise the assessment tool has increased "buy-in" from teachers and other Pre-K stakeholders. While time is at a premium, these stakeholders felt that without it, the tool would have not have been a Success.

Diversity. Along with having ample time for change, numerous ATF members noted that when addressing the issue of standardizing practices across a large urban district, the committee in charge of such actions should consist of what Angela Ortiz, an ATF member who has taught Pre-K for over 10 years, stated as a "diverse [group] of people." For Angela and other task force members, this meant having representatives from all of the Pre-K programs the district offered, such as the bilingual and English as a second language programs. Such diversity allowed the committee to work through a range of practical and instructional issues. For instance, when discussing literacy instruction and assessment in the Pre-K program, Angela noted, "We were talking letter recognition, and the bilingual teachers [said], 'We don't teach letter recognition, we teach syllables.' So, I think it really is critical to have a diverse group."

Susan Boland added that a committee needs "a really diverse group of people, and I think that is critical for getting the best kind of instrument together. All different parts of the district were represented, schools with different kinds of economic backgrounds were part of it, there were bilingual and English Pre-K teachers." In this case, such diversity fostered a better representation of the range of practices and experiences seen across the district, which ensures that more teachers will incorporate this tool into their practice.

Compromise. With diversity comes a multitude of opinions. Lucille Ackers, an ATF member and an English as a Second Language Pre-K teacher with over 15 years of classroom experience, noted that stakeholders must possess "a willingness to compromise, because other people don't necessarily have the same agenda or vision. Different people came to the table with very different sets of ideas of what should happen. All of us had to be willing to give up something, compromise, and work through some of the issues."

Purpose. While having time to initiate and revise one's work, include a diverse group of practitioners, and be willing to compromise are important, Shepard, Kagan, and Wurtz (1998) point out that the "how" and "why" must be clear with any assessment measure. In this case, ATF members, such as Susan Boland, commented that "a priority would be determining what the purpose is, because I think that one document can't do everything very well." Terri Jones added that it was "crucial to the success [of this process] ... that the development ... be focused around a framework that says that this is what assessment is." In this case, Terri saw the purpose behind the tool being that it "guides learning." Terri hoped that such a tool would lead to "a dialogue" in which "teachers are even more aware of what they are doing with their practice." While Terri admitted that "the byproduct is being able to report performance standards," he thought that through such a dialogue "teachers would actually become more sensitive and confident about what they are doing and how their practices are affecting student learning." Thus, the ATF saw their work as having a twofold objective. First, they wanted to develop a tool that defines student performance standards for their Pre-K program in order to prevent an outside entity from taking on this role. Second, they hoped to create a tool that influences teachers' practice in a positive and developmentally appropriate way.

What's Missing? It must be noted that members of the ATF recognized that not all aspects of what empirical researchers label as essential qualities of a developmentally appropriate assessment were addressed in the development of their assessment tool. For instance, members of the ATF soon found out that failing to include a specialist in early childhood special education on the committee was a mistake (National Association for the Education of Young Children & the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, 2003). Some of the skills evaluated on the tool, particularly oral language, created an unintended burden for Pre-K teachers trying to refer speech-delayed students for special intervention services. Angela Ortiz noted, "Our rubric for oral language is actually ranking the children higher than if you got your child tested for speech therapy." She explained that this made it difficult for teachers to persuade school personnel and families "to test children for speech to get speech training."

Terri Jones commented that "the perspective of administrators" was also missing. This resulted in what he termed "push-back from those particular administrators, who weren't really familiar with what the standards were and were not aware of early childhood developmental practices." He suggested that this misunderstanding resulted in "administrators misinterpreting the standards," which in some instances led to "inappropriate implementation and supervision of the assessment tool on certain campuses."

Finally, Terri, Nancy Walla, and Susan Boland all noted that parents' perspectives were missing. Terri stated, "If parents are going to be the stakeholders and the recipients of information, I think it is important that they could be part of the dialogue." Thus, for any reform process to be considered developmentally appropriate and successful it must go beyond simply fostering positive communication among all stakeholders (Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI)/Perrone, 1991; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Shepard et al., 1998) and include them from the start of the process.

