Early childhood education can be a launchpad for lifetime learners.
Unfortunately, many communities lack access to early childhood and Pre-K programs nationwide. Districts scaling up to serve families face big obstacles in offering quality, equity-centered instruction.
The New York City Department of Education’s (NYCDOE) Division of Early Childhood Education (DECE) has been working to meet this need since 2014. In 2019, it partnered with New Teacher Center to launch its Leader Learning Lab pilot for early childhood leaders. Its purpose? Create a space for leaders to collaborate and develop high-quality instructional leadership practices to create equitable outcomes for young children.
Instructional quality and equity in early learning
The national race to expand access to early learning is meeting significant challenges. Access to high-quality early childhood programs differs across racial and other demographic indicators. The slow movement to increase access to early childhood education spotlights multiple linked issues. Quality of instruction across programs nationally is uneven at best, with lower quality instruction often aligning with low-income communities. And professional learning focused on supporting early learning leaders is scarce. A shortage of research, attention, time, and resources contributes to the lack of professional development for early childhood education leaders. Inconsistent requirements for degrees and credentials across states limit more national investment in support for early learning educators.
But in New York City, a different story is unfolding.
NYCDOE has experienced high levels of success in its public Pre-K for All initiative, and recently announced an expansion of it’s signature program for three-year-olds, 3-K for All. The NYCDOE’s DECE anticipated and planned for challenges during its years of expansion, and was able to address program quality even while scaling up. Naturally, it built on NYCDOE’s legacy of systemic, high-quality professional learning opportunities for teachers. The DECE team has leveraged a learning community model, creating spaces for early childhood educators to convene, learn and co-create model practices together. What was missing was a similar approach for program leaders, that focused on the core of what they do: the work of instructional leadership.
The Leader Learning Lab brings this idea to life, putting resources and frameworks in place to provide customized professional learning for early childhood program leaders. In the 2019-2020 school year, approximately 80 program leaders from NYCDOE-run Pre-K programs formed the first cohort to begin the two-year development series. New Teacher Center (NTC) partnered with NYCDOE to co-create what this looked like in practice, bringing over 20 years of expertise in job-embedded feedback for educator growth.
Through Leader Lab, DECE’s commitment goes beyond enhancing quality instruction to ensure equity is core to early childhood leader development. NTC collaborated with early childhood directors and the DECE central team to ensure that every leadership skill introduced, is developed, and practiced through the lens of antiracism and cultural responsiveness.
Integrating equity in professional development
Nationally, teachers in early childhood education are underpaid and likely to be women of color. In some locations, early childhood leaders are often white and not from the community. The racial imbalance of staff impacts equity in practice — in the U.S., Black preschool-aged children account for almost half of all suspensions, despite representing 18 percent of all students.
The NYC DOE has begun to address systemic issues of bias and racism by requiring all employees to complete anti-bias professional learning. DECE and the Leader Learning Lab wanted to go deeper, and looked to NTC to support its effort to bring an equity lens to its professional learning from the start, and from every angle.
“Working with NTC has supported us in operationalizing our Early Childhood Framework for Quality (EFQ). Through the professional learning sessions, program leaders have been able to unpack what it means to create safe and positive environments, as well as reflect and address the impacts of structural racism and implicit bias in their programs and communities.”
— Humberto Cruz, Policy Advisor, DECE’s Policy Development and Support Team
Starting in Leader Learning Lab’s first year, NTC partnered with DECE central staff and early childhood directors to begin co-defining leadership growth goals and integrating antiracism lenses within the professional learning series. Participating program leaders focus on the instructional leadership practices of observing and coaching teachers. And data is a driving force for leaders designing professional learning for their teachers.
Participants embraced the practical methods used. For example, NTC used role-playing scenarios based on real classroom situations:
Pre-K students had been working on self-portraits. One child reached for a light brown crayon for her portrait. Another student stopped her and said, “That color is too light for you.” The student handed her a darker brown crayon and giggled.
The role-play reinforced the importance of naming racial inequity through day-to-day coaching. Practicing in a supportive professional learning community increased awareness and trust, and shaped how leaders would go on to coach teachers at their individual programs.
A partnership rooted in trust, committed to quality
A willingness to lean into relationships and push comfort boundaries were vital ingredients to the Leader Learning Lab partnership. From site coordinators to executive leaders, everyone shared a commitment to growth in being antiracist in practice.
In the second year of Leader Learning Lab organizes participants into professional learning communities (PLCs) for more self-directed work. Focusing on one element from the Early Childhood Framework for Quality (ex. “respect and value differences”), PLCs collaborate and explore problems of practice using a variety of protocols. Executive-level leaders provide input and support site leaders, creating critical alignment that flows from the Leader Learning Lab to programs. Community-driven learning helps participants share knowledge, push each others’ thinking, and hold each other accountable. Ideas move from PLCs into practice as the leaders apply acquired best practices with their teaching teams. Leaders participated enthusiastically in PLCs, which launched virtually instead of in-person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fall 2020, early childhood program leaders from over 50 community-based early childhood programs joined the Lab (making up a second cohort) with a few changes. The areas of instructional leadership, coaching and facilitating targeted professional learning for their teachers, remained the same, but our content evolved. In part due to the pandemic our professional learning content focused even more on the cohesive integration of antiracism, cultural responsiveness, and trauma-informed lenses in the professional development content.
“Partnering with NTC has been fantastic,” said Helen Barahal, executive director of teaching and learning with NYCDOE’s Division of Early Childhood Education. “While NTC has many years of experience and they know what works, they did not come with an ‘off the shelf’ solution. They listened and collaborated with us to create something targeted and appropriate for each Leader Learning Lab cohort. We promised program leaders who joined the Leader Learning Lab that we would co-construct the program with them, and NTC allowed us to keep that promise.”
The Lab cultivates a culture of openness to giving and receiving supportive feedback. A community of trusting relationships engages all educators and creates fertile ground for pushing forward antiracist practices at all levels.
The NYCDOE’s Leader Learning Lab is still a pilot program but has already positively impacted early childhood leadership and programs in New York City. It helps the vast NYC early childhood education system focus on its leaders, while creating a collaborative community responsive to meeting kids’ needs.
The magic of convening early childhood leaders is real, and provides much-needed professional learning scaffolds for the entire early childhood community. And it creates an intentional space for deepening antiracism work.
“Leader Learning Lab is special in its unity, collaboration, and focused goal on incorporating antiracism into early childhood leadership practices,” said NTC Program Consultant Emily Whitmore. “In developing and refining the content, we’ve pushed each other’s thinking about what it means to be antiracist within and beyond the pilot.”
Early learning is a lever for equity. And to create equitable outcomes for students throughout their lifetimes, we must sustain leadership models that intentionally focus on antiracism and equity.