Optimistic Leaders emphasize the “why” behind decisions because it is the “why” that leads us to more intentionality and continuous quality improvement. During a recent trip to Arkansas I spoke with Janice Carter, Program Coordinator at Arkansas State University Childhood Services.  We talked about how she and her colleagues have encouraged programs to pay attention to the “why”. As a result, programs have shifted from teaching to the program assessment to working collaboratively to improve programs for the children. She describes this shift as a “tipping point” in program improvement.

Judy Jablon

Janice writes:

For years, my team and I did a good job of “teaching to the test” as we provided technical assistance (TA), and professional development around the use of Environmental Rating Scale assessments to a variety of early learning programs across the state. We use these measures, like so many others, for high stakes assessments related to our state funded pre-k and in levels 2 and 3 of our QRIS (Quailty Rating & Improvement System).

What did we notice? Programs checked all of the boxes on assessment day. As we analyzed the ERS data, we found that many programs had notably lower scores when they were not assessed every year. Troubled by this finding, our team brainstormed ways to improve our TA methods and professional development content to help programs sustain their quality levels. As we experimented with different approaches, we came to the realization that our content was focused on teaching the “WHAT” – materials, correct hand washing procedures, etc. We were missing the “WHY” – why and how these elements are connected to quality environments and increased learning. As we shifted to a focus on targeting the “WHY” in our workshops and TA, we began to see programs that not only sustained their scores, but actually increased their scores over time. Scores remained consistent regardless of how often the programs were assessed.

These programs reached a “tipping point.” They began to realize that the assessment process was not a test, but a collaborative opportunity to evaluate what was working, what needed attention, and what needed a long-term plan. These programs request TA, coaches, and workshops, not because they want to improve their ERS scores, but because they want to improve their practices for children (which coincidentally does improve their ERS scores). They value learning about the “why” and value our team as their partners.

In preparing for a national conference, I spoke with a number of program directors who have made this shift to ask if they could articulate their own “tipping point” to share with other states and programs.
With enthusiasm, they shared their stories and reflections.

  • It’s no longer enough to be “good”, my children deserve the best and with every training I leave, a light bulb moment happens about what I can do better!
  • It really does feel like a good old road trip with great friends.

As we reviewed their touching responses, we realized that we had experienced our own tipping point as an organization. We strengthened our skills to as we dug deeper into integratating the “WHY” into our professional learning content. Moreover, we have learned how to articulate the “WHY” with directors, teachers, parents, and policymakers. When we understand and have the ability to articulate WHY what we do is important for children, we can work together to figure out HOW we can make it happen!

Submitted by:  Janice Carter, Program Coordinator, Arkansas State University, Childhood Services

With appreciation to the directors, teachers and programs we serve and the inspiring leaders who helped us understand the WHY:  Dr. Becky Bailey, Dr. Debbie Cryer, and Judy Jablon.