Scaling High-Quality Pre-K in DC


The field of early childhood education research has highlighted the importance of implementing evidence-based, domain-specific curricula, supported by training and coaching, as the “best bet” for strengthening preschool quality at scale and supporting children’s skills. However, domain-specific curricula (which are focused on promoting math, literacy, or social-emotional skills) can be a big challenge to take on because they represent a significant shift in the type of programming occurring in most pre-K programs. Beginning in school year 2023-2024, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)—which provides pre-K to more than 5,000 three- and four-year-old students—will roll out evidence-based, domain-specific curricula paired with anti-bias, anti-racist professional development for teachers to nearly all DCPS pre-K classrooms. DCPS will carry out this work in phases, with the goal of having full-scale, high-quality implementation by school year 2025-2026.

DCPS’s model represents a unique opportunity to study what happens when a large-scale system makes a significant shift to scale high-quality programming in a relatively short period of time and to offer clear lessons for other localities on how to make this shift a reality. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, and Arnold Ventures, the Scaling High-Quality Pre-K in DC study aims to understand the key structures, processes, and instructional factors associated with the implementation of the new curricular and professional development approaches.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The Scaling High-Quality Pre-K in DC study is being done in collaboration with a larger impact evaluation funded by the federal Institute of Education Sciences. The Urban Institute, in partnership with the University of Michigan and School Readiness Consulting, is conducting a study that takes advantage of naturally occurring lotteries for oversubscribed schools in DC to examine the effects of DC’s pre-K program for three-year-olds. That study, however, was designed before the pandemic and the DCPS curriculum shifts. Impact data are now slated to be collected in 2025-2026. MDRC will work with this impact study team to lead an integrated implementation study of the curriculum and professional development rollout in DCPS. Full-scale data collection for the implementation study will happen during the target year of interest for the impact study, 2025-2026. 

MDRC’s implementation study will answer research questions that are directly relevant to scaling high-quality curricula in pre-K programs across the country:

  1. How did practitioners in DC view high-quality, domain-specific pre-K curricula prior to implementation?
  2. To what extent was DCPS able to implement an existing high-quality pre-K curriculum and professional development approach—with adaptations—with high levels of fidelity in classrooms serving three- and four-year-old students?
  3. To what extent did receipt of strong professional development supports—namely training and coaching—affect teachers’ ability to implement high-quality pre-K curricula with fidelity in classrooms serving three- and four-year-old students?
  4. To what extent was implementation of high-quality curricula associated with equity-centered and culturally responsive teaching practices? 

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

Key to this implementation research will be triangulating findings across data sources and leveraging multiple perspectives to answer research questions. Between school year 2023-2024 and school year 2025-2026, MDRC will conduct focus groups and interviews with staff from 30 participating schools, including school leadership, instructional coaches, and teachers. In addition to these data collection activities, MDRC will work with coaches to conduct classroom observations of curricular fidelity.