Implementing an Evidence-Based and Domain-Specific Pre-K Curriculum: A Conversation with Cheryl Ohlson and Michelle Maier

Cheryl Ohlson and Michelle Maier

Most pre-K classrooms use a whole-child approach to educational curricula, which focuses on the broad development of children’s academic skills. By contrast, domain-specific curricula focus more on specific areas of learning, such as math, literacy, or science. MDRC has partnered with the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to implement a new domain-specific curriculum in its schools.

In this episode, Leigh Parise speaks with Cheryl Ohlson, DCPS deputy chief of early childhood education, and Michelle Maier, MDRC senior associate, to outline their domain-specific curriculum strategy and to explain some of the ups and downs of their ongoing implementation in pre-K programs across Washington, DC. They explain how domain-specific curricula intersects with other important trends in pre-K education, including the importance of play and of providing developmentally appropriate instruction. Ohlson also discusses how teachers were trained to teach domain-specific curricula and addresses some of the challenges of implementing the initiative at scale.

Leigh Parise: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on what works to improve the lives of people with low incomes. I'm your host, Leigh Parise. Early childhood education experts agree one of the best ways to strengthen the quality of large-scale public preschool programs is by implementing evidence-based, domain-specific curricula—focused on content such as literacy, math, or social-emotional skills—along with training and coaching for teachers. Unfortunately, this isn't necessarily what's happening in most pre-K programs because implementing all these components can be very challenging.

However, the District of Columbia Public Schools, or DCPS, recently began to roll out an evidence-based domain-specific curriculum—paired with professional development for teachers—to nearly all DCPS pre-K classrooms. It's a unique opportunity to answer questions about what happens when a large-scale system makes a significant shift to scale high-quality programming across a relatively short period of time, and to offer clear lessons and next steps for other localities on how to make this shift a reality. Today I'm joined by Dr. Cheryl Ohlson, deputy chief of early childhood education at DCPS, and Dr. Michelle Maier, senior associate at MDRC specializing in early childhood education research, to discuss the Scaling High Quality Pre-K in DC project and what we hope to learn. Michelle and Cheryl, welcome to Evidence First.

Dr.  Cheryl Ohlson: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Dr. Michelle Mayer: Likewise.

Leigh Parise: Alright, so first I think it would be great if you could start by unpacking this for us. When we talk about a curriculum used in a pre-K classroom, what do we mean when we say it's evidence-based and domain-specific?

Dr. Michelle Mayer: “Evidence-based” is a term that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to curriculum and early childhood education. Sometimes it's used to refer to curricula that are informed by research, or informed by what we think are good class and practice. But by “evidence-based,” what we mean is a curriculum that has been empirically tested in a rigorous way and has been found to have impacts—meaning it's been found to improve whatever aspects of classroom quality and children's learning outcomes that it targets. Now, this could be a really high bar. Not all curriculum developers or publishers do this. It requires the gold standard in research—so a randomized control trial where classrooms or schools are randomly assigned to either implement the curriculum and receive professional development or to continue with their preschool-as-usual services.

Now, by “domain-specific,” we mean that the curriculum targets specific learning domains like math or literacy or science. These curricula have what’s typically referred to as a scope and sequence, where you can think about it as this intentionality behind the order and the content of the learning activities that teachers are expected to deliver to children because those activities build on one another. This is in contrast to curricula that are typically in place in most pre-K classrooms, which are whole-child global curricula. And these curricula tend to focus on many learning domains, but in a lighter-touch way, and they do not tend to have a scope and sequence.

Leigh Parise: Cheryl, I'm curious why you think it is that so many classrooms might be implementing something that, you know, isn't what Michelle just described.

Dr.  Cheryl Ohlson: I think the global whole-child curriculum that Michelle mentioned, many of them have been used for many, many years in pre-K classrooms. They are very familiar, they're very well known, and it's always hard to move away from what you've known for years—in some cases, decades. So I think there's that. I also think that there are questions within the early childhood world about the balance of play (and a truly play-driven approach) and a curriculum approach that includes domain-specific curricula with a scope and sequence. And I think there is resistance among many pre-K teachers who are very firmly grounded in the importance of play.

In early childhood classrooms, there is some resistance to implementing a domain-specific curriculum that does have a scope and sequence. I think to some teachers it feels like we are moving away from a developmentally [appropriate] approach. And so I think there's work that we need to do in the field of early childhood to really understand and bring teachers into the conversation about how we can do both. We can still be very developmentally appropriate. We can still have classrooms that are playful and that are based on how we know very young children learn, but that also include curriculum that include a clear scope and sequence for specific skills.

