Activating Our Passport to Early Learning Education

The earliest years of education for children matters. And while it has taken as long as until 2021 for America to highlight a promising early learning policy, there is renewed hope once more, that the foundational significance of early learning education will finally have its spotlight.

While President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan will contribute to restoring a healthy mind frame around why early learning initiatives matter institutionally, it’s leaders like Neal Shenoy, Founder and CEO of BEGiN, the parent company of HOMER, who have been championing space and innovation for early learning education in the home.  

“Early learning to some degree is the preventative medicine to education because you’re starting early, setting a strong foundation, and that’s going to create far better outcomes and far better trajectories for young children,” he shares.

So why is the most innovation in education really only happening in post-secondary and K-12 sectors?

“That makes sense,” Shenoy shares, “because you’re talking about older learners and a very established need. From test prep and college admissions to high school grades, professional lead skilling, and accreditation, you’ve seen in the past few years, a tremendous capital flow into those segments of education. But what you haven’t seen is that same level of innovation and scale brought to early learning,” he details.

Yet there’s hope. “We’re now starting to see a shift towards focusing on early learning. I think part of what’s catalyzing that shift is the pandemic,” says Shenoy.

“Parents of early learners appreciate the critical role they have to play as a family or parent in complementing the school. Schools can do a certain job but we as parents and families have to support and scaffold that child and in many instances, parents are a child’s first teacher. What’s really been underscored is the role of the home in learning relative to the role of the classroom or school.”

Parents are looking for comprehensive solutions that engage their children in learning.

Neal Shenoy

And while there has only been one company to date that has been apparent in the early learning space, another is quickly entering the scene.

BEGiN, an award-winning education company focused on early learning, has a mission to offer children the best start possible through memberships that combine digital, physical, and experiential learning. It’s a company that prides itself not only by offering access to early learning content but by offering all-inclusive solutions from HOMER, KidPass, codeSpark Academy, and now Little Passports.

Because as we know, not all content is created equal. From books to toys to activities to big and little screens, children are inundated with information whether parents are being intentional about it or not. So how can we ensure that the content they consume aligns with what we want our children to learn about and hold value in?

“Parents are looking for comprehensive solutions that engage their children in learning,” says Shenoy. And the recent acquisition of Little Passports does just that.

Not only does Little Passports support BEGiN’s mission, but it also adds extra elements of cultural learning and inclusivity through enriching globally-inspired activities, hands-on projects, and relatable characters. Essentially, Little Passports is a subscription for your child to travel the world and learn about different cultures.

The one-of-a-kind activity kits are delivered straight to your home. It ignites imagination and opens the door to a new way to see the world and explore science. It’s also designed in conjunction with professional educators, award-winning writers, and kid testers.

“It’s more important than ever that families have a multitude of enrichment options to help their kids develop critical skills while opening their minds, inspiring their curiosity, and igniting their imagination,” said Amy Norman, Founder and CEO of Little Passports.

“BEGiN is innovating on solutions that empower kids to develop both foundational skills and an array of interests that are so critical to becoming well-rounded individuals.”


Thinking Inside the Box: Turning Vacant Box Stores Into Early Learning Facilities

In Kansas City, there is a bit of an architecture resurgence occurring. It’s all about repurposing buildings as schools, and it’s spearheaded by DLR Group, a prominent leader in the education architecture space. 

The work was first fully realized as a response to the Joplin, Missouri tornadoes of 2011. The city needed to set-up an interim district that would be able to repurpose the buildings that survived the storm. DLR Group worked fast to convert a Wal-Mart into a school, and that was just the beginning. 

Years later, DLR Group was at it again, this time in Kearney, Missouri. Here, the team had converted a grocery store into a school. Enter the North Kansas City (NKC) School District. The NKC Schools team visited Kearney and left inspired to create a centralized early childhood building. Their old building was in need of repairs and by bringing the bulk of their programming together, they were able to add additional early education programs. This district is the third-largest in Missouri and the impetus for taking care of their early learners was that they “knew that’s where it all starts. They found a way to do it economically and innovate,” says Ian Kilpatrick, one of the head project managers on the school. They turned a pre-existing structure (a Hobby Lobby and grocery store) into a magical place for young learners. 

What sets the NKC experience apart?

To begin, the design team got in the heads of a young learner to really understand what a day in the life looks like. The majority of the day is spent in growth mode—creating and learning through inquiry. The design team was extremely future-focused. They continued to ask themselves: “What will a learner in this building need 20 years from now? How do we craft spaces to replicate that?” The design team rapidly saw that they didn’t need adaptability, instead, they needed a diversity of spaces, and spaces that sparked curiosity and learning. To do this, the design team implemented biophilic themes throughout the space. Upon completion, there will be tons of localized graphics that depict native flora/fauna from the heartland. The design team was primarily the local campus leadership, coupled with a few of the architects. The project has become a poster child for this round of bond work. 

Throughout the process, the design team left themselves open to feedback through the website. The site received tons of questions about enrollment and, over time, some useful feedback about the design process. 

