Starting Early in West Virginia: The Common Core and Early Childhood Education

My latest article for ASCD on the Common Core, which you can also see here. And sign up for this particular ASCD newsletter here.

In West Virginia, there has been a commitment to early childhood education for many years, with universal prekindergarten throughout the state and a set of pre-kindergarten standards since 2004.

“This commitment to early childhood education is what brought me to the state department of education,” noted Clayton Burch, the executive director of the Office of Early Learning at the West Virginia Department of Education. It is the state’s vigorous commitment to the Common Core State Standards (which are called West Virginia’s Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives in that state) and their effect on early childhood education in West Virginia, that continue to challenge and invigorate Burch, as he and early childhood educators in that state ensure that pre-kindergarten students are well prepared for the rigors of kindergarten and beyond.

West Virginia was an early adopter and promoter of the Common Core State Standards and saw the need to align all grade levels with these standards. Back in 2010, with a draft of the state’s Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives in their hands, Burch and other stakeholders from across the state met to review and revise the state’s early learning standards for preschool. They began a discussion about how to have early childhood educators focus more on the domains that students need to master – even what is expected of those students later on in kindergarten and first grades – and not to focus so much on the individual standards or objectives.

“It is a challenge,” stated Burch, “as we’ve always looked at just individual grade level standards. But we began to ask ourselves and our pre-K teachers: ‘Just what does it look like for five- and six-year-olds to be ready for school?'”

West Virginia developed a comprehensive crosswalk between its own early learning standards and the Common Core. The state trained district-level personnel to bring that crosswalk back to their particular districts and work with their teachers on alignment. Joan Adkins, the pre-kindergarten manager at Cabell County Schools in Huntington, WV, was one of those people. In Cabell County, Adkins oversees about 730 pre-kindergarten students in 47 classrooms, some of which are in the district’s elementary schools and some of which are in childcare centers

“Our pre-K teachers always knew that they were setting the groundwork for what happens in kindergarten,” says Adkins, “but when we showed them the standards crosswalk, they saw how their standards were a part of the whole process. You could see the light bulb go off when we were doing the training. Everybody is now looking at the whole child versus an individual skill, with all teachers on the same page.”

The conversation between pre-kindergarten teachers and their colleagues at other grade levels has been aided by state department–developed tool kits, to ensure both that teachers understand one another’s curricula and standards and that there is ongoing dialogue about this vertical alignment. “I can help my teachers better understand how they’re supporting the kindergarten standards,” states Adkins.

Additionally, robust assessment information is available to stakeholders, thanks to the statewide assessment for pre-kindergarten that was developed in partnership with Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research, led by Steve Barnett. “The assessment system is an ongoing formative assessment tool that teachers use, with three statewide benchmark assessments during the year – snapshots on the progress of growth and development,” says Burch. “Since we also work with our state’s department of health and human resources, stakeholders receive student reports not only related to the standards but also of health status.”

Burch reiterates this focus on the whole child, as practiced in districts such as Cabell: “In West Virginia we’re looking beyond the cognitive skills, with an additional emphasis on health, creativity, social and emotional development. We value the entire child and their families.”

With the crosswalk, the state’s Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives, and data from the pre-kindergarten assessment – see the state’s Teach 21 website for more information – the conversation has now broadened, with teacher leadership institutes sponsored by the department of education in the summer that bring together teacher and administrator teams from all of the state’s districts to look at alignment and assessment from pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade.

“We’re now preparing to pilot a pre-K through 3rd grade assessment,” says Burch. The assessment links to the Common Core State Standards and the upcoming Smarter Balanced assessment, with students working to apply these standards and show deep understanding of them.

“Our teachers have also developed what we’re calling a progression document, with the kindergarten pilot of that tool underway,” continues Burch, “so that we can really understand how each grade level’s standards fit in a comprehensive framework of our Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives. That pre-K assessment report, for example, gives our kindergarten teachers an idea of what they can do to continue that growth. It gives them a much bigger picture.” And that picture will continue to broaden, as the state’s summer leadership institutes address more and more grade levels, growing the standards-related work that the state began with pre-kindergarten up through the various grade bands and connecting their work

“The Common Core State Standards,” says Adkins, “have added new layers that we need to think about.”

“It’s not just about an individual child getting a skill set,” Burch emphasizes, “but about a child growing in our system.”

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