Leigh Parise: That's great. That's super helpful. And you beat me to my follow-up question, which was “Is it a trade-off? Do you have to get rid of play?” It sounds like the answer to that is no. So that's good to hear. Cheryl, it'd be great to hear a little bit from you about what the impetus was for getting this project, [getting] this shift started within DCPS.

Dr. Cheryl Ohlson: For us, the impetus really came from the research. We try to stay current, as much as possible, on the research related to early learning and early childhood instructional practices and curriculum. And through reading, I stumbled upon a study by Dr. Chris Weiland (from the University of Michigan) and several of her colleagues about the efficacy of various early childhood curricular models, including the whole-child global approach that Michelle mentioned previously. This really kind of started me down the rabbit hole, and I read as much as I could possibly find about the efficacy of the commonly used whole-child curricula (which was what we were using in DCPS) as well as domain-specific curricula.

I also reached out to the authors of these various studies, and the leading experts nationally, who are producing research on early childhood curriculum to see if they would speak to me so that I could make sure that I was interpreting these studies—that I was understanding them—correctly; that I was drawing the right conclusions from them; and also to identify other work that I should be reading, other people I should be talking to. Without fail, to my surprise, [all] of them were very, very busy people [but] were incredibly gracious with their time and were willing to have a conversation with me—in some cases, many conversations over a period of years with me and with my team about their work and about their findings.

I was also connected with Jason Sachs from Boston Public Schools. He, too, has continued to be incredibly gracious about sharing information with us, hosting myself and some of my colleagues up in Boston to visit several focus classrooms, and serving as sort of a guide for me on this journey. And through all of this reading and [these] conversations with people, I became pretty convinced that we really couldn't justify sticking with business as usual and the approach that we've been taking for a number of years in terms of our curriculum, and that we could make some shifts and do a lot better for our students in terms of setting them up for success in kindergarten and beyond kindergarten.

The one thing I'll add to that is that at the same time that we were doing this—having these conversations, doing all of this reading—we were also focused really deeply within DCPS and within our early childhood division on equity and anti-racism, as a lot of school districts were and continue to be. We were having lots of conversations among ourselves about how we could make sure that our curriculum reflects our children and their families and their communities and experiences and lives. And the whole-child curriculum that we have been using doesn't do this. So we really felt strongly that we wanted to have a curriculum that included units or studies where students could see themselves—they could see their families and their experiences and their communities—and that would incorporate anti-bias practices. We were hoping that through the shifts we were making, we would be able to meet those goals as well.

Leigh Parise: Ah, thank you so much for sharing that. It sounds like you were incredibly thoughtful about it, and I am really glad to hear that the authors were, I expect, delighted to hear from you. Because why are any of us doing this research, if not for people who are on the ground directly working with teachers and students, trying to figure out how they can implement it? So thank you for sharing that. All right, so then tell us about the curriculum itself and then the training. What's happening in DCPS right now? Why did you. . . . You talked a little bit about why you picked that one but give us a sense of what it looks like.

Dr. Cheryl Ohlson: We're at the early stages of some pretty significant shifts. The first shift that we're making is a shift to the Building Blocks curriculum. The Building Blocks curriculum is a domain-specific curriculum that focuses on math. It's designed specifically for early learners. We're making this shift—starting with Building Blocks and starting with math—for a couple reasons. One is that district-wide, our agency is focused on math. Math is sort of the next big hurdle that we are tackling as an agency across grades. And so of course we're starting that work in our pre-K grades as well. Another reason that we picked Building Blocks specifically is because, as Michelle mentioned a few moments ago, it is evidence-based. It has many, many years of rigorous research behind it, documenting that it works with young children.

So we felt really comfortable in this curriculum and knowing that it was going to have positive impacts for our students. After this initial year of Building Blocks, then we're also going to be developing—well, we're in the process of developing them now, but we'll be implementing curriculum units. They are sort of thematic studies; many of those in education or early childhood education will know what that means. Curriculum units that, as I mentioned, reflect DC—they look like DC, they reflect the communities—so children can see themselves and their families in these study resources and materials. We'll start rolling those out late this spring as sort of a soft launch, get feedback from teachers, make some revisions, and then officially roll them out next school year.

Leigh Parise: Tell us a little bit about what kind of training you need to do for the teachers or for the schools for this curriculum.

Dr. Cheryl Ohlson: In terms of training, we started late last spring with a bit of a soft launch for our teachers. We had Dr. Clements and Dr. Sarama—who are the authors of the Building Blocks curriculum—meet with our teachers virtually. We had a virtual session with all of the teachers, and that was really just to provide them with a very broad overview of the curriculum and some of the rationale for why this curriculum was selected. And then we did more in-depth training for our school leaders—so our principals, our assistant principals, and our instructional coaches—over the summer. We met for multiple days in July, again with Dr. Clements and Dr. Sarama. This was in-person training, to get much deeper training for the school leaders and our instructional coaches as well.