The facility is located in the center of the NKC district, an area of urban decay. Projects like this can reinvigorate communities in a way that a new neighborhood school just doesn’t. For high-density locations, this type of work also boasts efficiency, and proximity to many of the local residents. 

What are the obstacles?

Ian shared that the two primary obstacles to this kind of project are the creativity needed in “turning a windowless big box store into something creative and inspiring.” And noted that oftentimes, getting community buy-in is tricky. DLR Group was able to innovate through large skylights and classrooms lined with windows on the hall side to ensure that the hallways received natural light. With exemplar schools like some of the ones that DLR Group has been working on, there may be just enough role model projects to help flip the script and inspire other communities to follow suit. 

Right now, 55,000 square feet of the space have been completed. The school opened for Phase 1 in January and will be opening Phase 2 in August. 

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How a Montessori Classroom, Online Learning, and Family Engagement Can Work Together

By: Lisa Evans

Learning on a laptop may seem incompatible with a hands-on education, but with buy-in from parents and teachers, it can be a powerful family engagement tool.

When people think of an early childhood Montessori classroom, they probably think of multi-age groupings, individualized student learning, and an emphasis on concrete learning through hands-on materials. Online learning is almost certainly not a part of what they’re envisioning. Yet, at the Lexington Four Early Childhood Center, a public school with predominantly primary Montessori classrooms where I serve as principal, we have found that the right program can be an effective supplement and even a powerful family engagement tool.

Our Path to Montessori

Our school serves three-, four-, and five-year-old children within our attendance zone in a free, full-day program with no qualifications. In our vision for creating a school focusing solely on early learning, our school district researched best educational practices for young children. It was determined that a Montessori approach aligned with our philosophical beliefs about student learning. It supported our emphasis on both acquiring knowledge and skills while also developing life skills and characteristics, such as critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance, and work ethic.

Opened in 2010, the Lexington Four ECC offers a Montessori environment through parental choice. Through parent and community support, we have more than 25 Montessori classrooms and serve approximately 600 children. In this multi-age model, children have the same teacher for their three years at our school. This model allows teachers to deeply know their students as learners, and also allows teachers and parents to develop meaningful relationships over that time.

The Challenge of True Family Engagement

Families are a critical part of education no matter how old students are, but are particularly important for our youngest children. Parents and families are our students’ first teachers. It is important that we build trust between home and school by authentically bringing parents into the educational process.

True family engagement is not only attending school events, but also becoming real partners in their child’s own learning. As a school, supporting that type of family engagement can be challenging. We must give parents a clear idea of what a three-, four-, or five-year-old should be able to do and how they can support that in their homes every day.

Helping Parents Become Teachers

This past summer, the South Carolina Department of Education approached our district superintendent about using a program called Waterford UPSTART as a family engagement tool. It’s an adaptive online learning program with a curriculum focused on early literacy, numeracy, and STEM concepts. Parents are expected to engage with their child in using the program 15 minutes a day, five times a week at home.

At the time, I knew little about the program but learned that it would allow our four-year-old kindergarten families to have access to academic software, a laptop, and internet at home and at no cost. Knowing this pilot program would be funded through the SC Department of Education and that this could provide more home support for improved family engagement, our school was eager to support this initiative.

We began the pilot by engaging our parents at the beginning of this school year, inviting them to family events to learn more about the program and distribute the needed technology, laptops, and internet hotspots to be used at home. We also shared information with our teachers about what students and families would be doing at home. The software gave us access to student reports so we could support in-home learning.

As we learned more as a school, we were better able to communicate with and support parents at home as they navigated this new experience. We have held multiple family events at our school to answer questions and create excitement for student progress. Throughout this school year I have had opportunities to simply ask parents what they thought, if they liked it, what was working, and what wasn’t. Every single parent has had something positive to say. Parents have told me their kids love it and were very engaged when they used it. Some students refer to it as their “homework,” which is very exciting for such early learners.

But in addition to being excited about their child’s enthusiasm for learning, what struck me about these conversations with parents was that they were talking in an instructional way about what their kids were learning. They’d tell me, “He’s recognizing his capital letters,” and “She’s noticing words that rhyme.” Typically, conversations with parents are rarely so focused on specific academic skills their child is learning. This may be because many parents are unsure about exactly what it is their child is supposed to be working on.

Because they’re with their child, engaging with them as they are learning, parents are getting a real insight into the curriculum and expectations of learning for their child. This has given them the power to say, “Oh, this is what they’re working on. This is what they’re doing well. I didn’t realize he was supposed to know that already.” Parents have a sense of truly being able to do something every day to help their child learn and do better at school.

Additionally, we are seeing that learning is being transferred to other areas. The technology of the laptop and software may be the shiny object that people initially focus on, but families are telling me that they’re buying flashcards, tracing letters, and having conversations with their children about letters and words they see in authentic print. The program is leading to more interactions between parent and child about reading and learning. I could not be more excited about that.