Discussion and Implications

The steps that led to the successful implementation of the ATF's Pre-K assessment tool in a large urban school district seem logical and, for the most part, align with recommended assessment measures (e.g., ACEI/Perrone; Shepard et al., 1998). However, this case could have turned out much differently had it not been for the proactive work of Leah Apple and the ATE As the history of standards-based reform in K-12 education in the United States demonstrates, South West School District's Pre-K program could have been pressured by district, state, or national policymakers to create an involuntary committee that had to, in turn, create a Pre-K assessment tool. However, by recognizing the history of this reform process within South West School District and Texas, Leah Apple and the ATF were able to create this tool using their own time line and in their own manner. As early childhood advocates and practitioners push for the expansion of early childhood education services, they must recognize that with the support of local state, and/or national policymakers comes an instant connection between their program and local systems of education.

The evidence we present in this article provides an important example of how early childhood education stakeholders can be successful in addressing an issue such as program alignment (Scott-Little et al., 2006). While the implementation of a tool such as this one does not necessarily mean that all of South West School District's Pre-K teachers are using it appropriately, it still has a powerful effect on what is taking place in the district's Pre-K classrooms, as well as on how school principals and district administrators perceive the Pre-K program. Furthermore, the strategies this task force used to address program alignment can be applied across a range of change issues that might emerge.

Thus, as early childhood stakeholders continue to tout the benefits of the field as a means to convince policymakers to expand their programs, they must be cognizant of the policy and education context in which they are working. Using this information, they should then decide how best to address a reform issue such as program alignment with their local standards-based K12 education system. Being proactive, prepared, willing to work together, and having a plan of action creates the best possibility for early childhood stakeholders to put forward a vision of early learning that represents and respects the teacher, her students, their families, and the community at-large (ACEI/Perrone, 1991; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Shepard et al., 1998). (10)


(1) See the National Institute for Early Education Research's The State of Preschool 2007: State Preschool Yearbook (2007) for details about state-supported preschool programs. Go to http://nieer. org/yearbook/pdf/yearbook.pdf to download the yearbook.

(2) The Council of Chief State School Officers has a list of each state's early learning standards and early childhood program standards available at

(3) The child must be 4 years old by September 1st of that academic year.

(4) All names of individuals, programs, and job titles included here are pseudonyms.

(5) The state identifies almost 15% of the students in South West School District as African American, over 50% as Hispanic, and 30% as white; of these 80,000 students, 55% are identified as economically disadvantaged and 21% are identified as bilingual or as an English as second language learner (Texas Education Agency, 2004).

(6) The state began to provide funding for Pre-K programs in 1985, and the district supplements the state's funds to make their program a full-day Pre-K program.

(7) The first version of the Pre-K Assessment Tool was implemented during the 2004-05 school year by members of the Pre-K Assessment Task Force and their fellow Pre-K teachers who taught at their same schools. A total of eight schools were involved in using the first draft of the tool.

(8) External codes (Graue & Walsh, 1998) are markers of evidence within the data that the first author used to highlight instances in which the data sources either spoke to or reflected the conceptual perspectives that he used to guide his initial research project. The first author developed his internal codes (Graue & Walsh, 1998) as he read and reread the data that he collected.

(9) While analyzing the specifics of this tool is not the purpose of our article, the ATF created a tool that defines the level of proficiency the Pre-K student should demonstrate in each content and personal development area in order to receive a 1, 2, 3, or 4. For instance, to receive a 3 (Skilled) during the first nine weeks of Pre-K in written expression under language arts, the child must draw a picture and dictate a story, which, according to the tool, could happen during journal time. The child receives a I (Needs Improvement) if she makes no attempt at drawing or writing.

(10) The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and editors of this journal for their suggestions in improving this article.


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Christopher Brown is Assistant Professor and Brian Mowry is a graduate student, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Texas at Austin.
Table 1. Results From the SWSD 2005-2006 Teacher Survey
Question: The Pre-kindergarten Assessment Rubric helped me communicate
the goals and expectations of the Pre-K program to the following

                       Strongly     Agree      Unsure    Disagree

Parents                60 (31%)    99 (51%)    8 (4%)     21 (11%)
Principals             48 (25%)   102 (52%)   21 (11%)    18 (9%)
Kindergarten           47 (24%)    92 (47%)   28 (14%)    23 (11%)
Other Pre-K teachers   49 (26%)   114 (59%)   11 (6%)     15 (8%)

                       Strongly   No. of Responses
                       Disagree   Out of 201 Total

Parents                 6 (3%)       194 (97%)
Principals              5 (%)        194 (97%)
Kindergarten            4 (2%)       194 (97%)
Other Pre-K teachers    1 (1%)       190 (95%)
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Author:Brown, Christopher; Mowry, Brian
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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