During August, before school opened, we had what we call our pre-service professional development days, and Building Blocks was a big part of that. That was our teachers' opportunity to first really take a deep dive into the curriculum and to learn about the curriculum and to really get a deeper understanding of what the first several weeks of instruction looked like in a Building Blocks classroom. We will continue that through the year; we just had another professional development day last week. So teachers had more of an opportunity to learn about the different developmental progressions, the different skills that children are learning through the Building Blocks curriculum, [and] to practice a lot of the instructional activities, to get feedback on how they're implementing those activities, and then to use data from their actual students to think about how they can take those activities in the Building Blocks curriculum and differentiate them so they meet the different developmental levels of the students in their classroom. Throughout the year, they're also receiving coaching. So they'll get coaching on an ongoing basis, with our instructional coaches visiting their classrooms and then providing feedback based on their visits and doing instructional seminars as well.

Leigh Parise: That's great. That sounds like a really thoughtful and thorough rollout. One question that people listening might be wondering about. . . tell us about the scale of preschool programming in DCPS. How many students are you serving? How many schools or how many teachers? We'd love to get a sense of that.

Dr. Cheryl Ohlson: Yes, we have 80 schools that have pre-K programming. Almost all of them have both pre-K-3, and pre-K-4. We have a small number of schools that only have pre-K-4 grades, but most of them have both pre-K-3 and pre-K-4, and it's a total of 444 pre-K classrooms across those 80 schools. We serve just under 6,000 students.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you. That's helpful. You're going to have some people listening to this and think, Oh, I gotta move into DCPS because pre-K-3, pre-K-4, both of those sound great. All right, so you're starting the rollout this year with this goal of having full-scale, high-quality implementation by the 2025–2026 school year, I understand. That's a big deal. That's no small feat, especially given, you know, you just talked about the number of different schools that you're serving. Can you talk about what it takes to make that shift over such a short period of time for a large district like DCPS?

Dr. Cheryl Ohlson: Actually, it doesn't feel that short, but I think in the grand scheme of things it probably is short. We really started these conversations a number of years ago. Just before the pandemic, we started diving into these questions about curriculum, and as I mentioned, reading the research and talking to folks across the country. We were slowed down a little bit because of the pandemic. We weren't able to focus on this work quite as much as we had hoped during that year that we were virtual. But we took quite a bit of time and care during this time to make sure that we were engaging our key stakeholders, especially our teachers, from the beginning of the process. We started several years ago with a small work group of teachers from across the district who met six times over the course of the summer of 2021 to look closely at the curriculum that we were using and then to start exploring some options.

We then expanded that to a larger work group during the following school year. This work group included more of our pre-K teachers as well as school leaders—so our principals and assistant principals. It also included some of our instructional coaches as well. Then, in the fall of 2022, we expanded even further with our stakeholder engagement, and we held focus groups throughout the fall with our teachers and our paraprofessionals (or teachers' assistants) to get input from as many of our educators as possible. And really, in a nutshell, these focus groups focused on three main questions. What do we like about our current curriculum—what's working well? What do we not like so much about it, or what gaps do we see in our current curriculum approach? What improvements would teachers like to see? To my surprise, the feedback that we received from our teachers was remarkably consistent across focus group, across our teachers, and largely mirrored what we were seeing in the research, which was very, very helpful.

Within our early childhood division, we also had developed a number of years ago a race and equity council, which includes representatives from across the division. Their role is to guide our work, ask us tough questions, make sure that we are holding true to our commitment to make sure that all of the work that we're doing in our division—including our curriculum work—reflects and honors and celebrates our children and families and communities, and incorporates anti-bias and anti-racist principles. So they were also giving us feedback along the way.

Also, last year we held several parent focus groups to make sure that we were hearing from parents about what their priorities are, what they most want to see in our pre-K classrooms, and the experiences that they want their children to have. And, of course, we met regularly with our colleagues across DCPS to make sure that we were asking the right questions and that any decisions that we were making were aligned with DCPS's broader priorities and were designed in a way that supported curricular alignment, pre-K through the elementary grades.

Leigh Parise: Wow. Thank you so much. I feel like I need to call out a few things in what you said that really stood out to me. I think one is the deep and meaningful focus on racial equity and having such a community focus. [The second] is listening to so many different teacher voices on what they liked and what they didn't like. I could see how that would connect to . . . you know, one of the places we started was you thinking a little bit about why it might be that so many places are not implementing evidence-based curricula like this. It's clear that you were thoughtful about how to make sure you got that buy-in.

And then I have to quote you—“We were slowed down a little bit by the pandemic”—which I think said, you know, no school ever. So kudos to you for being able to continue to push that work forward and to be so thoughtful about it. This is great. Thank you.