Impressing Teachers with Clear Improvement

As educators of young children, our teachers are critical consumers of educational software and are justifiably apprehensive regarding early learning and technology. Indeed, a little skepticism about new things is good, especially when dealing with children. Only a few months in, though, they are definitely seeing progress.

Teachers have had positive conversations with parents about it, and can tell the difference in students who are consistently using the program, both on their academic progress and their attitudes toward learning. The online student reports allows teachers to see the positive correlation between the time students spend using the program and the progress toward their reading goals.

Students use the program as a supplement to their regular daily instruction, and it complements and reinforces the work teachers are doing in the classroom. For example, within a Montessori setting, we’re initially more focused on letter sounds than letter recognition, but as children use the program, they continue learning their letter recognition at home. With those two elements together, at home and at school, we have seen children progressing more quickly.

While we’re still in our first year of voluntary implementation, we certainly have not reached our potential in engaging all families. As teachers and parents are having positive experiences, they are sharing with others. I look forward to this increased momentum and excitement, both about student success in reading and about parents being a part of their child’s learning.

It is authentic parent engagement that will impact student learning well beyond their early years.

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Lisa Evans is the principal at Lexington Four Early Childhood Center. She can be reached at [email protected].


PreK.com: Using Technology to Elevate Early Childhood Education

By: Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson

There is near unanimity that early education is vital. In recent decades, there has been a flowering of research from multiple disciplines showing the very profound impact strong, nurturing early childhood care and education can have on a child’s growth, development and long-term trajectory. Beyond the value to a child’s learning, many families’ livelihoods depend on finding childcare so parents can work. But, there are countless childcare and early education options in a particular area and wide variation in quality and approach among these choices. Families lack a common standard by which to access information and evaluate quality and practice. Providers rarely have access to networks to connect with potential families to market their strengths, nor the personnel or skills needed to manage the business aspects of running an early childcare center.

In short, the early childcare space lacks a systematic structure and a standard framework for evaluating the plethora of options.

Enter PreK.com: A Systems Approach to Early Childcare

An innovative new platform, PreK.com, seeks to bring order to this chaos in a way that is supportive to both families seeking care and high-quality providers. PreK.com is a browser-based tool backed by a team of educational experts that vet childcare centers and preschools in a particular geographic area, for safety, academic quality and cost. The site provides profiles of all schools that have met these standards with information about educational philosophies, openings and tuition. It also connects parents with a support network of family advisers to help guide them through the preschool selection process, all free of charge for families. The platform launched for South Florida in January 2020 and will be expanding to other metropolitan areas throughout the country.

This seemingly simple design transforms both families’ search for childcare and the providers’ struggle, to market and reach families by creating an easy-to-access, virtual conduit between the two that includes a robust and vetted collection of information.

For families, PreK.com provides:

  • Rigorous Vetting: The PreK.com team recognizes that having a safe, secure, and nurturing environment is a nonnegotiable threshold that begins all childcare and preschool searches. The vetting process to ensure this level of quality is the cornerstone of PreK.com. The PreK.com team conducts “rigorous vetting that goes beyond publicly available reviews to include deep research, calls, interviews and site visits.” Schools that do not make the cut are not included on their platform.
  • Thorough Profiles of School Options: Profiles for schools include an accessible amount of information about safety and security, academic philosophy, tuition information, enrichment programs, and parent reviews. Families can compare options in a given geographic region across categories.
  • Dynamic Search Features: From any computer or browser-enabled device, families can use the site to search for schools by location or other criteria. The site recognizes that many variables impact a preschool search. Families can simultaneously enter their home and work locations and see proximity to both as they consider a specific school. They can sort results by price, location, and openings.
  • Family Advisers: PreK.com connects families with thoughtful and caring educational experts. These experts assist families in understanding the different educational philosophies across providers, share options for availability, and ultimately help them find the right overall fit for their child and family.

For schools, PreK.com provides:

  • Marketing Channels: PreK.com offers schools and centers technical assistance and a network of connections to reach potential families. The platform employs innovative, targeted analytic strategies to match families with potential schools.
  • Increased Enrollment & Retention: PreK.com makes information available and easily accessible to families so families can truly find the right school to fit their needs, values, and philosophies. Childcare centers and schools benefit from a high retention rate of families and when families find the right fit, they are more likely to stay.
  • Options for Additional Support: Schools that pass the PreK.com vetting process are afforded the opportunity to formalize the relationship and become PreK.com Member Schools. These schools, and the families who enroll in them, are offered additional services and pathways for connections. Member Schools are highlighted on the site and receive additional marketing benefits. Families who choose to enroll in a PreK.com Member School receive their 13th month of tuition free, directly promoting increased enrollment and retention for the school.

