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Evaluating Start Early’s Professional Development Initiative

Start Early (formerly, the “Ounce”) has a long history of innovating in the field of Early Childhood professional development and advocating for Early Childhood teachers. In fall 2011, Start Early was awarded a three-year Investing in Innovation (i3) development grant from the US Department of Education to accelerate the design of an embedded professional development framework for community-based early childhood education centers in Chicago. Start Early’s Professional Development Initiative (PDI) was distinguished by its attention to the integrated professional learning of center administrators and classroom teachers, using instructional coaches to enrich and bridge the learning of both groups. Start Early engaged Dr. Sam Whalen and CUEL to conduct a three-year evaluation of PDI combining formative and summative roles. Implementation of the PDI pilot design occurred from January 2012 to November 2014, targeting four representative community-based centers in the City of Chicago.

CUEL’s development evaluation was framed to accomplish three primary ends: first, to provide relevant and timely data to Start Early’s designers as they worked to improve the early design; second, to field a strong test of whether the complex PDI design could be implemented with quality and fidelity; third, to investigate whether the alignment of job-embedded PD for teachers, center administrators and their field coaches would translate to exceptional developmental progress for early childhood students. Regarding the first aim, our evaluation team learned a great deal about building an information system facile enough to provide survey and implementation quality data for continuous improvement purposes. While it took some months to accustom coaches and teachers to respond quickly to post-survey sessions, the resulting data helped pinpoint several design features that were ineffective or cumbersome, and also solicited solid ideas from participants to improvement performance.

Regarding the second question, as design adjustments proceeded, we found that the key components of the PDI were implemented as intended and at levels exceeding performance targets. The accumulating evidence suggested that establishing routines supportive of teacher collaboration and learning is feasible in urban community-based early childhood centers. Moreover, the PDI learning experiences for leaders appeared especially effective in broadening narrow “transactional” leadership frames to include the more inclusive and ambitious mindsets associated with a “transformational” leadership repertoire. Finally, regarding the question of student outcomes, pre-post trends in average social-emotional and organizational support domain scores, as measured by the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), did suggest an “upward” trajectory of improvement for infants, toddlers and pre-K children. But these trends were not statistically significant in part due to small sample sizes and low statistical power. However, children with greater exposure to the PDI yielded a statistically significant growth rate in their Social Emotional Learning and Development. This made sense given that SEL supports received the earliest and most sustained attention from the PD providers, and was easier for teachers to grasp in comparison with the demands of altering curriculum and instructional practices. {To read more on the evaluation, see: Full Evaluation Report, Executive Summary, Appendix: Measures and Instruments).

Start Early’s PDI Development project and CUEL’s evaluation have had a significant impact on the direction of professional development for early childhood educators in Illinois. The evaluation produced information on strategies and outcomes that has been used to scale up the PDI model across Illinois. And it informed policy conversations on how best to develop leaders as a cost-effective lever for improving preschool program quality through job-embedded professional development. Consistent with CUEL’s approach to school improvement, the successor to PDI – the Lead-Learn-Excel initiative – equips ECE administrators to work “shoulder to shoulder” with ECE teachers as instructional leaders. This is a significant change in the culture of early childhood leadership. Read more about the scale up of PDI to The Ounce Lead Learn Excel.