Madison School District should improve communication between 4K, kindergarten teachers, report finds

October 29, 2020   |   By Scott Girard

From The Cap Times

Better communication between 4-year-old kindergarten teachers and their 5-year-old kindergarten counterparts in the Madison Metropolitan School District could improve student outcomes in transitioning to kindergarten, a new report found.

A Madison Education Partnership research brief released this month outlines some of the challenges facing teachers during student transitions from 4K to elementary school and offers a host of recommendations to improve.

The district has 56 4K sites at a mix of school buildings, early care and education centers and Head Start programs around the city. Those sites feed the 26 elementary schools, providing a mix of relationships between staff at the two levels and limiting what information is normally shared as a student moves from one level to the next.

“It really blatantly shows some of the issues with a large school district and the difficulties with coordinating 56 sites of 4K across 26 elementary schools,” MMSD director of early learning Culleen Witthuhn said. “The dynamic of kids moving from one place to another is really, really clear when we talked about this transition report. We have some things in place, but I just don’t feel like that’s enough.”

Researchers spoke with 20 kindergarten teachers at six school sites and 13 4K teachers at seven sites in January and February to collect feedback on a variety of questions. It showed a lack of understanding from teachers in 4K and 5K at what their counterparts taught in the classroom, disagreements over what information would be most important to share and a lack of trust in how other teachers would use sensitive information.

Beth Graue, one of three authors of the research brief, said “4K and 5K still tend to operate in parallel lanes.”

“We aren’t taking advantage of the deep knowledge that could be shared across 4K and 5K, so people aren’t learning how to best support kids and families,” Graue said. “That doesn’t mean that great things aren’t happening, it means that I think we need to be more intentional in the way we set up equal opportunities for sharing information.”

Witthuhn agreed that it was important to learn from the research and come up with some sort of document to facilitate communication between 4K and 5K teachers.

“It’s not like the 4K and 5K teachers are right next door,” Witthuhn said. “You can’t do those techniques when you’re across so many sites. This research study, and then the creation of some type of transitional document that we would be able to… implement across the district in order to be able to share that information, is so important.”

The study found that 4K teachers located at elementary school sites generally had better relationships with their 5K colleagues and the information shared between the two was often deeper.

“In all the sites where 4K/5K shared the school, teachers spoke about the important relationships they developed with each other and their frequent informal conversations about children and families they knew would be staying with the school for the upcoming year,” the brief states. “5K teachers in various schools discussed how these partnerships were important in helping them connect with students and families, and better understand the 4K experience.”

Those 4K teachers at off-site locations, however, had a much different experience, with the brief saying they reported “little to no communication with MMSD 5K teachers, although many of them discussed their wishes to connect.”

The study recommended creating a “prototype” for sharing information about students, but stressed that even with a report of some kind, “4K and 5K teachers should engage in more interactions and opportunities to build trust and share sensitive information appropriately.”

“If the district chooses to provide opportunities for teachers to spend time with one another, it also will need to address the issue of compensation,” the report noted.

Another sticking point between teachers at the two levels was how to handle sensitive information. Some 4K teachers were hesitant to share some details about family background or health issues, as they worried about violating privacy laws. Some 5K teachers, meanwhile, said they did not want information that could create a bias in their mind before they got to know a student — even if it would inform their interactions with a student in the classroom or a family outside the school building.

Graue said those teachers should instead seek that information, while verifying it themselves as they observed the student in their own classroom.

“To me that’s like a doctor saying, ‘I don’t want to see your file, I’m going to diagnose you in this time we have in this office,’” she said. “I think that’s short-sighted.”

Witthuhn added that it’s important for 4K and 5K teachers to understand what lessons the other is teaching, especially the importance of play-based learning for young students. She’s hopeful that one lesson from the pandemic has been the importance of social-emotional learning, which is a focus at the 4K level while the 5K level is perceived as “very academic.”

“Get us back on the same page about this trajectory of 4K to 5K to first-grade, even second-grade,” she said. “When we talk about early education, it’s about birth through third-grade, it’s about how are we engaging students with all of their learning that they’re doing in order to keep them wanting to learn?”

Graue is hopeful that methods like teachers visiting students’ homes can expand and allow teachers to know their students and families better as the year begins.

“I think teachers are very used to using the (Ready, Set, Go conferences) as a telling, describing what the kindergarten was like … but it’s more about acclimating the family to the experiences of kindergarten,” she said. “What the home visit did was it asked teachers to use that first visit as a listening experience.”

While they evaluate the lessons from this report, Witthuhn and Graue are both appreciative of the relationship between MMSD and UW-Madison's Wisconsin Center for Education Research, which partner to form MEP.

“We wouldn’t have that information to improve what we’re doing if we didn’t have that partnership,” Witthuhn said. “Then the district can take that information and say, 'how can we incorporate this into our day-to-day positions, careers, jobs to improve what we’re doing for students and families?'”