A Game-Changer in Early Education

PreK.com has positioned itself to meet a rare trifecta of benefits for families, providers, and broader societal interest. They are able to enlighten families to the differences between options, help providers both clarify and differentiate themselves within the market, and ultimately, are able to increase the number of children well-prepared for entering Kindergarten. Despite the myriad of research on the importance of early education, a systematic approach to access and evaluate quality has lagged. PreK.com is pioneering efforts to change this game, with the end goal of raising the overall quality of the entire system of early childhood education.

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Small Talk, Big Benefits: Adding Conversations to Reading and Everyday Moments

By: Erin Gohl & Kristen Thorson

All parents want to do what is best for their kids. Fulfilling that aspiration is often challenging and unclear for even the most well-meaning parents given the many variables that affect children, families, and everyday life. However, there are a few axioms that research and practice have told us are unequivocally good for our children. We know we should feed them healthy foods like fruits and vegetables; We know that a good night’s sleep is critical for a growing child; and we absolutely know that reading with our children is uniquely valuable.

Regular exposure to reading and books has a plethora of benefits for children: Reading expands exposure to language and new vocabulary; it builds foundational skills such as prediction, sequencing, and summarizing; and it introduces characters and worlds far beyond a child’s family or neighborhood. In short, reading is really powerful for kids.

In recent years, there has been a flowering of research that hones in on steps parents can take to make reading with their kids even more meaningful. If parents engage in dialogic reading, or conversation-based reading, they can both broaden and deepen the already wonderful benefits of the reading experience.

What is Dialogic Reading?

Dialogic reading is based on the word dialogue and describes having two-way conversations with kids while reading. This is done by having back and forth conversations. It is fundamentally different from broadcast reading, which is simply reading the words in a book to a child. This is also distinct from the practice of asking closed questions that have yes, no, or a right or wrong answer. Dialogic reading promotes the use of open-ended questions to create these conversations while reading. In this dynamic, the child and the caregiver contribute to the conversation in equal parts.

Research: Two-Way Conversation with Kids “Turbocharges Their Brains”

Research from a broad spectrum of disciplines including neuroscience, early childhood, education, and psychology have consistently shown that dialogic reading has tremendous academic and social emotional benefits. Studies have shown that these two-way conversations build language and literacy skills, create a structure for communication and dialogue, and increase parent capacity for engaging with children around learning. Key points from this research tell us:

Dialogic reading stimulates the cognitive development of young children. This 2017 study shows the powerful benefits of dialogic reading. The research describes the effects of having conversations with kids while reading as “turbocharging” kids’ brains. When participating in conversation-based reading, the study found that children were more engaged in the narrative and that key portions of the brain were activated.

There are benefits of parent-child shared reading interventions for children AND their parents. This meta-analysis published by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that Parent-Child Book Reading (PCBR) interventions “are positively and significantly beneficial to the psychosocial functioning of both children and parents.” Shared reading improves parent capacity, parent and child attitudes toward reading, and the quality of the familial relationship. The study found that these reading experiences may also reduce stress levels of the participating parents.

Dialogic reading has an impact on literacy for at-risk students. This article details the research showing that dialogic reading is proven to boost at-risk children’s oral vocabulary skills and argues that its use “is one potential way to help children avoid […] later reading failure.”

The benefits of having conversations with young children extend beyond reading. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics shows astoundingly higher language skills, measured a decade later, for kids who have frequent conversations with parents when young. The authors found that promoting conversations in the home can bring equity to and mitigate socioeconomic-correlated disparities in literacy development.

Family Tips for Fostering Conversations

As children grow and develop, the dynamics of these conversations change and evolve. When conversing with babies, adults can model the cadence of conversations by speaking and leaving pauses for a response. You might mimic the sounds they make and the words they say, and connect their language to the people, places, and things in the world around them. When talking with toddlers or preschoolers, conversations can become more balanced as their vocabulary and language usage grow. Use their words, phrases, and experiences as springboards for deeper conversation. When engaging with school-aged kids, invite them to truly be partners in conversation. It may take some kids more time to respond, so be sure to create space and pauses for them to gather their thoughts. And when they initiate conversations about an interest of their own, promote the behavior by actively participating.

Across all ages, these conversations can be easily integrated into current reading habits and embedded within everyday life moments:

While Reading: Books provide an ideal onramp to high-quality conversation. Before reading, take time to investigate the title and image on the cover. Ask your child what they think the story might be about and why, and share your own predictions and thinking. While reading, notice how characters are feeling and why they might be feeling that way. Share together if you have experienced similar situations or emotions. After reading, discuss ways the book relates to your own experiences. Encourage discussions of more global issues beyond the text. This analysis both reinforces their comprehension of the book and extends their understanding.

On a Walk or In the Car: While you are out on a walk or driving in the car, there are limitless opportunities for conversation. Talk about what you see—from the animal crossing the road to the changing of the seasons—and ask each other questions. For example, if you see a construction zone, talk about what you think is being built. Why are they building that type of structure in that area? How are the construction workers working together? These types of conversations help children to connect to their community and their world.