Michelle, you're really deeply engaging with Cheryl and DCPS on this work. Can you tell us a little bit about what we hope to learn from this project and how you think it can inform implementation of evidence-based curricula in other districts across the country?

Dr. Michelle Mayer: Sure. I think first, I want to give kudos to Cheryl and her team. I feel like this work is such a long-term commitment to ongoing training and coaching of folks. Having that be focused on curricula and implementing curricula with fidelity (or as it's intended), I think for us at MDRC, it's this kind of combination that we find in our research [that] is really the best bet for strengthening classroom quality and children's outcomes. So we're really excited about this project and this partnership with DCPS—as well as our partners who are also on this project, the University of Michigan and Urban Institute. And it's particularly the fact that the lessons learned will be directly applicable to both policy and practice in early childhood education.

First, you know, we obviously want our findings to provide relevant data-driven information back to DC pre-K, to help inform all of their work and any continuous quality-improvement efforts. But we also really hope that our findings will be used by other states and districts who are thinking really hard about what investments they should make to build high-quality early learning systems. To be more specific, we want to find out, you know, do you do this. How do you implement an evidence-based domain-specific approach at scale, meaning across a whole district as large as DC? What works? What doesn't work? What did DCPS need to change or adapt in their curriculum or to the professional development to make sure that it works well for their teachers, their children, their communities?

And then what happens when you do that? Do we see classroom quality scores improve? Is instructional time used more effectively? Are children experiencing more high-quality and more equity-centered teaching practices? And so we're looking to see all that good stuff, all the high-quality learning experiences that we want all children to experience in pre-K. Is that happening? If so, then this project will help build more evidence for why this kind of evidence-based, domain-specific approach is a solid bet in early childhood, and then provide explicit guidance for how districts and localities can go about putting it in place.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you. Michelle, Cheryl, the people are going to be calling you after this to figure out what you did. You're going to be the one on the other end of the phone this time. Cheryl, do you want to say a little bit about what interested DCPS in being able to partner with researchers to try to understand this work? And Michelle started with, like, "We're focused on informing DCPS and also being able to do some of this broader information gathering to really help people understand how to do this at scale." But it might be helpful to just hear a little bit from you about why to engage an external team on this stuff.

Dr. Cheryl Ohlson: I think partially, some of the folks who are on the research team are the people that I was calling (laughs) and emailing to say, "Can we please talk because I've read your research and I need to make sure I'm understanding it; I need your help." Some of those relationships actually began quite a bit before this project, because these were the folks that, like I said, I was turning to for information and guidance and support along the way. So I actually feel like these are relationships that have been building for a little while now.

The same thing with Boston. These are some of the same folks that were focusing on the curriculum implementation in Boston. I can't say enough about how helpful it's been for us to really learn about the work that they did in Boston—what was working, what wasn't working. So again, I feel like I was connected with this research team and their collaborators for quite a while now.

Another reason is . . . I mentioned the race and equity council that we have within our division. And again, those are just folks from across our division, [in] various roles, who care deeply about racial equity and their jobs are really just to hold us accountable. Research was one of their priorities as well. They wanted to make sure that if we were making such a huge shift in the way we've done business for a long time, that we had external people that had eyes on the work that we were doing. That we were working with people who really understand research and were able to—I don't want to say keep tabs on it—who are able to follow the work that we're doing and to be able to give us information about what's working, what might not be working well. And then, of course, if it works, [we’re] happy about being able to share the work that we're doing with other districts.

Leigh Parise: Great, thank you so much. I have no doubt that your openness to being able to bring in some of those external folks to support on that side makes you a really good partner in this project. Alright, I think that's all I have. Michelle, Cheryl, is there anything else that we didn't cover that you would want to add?

Dr. Michelle Mayer: I think the one thing I would add is that, you know, MDRC has done a number of studies looking at these curricula that DCPS is trying to put in place. With Building Blocks, we have formally tested that in New York City in a large-scale randomized control trial, providing more to its evidence base. We have done quite a bit of work looking at the implementation and the effectiveness of the Boston pre-K model as well—again, providing more evidence there. We're really excited about this project, about how it builds on the work that we've already done and how much it can contribute to the knowledge base about how you scale these kinds of pre-K models.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you Michelle. I think that's a great place for us to wrap up. I really want to say thanks to the both of you. Michelle, Cheryl, thanks so much for joining me. It was really great to have you on Evidence First.

Dr. Michelle Mayer: Thank you, Leigh. Thanks for having us.

Dr. Cheryl Ohlson: Thank you.

Leigh Parise: To learn more about the scaling high-quality pre-K work, visit Did you enjoy this episode? Subscribe to the Evidence First podcast for more.

About Evidence First

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More