Empirical support for the contribution of early childhood education to future education and wellbeing is definitive in at least two important areas: children’s cognitive and social development, and school retention and completion.
Comparative research on the contribution of early childhood education to cognitive and social development argues that good quality early childhood education (3–5) improves children’s abilities to be successful at school and to pursue studies longer than children who do not participate in such programs. Longitudinal studies show that early childhood education has lasting and positive long-term effects on individuals’ lives. The effectiveness of these programs is more palpable for those children who are seen as at high risk of school failure. While espousing different approaches, countries such as France, Denmark, and Norway consider early childhood education as essential and universal. Back in the U.S. while neither policies nor the benefits of supporting early childhood education are novel, attempts at taking successful programs to scale continues to evade us.
Increased Access and Quality
The new wave of early childhood education policy first announced by President Obama in 2013 is designed to increase access (e.g., through the Preschool for All initiative, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program), and quality (e.g., through such initiatives as the Preschool Development Grants, State and Local Investments, Early Learning Communities, Race to the Top: Early Learning Challenge, Reforming and Expanding Head Start).
Different from previous initiatives the current policy has a number of distinctive and hopeful provisions including partnerships between the federal and state governments, significant incentives and budget allocations, a call for integrated services including strong family engagement, and most importantly accountability (regulation) provisions.
The policy is closely aligned with the standards for high quality early childhood programs issued by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the key accreditation agency of early childhood education programs. The ambitious standards ask that high quality programs demonstrate the fostering of positive relationships and a secure environment, a developmentally appropriate curriculum, culturally and linguistically appropriate teaching approaches, frequent assessment of progress in all aspects of child learning and development, health promotion and injury prevention, a qualified, knowledgeable and caring teaching staff (the NAEYC has also issued regulations for the education of early childhood educators).
Why this Policy Effort Falls Short
While much can be accomplished and these efforts should be applauded, neither Obama’s policies nor the NAEYC standards go far enough. One key concern is the curriculum standard (standard #2) which falls short of setting ambitious learning goals for young children, and ends with a problematic corollary: “NAEYC and the NAEYC Accreditation system do not prescribe a specific curriculum; programs can design their own or choose a commercially available curriculum that meets NAEYC’s guidelines.” In the section “what to look for in a program” the guidelines concerning the appropriate curriculum are vague and while there is emphasis in “learning” the lack of specificity on the content to be learned is highly problematic, especially when considering that for many children this is likely to be a unique time to learn the skills that will allow them to be successful in kindergarten and beyond.
In the past the Head Start Program (which is positioned as the cornerstone of the current early childhood policy) has been criticized for lacking specific academic curriculum standards, with previous studies documenting that program graduates lack important literacy and numeracy skills at the end of the program (e.g., they fail to identify most letters of the alphabet, or to write letters of the alphabet on request).
Given the current standards and the ongoing dialogue around the proposed policy there seems to be little reason to believe that there will be significant changes for those whom Head Start is expected to serve. In addition to the lack of specificity concerning the academic curriculum, other important problematic factors in the ongoing policy dialogue include the unhelpful dichotomy of work vs play as experts from different camps attempt to argue about how children learn best, and the controversy as to whether or not assessing academic learning should be included in the evaluation of early childhood education outcomes.
Additions to the Policy are Needed
If the current administration’s intent is to shift the cycle of disadvantage entrapping poor children, and fix the uneven effects of early childhood education documented so far, five additions to the policy are needed:
- High quality preschool education should be universal, publicly funded under the proposed federal-state partnerships and extended to all low-income and moderate-income children from 3-5 years of age. This will indeed guarantee “preschool education for all”. The current proposal to have “Preschool for All” falls short because it is couched as a voluntary undertaking, and it is primarily targeted to 4-year-olds.
- A mandatory academically oriented core curriculum with specific guidelines for the depth and breadth to which academic subjects are to be covered is needed. The research based High Scope Curriculum backed with longitudinal evidence of success is an example of such an approach; the Montessori approach is another example. By the time children enter kindergarten they should have literacy skills (should be able to read appropriate text), and they should have numeracy skills (understand number concepts and basic arithmetic), among others, and should have a rich vocabulary.
- Accreditation standards need to be closely aligned with the curriculum that will allow students to succeed in kindergarten and beyond with an emphasis on the academic skills required and evaluated at entry to kindergarten. Accreditation should be based not only on the existence of the required NAEYC Program Standards but also on how well and how much children have learned what they are expected to know at the end of these programs. In short, programs should be held accountable according to children’s cognitive outcomes.
- Systems to continually monitor integrity in implementation are essential. Plans for high quality early childhood education are only as good as the manner in which they are implemented. Accountability requires constant monitoring to insure the curriculum and the overall program are implemented as intended, that the personnel is qualified, and the appropriate teacher to child ratios are maintained. Regulation of programs is especially important and a more frequent schedule of inspections is necessary. One–shot visits every five years to fulfill accreditation requirements may not be enough to secure the ongoing integrity of the high quality implementation the policy calls for.
- Need to go beyond dichotomies. The current policy discourse dichotomizing play vs learning is misguided and has the effect of spreading mistaken conceptions of a much needed reform. What should be unique about early childhood education is that significant learning is allowed to occur via a number of activities including play. If there is no learning it should not be called early childhood education. While we all hold dear an image of childhood as dominated by exploration and play there are also immense opportunities to learn during this period and not all learning will or should occur through play. A balanced curriculum is essential.
The Harsh Reality
The harsh reality of formal schooling is that once children enter kindergarten the first actions engaging teachers and children is on the evaluation of basic skills as teachers attempt to divide students into small instructional groups reflecting different levels of ability. Children who do not have the expected literacy and numeracy skills begin to fall behind their peers who have those skills (this is the basic tenant of Head Start). Ability groups begin in kindergarten and it is at this point that children begin to experience failure or success. Success engenders success and moving levels becomes more challenging for those who are not initially successful.
By the time children are ready to start kindergarten they should be able at a minimum to meaningfully engage in reading and mathematics learning, to self-regulate between activities leading to academic learning and play, and exert significant self-control and resilience. These are skills that must be learned.
Contact Dr. Tatto: firstname.lastname@example.org
Maria Teresa Tatto is an associate professor of teacher education. Her research is characterized by the use of an international-comparative framework to study educational reform and educational policy and their impact on schooling, particularly the role of teachers, teaching, and learning – within varied organizational, economic, political, and social contexts. Her other research interests include the influence of early childhood education on improved knowledge levels for the rural poor, the role of values education on citizenship formation, and the development of effective policies to support the education of children of migrant workers in the U.S. Her work combines the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches and methods. She has done research in Mexico, Sri Lanka, and several countries in Latin America and has served as a consultant to the World Bank and USAID for the governments of the Dominican Republic, Columbia, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru. She is currently the director and principal investigator for the Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics, or TEDS-M.