At a Store: Use conversation to make mundane tasks more meaningful and enjoyable. While completing your weekly grocery run, use the items that surround you to inspire conversation. You might brainstorm together what you can make with certain ingredients. When you see an exotic fruit, you might speculate together on how it would taste and whether you would like it. And for the youngest shoppers, model conversation by simply describing each item you add to your cart and asking their thoughts on the items.

Preparing for an Adventure: Any outing or activity can be an exciting adventure. As you get ready to head to a new playground or park, brainstorm what equipment you might see. Ask and share details of your dream playground, and explain why you would choose each structure. If you are heading out of town, share with one another what you know about the destination, discuss what you are most excited about and why, and talk about what will be the same as your home and what will be different. These two-way conversations build excitement, quell anxieties, and deepen and enrich your child’s ability to think creatively and critically.

Adding Conversation, Building Literacy, Increasing Joy

The research is clear—engaging in two-way conversations is incredibly beneficial for children, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Rooting these conversations in reading and books, the studies show, furthers these benefits and also increases the development of foundational literacy skills while fostering an overall positive attitude toward reading.

But, the benefits of this kind of shared reading far transcend the metrics of scientific studies. Giving children room to express their opinions and feelings empowers them to regularly use their voice. It teaches them that their thoughts and opinions matter and gives them a model for how to effectively share them. These conversations allow for connections to be built between the content of a book and a family’s personal history and background. This kind of dialogue fortifies channels of communication that extend beyond reading and create a space for productive conversations among families about personal and global issues and challenges. And the very best part of having high-quality conversations with your child, where you share interesting details about one another, when you heartily laugh together over a funny moment, and when you genuinely connect with each other after a long day, is that it feels really joyful. So remember, stop and smell the roses. And talk about it.

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The Path to Reading Requires Quality Curriculum

By: Stephanie Stephens, Tricia Parker and Liisa Potts 

Here’s a hard fact: A staggering 60 percent of fourth grade students in the United States are struggling to read. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one-third of fourth-graders and one quarter of eighth-graders aren’t reading at a basic level. Fewer than 40 percent are proficient or advanced. These numbers are even more concerning when we look at the significant proficiency gaps based on race and income and we realize that these gaps have barely moved in the past 25 years.

Emily Hanford’s expansive coverage of this issue in “Hard Words – Why aren’t kids being taught to read” has spurred a national conversation on the “right” way to teach reading. In story after story after story, we’re hearing the complex challenges teachers are facing in helping students to become proficient readers with a focus on the need for stronger training and professional development. And while this op-ed in Education Week started to touch on the important role instructional materials play in this conversation, curriculum has largely been ignored.

We believe materials matter. Research shows that students primarily learn through their interactions with teachers and content. Our organization, EdReports.org, provides free reviews of K-12 English language arts (ELA), math and science programs with a laser focus on the important role of curriculum and why instructional materials need to be aligned to high-quality standards.

High-quality ELA materials should reflect the same research underpinnings as college-and career-readiness standards and the research about how students learn how to read. For example, the teaching of foundational skills across grades K-5 should follow a research-based progression and build skills such as phonics and word recognition to support students as they grow into increasingly sophisticated readers.

College and career-ready standards in the majority of states emphasize the importance of these skills—and our review rubric does the same. If K-5 materials do not have strong foundational skills components, even if the materials perform well in all other areas, they will not advance through our review process and will be disqualified from meeting our expectations to college and career-ready standards. That’s how much we prioritize foundational skills. We know if kids do not gain reading proficiency early on, it makes the acquisition of any other content that follows far more difficult.

Further, aligned materials help reduce the burden on teachers to search for unvetted materials online. We know that teachers working in schools that have a high proportion of students who receive free and reduced lunch are searching for materials online at higher rates. We also know that the assignments teachers select or create tend to be lower quality than what the district or state provides. Starting with quality means not only giving teachers back valuable time, but it also helps to ensure that the quality of education does not vary from lesson to lesson and classroom to classroom. Aligned materials leave less to chance and help level the playing field.

And let’s be crystal clear—the consequences of not receiving strong reading instruction are huge. If students do not build foundational skills in grades K-5, this has ripple effects across multiple subjects. Students are not only shut out of English language arts, but they are also unable to access other content areas including science, math and social studies.

We can start to change these results—not with a single, silver bullet—but by providing teachers with high quality, aligned materials and professional learning to know why these materials are good for kids and how to use them. Only by empowering teachers with these essential tools can districts support the kind of reading instruction that’s showing results for all students: daily, explicit phonics instruction as part of a strong foundational skills program, access to complex text that builds knowledge and questions and tasks grounded in evidence from those texts.

It’s also important to not simply hand teachers new materials but to support them in using those materials. A recent study from Harvard Center for Education Policy Research found that on average teachers receive less than two days of professional learning around new materials. If a teacher has never received opportunities to gain knowledge in foundational skills and is offered either cursory or non-existent professional learning, it won’t matter what was adopted. The materials will stay on the shelf and students will continue to fall behind. Materials and professional development must work hand-in-hand to support teachers and strong instruction.

Reading is the foundation of all other learning. We cannot continue to allow students to reach high school unable to read, especially when we have the knowledge and the tools to make a difference. We must work together to empower teachers with high-quality content and professional learning opportunities to ensure these tools come alive in the classroom. Only then can districts support the kind of reading instruction that helps all students succeed in school and beyond.

EdReports.org is currently reviewing an inaugural series of Foundational Skills curriculum and will be releasing its first set of reviews in 2019. 

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EdReports.org’s English Language Arts Content Team brings nearly five decades of early literacy expertise. They partner with expert educator reviewers from across the country and have reviewed more than 90 percent of the K-12 ELA instructional materials market for college and career-ready standards.


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Augmented Reality in Kindergarten?

By: Katrina Youdale

Over the last decade, the education sector has experienced enormous change. Amidst this, one of the most contended areas of discussion has been around the introduction of technology to children as young as 3. The adoption of STEM education across the globe has quickly filtered down to our littlest learners.

Don’t worry kids will still come home with sand in their pockets.

Early childhood is a critical time for the development of core skills that establish lifelong foundations. Despite all the conflicting device advice, fine motor, writing and reading remain essential skills with early childhood organizations also reiterating the importance of social skills at this age.

The introduction of STEM to Early Childhood Education (ECE) may sound daunting but the principles of STEM center around solving real-world problems through collaboration and hands-on inquiry. There’s no one right answer and failure is important. If you’ve ever tried a craft with 3-year-old boys this sounds perfect!

Of the core STEM subject areas, technology is the new kid on the block. With that comes challenges for teachers and parents. There is a lack of quality content, it can be expensive to invest in technology tools and there is limited time and support in the classroom to install, integrate, support and get up to speed.

There is also a stigma attached with technology use at this age, that it is isolating and comes at the cost of other essential things like climbing trees, collecting flowers and building robots from tissue boxes. Children are being born into a digital society and the assumption needs to be made that kindergarten children are in an environment of care and are guided by qualified teachers with respect as to how and when they use technology.

AR presents opportunities to the Early Childhood that can’t be ignored.

For those of you that think it all sounds a bit George Jetson, no you don’t need headgear or goggles or a jetpack for that matter. Don’t confuse it with VR. AR and VR are like non-identical twins. They are always mentioned together, they are often mistaken for other yet considered the same but are fundamentally quite different.

Virtual Reality (VR) to date has had a greater profile, gained its popularity through gaming and you need to invest in headsets and supporting hardware. 94% of UK teachers think that VR will be beneficial in the classroom, shown by a Lenovo report. 42% predict that it will be commonplace within 5 years. VR is not aimed at ECE with major manufacturers of VR headsets marketing them as being appropriate for children over 13 years of age.

Augmented Reality (AR) can take static images off a page and bring them to life. There are a few different ways AR can be activated but most simply, with an AR app, you open and hold your device over a page, the camera screen will open and view your surrounds, the AR activates and a 3D image appears on your screen, superimposed over your surrounds. You can move the screen around to see the object from all angles. It feels like you can touch it. For example, it could be an image of the letter ‘T’ and in AR it animates into a tiger that roars.

VR / AR  market size and growth predictions range considerably with Goldman Sachs predicting by 2025, XR (VR, AR and mixed reality) will generate over $100 billion in sales. Goldman Sachs also predict $300 million in educational software revenue in 2020 increased to $700 million in 2025.

Academic studies show that several benefits of AR are already being enjoyed in kindergarten classrooms.

AR brings worksheets or flashcards to life. It can illustrate static images in a magical way while simplifying and visualizing complex concepts, making them easier to understand. For example, a flower bud on a printed page could slowly bloom in AR.

The 3D nature of AR encourages children to work together in groups, it creates genuine cooperation and improves communication. The overlay of reality and fantasy also gets children thinking critically as to how it works and where the augmented object really is. It is easy to use which empowers children and gives them the satisfaction that they are in control of their learning, at home or school. This self-directed learning increases their focus and information retention. It motivates and engages children of all abilities to learn.

It’s beneficial for teachers too. They can quickly create a fun learning environment at a relatively low cost. AR is easily implemented, easily learned and easy to update as new and improved content becomes available.

AR is the ultimate fun, play-based activity and holds enormous potential for ECE.

As a popular parenting expert Maggie Dent, often says, “Children’s needs have not changed. The world around them has.”

AR puts kids in the driver’s seat. The fundamental lesson that kids need to learn is that they are the creators. Technology is just an enabler.

For more, see:


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Katrina Youdale is the Strategy Director at Plympton Labs. You can follow her on Twitter at @KatrinaYoudale.


Priscilla Chan Hired Superstars to Reinvent Primary Education

Codman Academy was one of the small high schools opened in Boston two decades ago. The commitment to physical and mental health and a partnership with a health clinic made it unique. When Dr. Priscilla Chan visited, she met Dean of Enrichment Meredith Liu.

A few years later, Chan returned to Boston to visit Match Education, the P-12 school famous for its high dose tutoring, and Liu, who had just finished a Harvard MBA and a turnaround tour at Mass Insight, was serving as Match’s CFO.

The two clicked and shared a passion for an integrated approach to childhood development. Liu moved to California and two years later The Primary School opened enrollment to children in East Palo Alto.

The holistic model integrates education, health care, and family support services to dramatically improve outcomes for underserved children. The goal is “lives that are meaningful and healthy – emotionally, mentally, and physically.”

Starting with children as young as 18 months, The Primary School serves 250 children and families through first grade. They will add a grade each year through eighth grade.

Three features make The Primary School unique:

  • They start young, providing early childhood care and learning. The school begins at age three.
  • They combine health care and education, building a holistic system of care around a child’s full needs. That includes a nurse and pediatrician onsite.
  • They believe in the power of parents and support them in creating stable and healthy.

A fourth feature is a well-developed approach to social-emotional learning. They use Conscious Discipline, a trauma-informed program designed by Dr. Becky Bailey that focuses on safety, connection and problem-solving.

The private school is available to families tuition-free and is funded by Chan’s philanthropy, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Future locations will also serve low-income communities but will be publicly funded with philanthropic gap filling.

After 20 years of leadership in health, schools and afterschool programs, Courtney Garcia joined as The Primary School CEO in 2018.

The all-star team at The Primary School is well on the way to demonstrating the benefits of integrated health and education.

For more, see:


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This post was originally published on Forbes.


Reggio Emilia: The Future of Learning Has Roots in the Past

Oftentimes, in an effort to embrace new ideas that seem to describe the future of learning, we forget to examine the countless examples and lessons learned from the past. As explained by authors David Tyack and Larry Cuban in their 1995 book Tinkering Toward Utopia, throughout history, education has experienced change that can be described as both incremental and cyclical. Movements and initiatives often cycle over time, and yet with each repetition, the underlying context has incrementally changed. For example, though recent international reports such as those from scholars at the World Economic Forum, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) have issued calls to action for education systems to develop students as lifelong learners, this trend can be traced back to the progressive thinkers of the early 20th century.

Similarly, numerous current initiatives focus on creating personalized learner experiences through modern trends such as high-quality project-based learning (HQPBL) and design thinking. However, this pursuit to deliver learning that fuels each whole child has its roots in the Reggio Emilia Approach that Loris Malaguzzi first envisioned in the 1940s.

The Beginning

After World War II, parents in the northern Italian town of Reggio Emilia sold a war tank, three trucks, and six horses left by the Germans to finance the development of a new type of school. The community viewed education as a critical component of their economy as well as society. Therefore, with the support of the children’s parents as well as the city’s residents, Malaguzzi designed what has become known as the Reggio Emilia Approach to education. Today, not only does the city continue to finance and manage dozens of schools founded on these ideals, but the Reggio Emilia Approach has expanded globally and been hailed by education scholars as one of the most innovative learning systems in the world.

This approach revolved around three key tenets:

  • A student-centered environment
  • A Constructivist philosophy
  • Experiential, project-based learning

Students at the Center

At the heart of the Reggio Emilia Approach lies the belief that all children can be creative, curious, competent learners who, as Valerie Hewett explains, possess “an innate desire to discover, learn, and make sense of the world.”  In traditional schools, students take a more passive stance to learning and wait to be directed or taught by the teacher. On the contrary, in Reggio schools, learning is viewed as a process of self-discovery that children can and must control.

Two years ago, the early learning program and space at Singapore American School received a Reggio-inspired transformation and it has proven successful and popular.

Instead of following prescribed curriculum or using standard texts, teachers in Reggio schools observe the musings, interests, passions, and curiosities of their students and then provide experiences, materials, and questions to support their acquisition of new knowledge. In this context, learning does not consist of isolated facts or skills pre-determined by the teacher. Rather, it is a deeply personal exploration that values higher-level thinking.

Active Construction of Understanding

The pedagogical philosophy underlying the Reggio Emilia approach has its roots in the thinking of constructivist scholars such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. From this perspective, rather than disseminate content or plan standard lessons, teachers mentor and encourage students as well as co-learn alongside them. Ultimately, constructivist teachers focus on creating the environmental conditions that allow students to best learn for themselves.

Driven by Dewey’s theory that students are natural researchers, Reggio teachers take great pains to curate objects, artifacts, and experiences that inspire inquiry. This idea connects to Piaget’s notion that a child’s interactions and investigations within their physical surroundings ultimately allows them to make sense of the world and construct meaningful understandings. However, the Reggio Emilia Approach combines Dewey’s emphasis on the student as researcher and Piaget’s definition of learning as active construction of meaning with Vygotsky’s theory of learning as an inherently social process. As described by Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, collaboration with adults and more knowledgeable peers allows students to develop and learn in ways that may not be possible if left to work independently. This philosophy mirrors the mission of the original Reggio Emilia school that viewed itself as a critical component of the broader community. As such, the social interactions between students and their peers, teachers, and parents play a critical role in their education.

The Reggio Emilia Approach in Practice

These core beliefs of student-centered, constructivist learning manifest in the completion of long-term, real-world projects. As teachers observe and cultivate student passion and curiosity, they encourage children to complete projects that allow them to discover new knowledge, interests, topics, and ideas. Fueled by student interest and passion, these projects serve as a catalyst for academic and social exploration. Further, given Reggio’s strong emphasis on community involvement, projects often transcend traditional learning “walls” allowing students to consider the entire world as their classroom.

Finally, the Reggio Emilia Approach values what Malaguzzi referred to as the 100 languages. He recognized that students should have agency, not only in what they learn but also in how they demonstrate their understanding. Rather than limit students to single forms of expression, Malaguzzi believed that they should be encouraged to share their learning through art, dance, dialog or any other means make their thinking visible. These ideas may sound familiar in today’s education world, so it came as no surprise that the future of learning clearly has its roots in the past.

For more, see:

Dr. Beth Holland is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Rhode Island and the Digital Equity Project Director for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). Connect with her on Twitter at .


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How Can Children Aspire to Careers They Don’t Know Exist?

By Ed Hidalgo

I’m the Chief Innovation and Engagement Officer for my school district, which is a title you might expect at a technology company, not at a school district. That’s not an accident. While it’s frequently a longer path to enact change in education than it is in business, districts can innovate. We’ve worked hard to give our students new, challenging and necessary curriculum programs including coding, presentation literacy, social and emotional learning and one I’m particularly excited by called the World of Work (WoW).

WoW is a significant innovation because education experts used to think that career education began in high school. We start in kindergarten, and we make a point to avoid pouring kids into career buckets. Instead, we begin early to help students understand their strengths, interests and values and to use those self-discovered qualities to illuminate potential career opportunities. We keep the feel of exploration because through exploration comes excitement and through excitement comes engagement.

This is not a piecemeal thing – we’re all-in, 100 percent inclusive and equitable in WoW – meaning that every K-8 classroom is part of the program, mapping out pathways and allowing for unexpected journeys.

WoW gives every child important exposure to connect learning to their lives after high school. We infuse that objective with lessons helping students understand who they are, what things they like to do, what problems they may enjoy and how and where they may prefer to solve them. By ensuring students are exposed to at least six different career opportunities annually, starting in elementary school, WoW students will see, explore and consider no less than 54 different careers by the time they move on to high school.

To do that, we use well-known career development theory, the Holland RIASEC framework, as a comprehensive and unique strategy (here’s a more detailed dive). Traditional career interventions often used assessment to drop students into career interests. The WoW approach lets students experience all areas of the career frameworks, thereby eliminating concerns about tracking or premature foreclosure.

Our attention to a student’s interests is key because we know these have the strongest correlation to career satisfaction, income and job performance over a lifetime. We also start early because know that’s when true exploration can happen. By the time a student is in high school, strengths and interests are solidifying and being reinforced. By the time someone is in their 20’s, they are remarkably settled.

While these important qualities are in formation, our WoW program uses great technology and expertise to put students in direct contact with career professionals and practitioners, encouraging career exploration and iteration. We do that by accessing a deep and diverse library of grade-appropriate videos with career professionals – not show and tell, but ask and answer. Often, we also arrange live small group, classroom-to-professional video conferences and directed activities so students can see and hear these working experts while personally engaging with them.

Students have a video chat with a zoologist, Janine Bartling, from the Hogle Zoo in Utah.

We believe it’s already making a big difference by opening eyes and minds to the real opportunities that exist beyond school. We also know this is good for business because our students are engaged and ask well-informed, thought-provoking questions when visiting with working professionals.

Perhaps most importantly, by connecting exciting career options to learning, class work becomes more valuable, reinforcing the idea that school is a path to something that can be fun and rewarding. If a student is excited by working with animals, for example, there are few things an educator can say that is more powerful than hearing a zoologist stress the importance of science while standing in a waddle of penguins. Instantly, biology is much less boring.

People in jobs are among the best resources for teaching and learning. Getting them in front of our students, early and often, makes a big difference. And the only way to do that, at scale, is by using innovative technology and coordinated planning.

This level of innovation is not only possible, it’s happening in our school district. The last thing we want to do is keep it a secret (we are proud that the program was also recently written about in the Hechinger Report). There is deep, rich, lifelong value in exposing students to career and life paths early. We should all take an active role – and this includes business people, researchers and working professionals from all walks of life – sharing our experiences with students so that these innovative insights show up in our classrooms as early as possible, not after the die has already been cast.

For more on career exposure and pathways, see:

Ed Hidalgo is the Chief Innovation and Engagement Officer for Cajon Valley Union School District and previously, the Director of the World of Work Initiative at the University of San Diego Institute for Entrepreneurship in Education. Connect with him on Twitter: 


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