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Curriculum and Quality in Pre-k Programs

As states and the federal government seek to expand access to high-quality pre-k programs, developing a stronger understanding of the value and nature of quality pre-k curriculum is essential to the success of these efforts.Of all the elements of high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, quality curriculum may be the most difficult for policymakers, practitioners, and parents to come to terms with. It’s intuitively obvious that quality pre-k programs should have small class sizes and qualified teachers, for example. And, while there’s some debate about what exactly we should require of qualified pre-k teachers, the most common metrics, such as whether or not teachers have a bachelor’s degree or the appropriate teacher certification to work with young children, are based on objective credentials that are relatively easy to measure. What we mean by a quality curriculum, however, is a more challenging question.

Most policymakers who don’t primarily work with young children in their day to day lives don’t intuitively have a sense of what types of content and skills are appropriate for young children to learn. Parents may have a strong sense of what they feel is important for children to learn in pre-k, but parents’ views on this subject vary substantially and are often at odds with what research tells us. Similarly, practitioners have diverse views about what is and is not appropriate pre-k curriculum--a topic that’s often the subject of heated intra-field debate.

This confusion about and discomfort with the notion of quality pre-k curriculum is apparent when we look at how states and advocacy groups define quality pre-k programs. The National Institute for Early Education Research, whose 10 benchmarks for state pre-k quality standards have become the default measure of quality for state pre-k programs, requires only that states have early learning standards that are “comprehensive”--meaning they address children’s physical well-being and motor development, social/emotional development, approaches toward learning, language development, and cognition and general knowledge--but says nothing about what the content of those standards should be. At least 43 states have state early learning standards, but there is substantial variation in the quality and content of these standards and many are not adequate to serve as a guide for quality pre-k curriculum. Some state standards are simply too vague and generalized to provide practical guidance. Many state early learning standards are designed for the entire birth to five range, rather than specifically focusing on pre-k, and thus provide limited practical guidance about what children should learn in the pre-k year. Other state pre-k standards may go too far in “pushing down” developmentally inappropriate academic content from the early elementary grades.

Several states require state funded pre-k programs to demonstrate that they have appropriate curriculum or to implement one of several published pre-k curriculum options from a state-approved list. But these lists often have not been designed based on research evidence. And the existing research evidence on the effectiveness of different published pre-k curricula is not necessarily adequate to guide policymakers’ decisions in this area (although the base of evidence is growing).

Even the idea of quality pre-k curriculum is troublesome to some early educators, who believe that establishing a defined curriculum will undermine the child-centered nature of quality pre-k programs and lead to the implementation of developmentally inappropriate practice. Yet, when we think about the goals we have for pre-k--improving children’s early learning and preparing them for success in the early elementary years--it’s clear that high-quality curricula that ensure adequate opportunities for children to develop essential knowledge and skills must be one of the hallmarks of quality pre-k programs. Indeed, defined, appropriate curriculum may be the key feature differentiating quality, educational pre-k from quality child care programs.

This is why the Albert Shanker Institute’s recently published pre-k curriculum guide is such a potentially valuable tool for policymakers, practitioners, and parents. Preschool Curriculum: What’s In It for Children and Teachers begins with a broad overview of what quality pre-k curriculum is and why it’s important for quality pre-k programs. It then proceeds to define the elements of quality pre-k curriculum in four “privileged domains” of pre-academic content in which young children are especially primed to learn: oral language, literacy, mathematics, and science. In each of these four areas, the report identifies appropriate expectations for what pre-k students should be able to accomplish, describes instructional practices known to support preschool-aged children’s learning in that domain, and outlines key features of a high-quality curriculum in that domain. In addition, each domain features a section specifically on tailoring quality curriculum in that domain to address the needs of English language learners.While there is variation across domains in the features of quality curriculum, several important features are relatively constant across domains.

  • High-quality curricula integrate learning in a specific domain with activities across other domains and opportunities for in-depth study of topics of interest to children. (For example, a topical unit focused on dinosaurs could provide opportunities for developing children’s knowledge and skills all four domains).
  • Quality curriculum also has a clearly defined scope and sequence that provide teachers with information about what specific information should be covered and in what order new topics or skills should be addressed.
  • Teachers participate in ongoing assessment that enables them to monitor children’s progress over time and tailor instruction accordingly.
  • Curriculum is presented in a developmentally appropriate way, with many opportunities for children to learn through play and practice.

This guide is a valuable tool that is based solidly in a strong body of research on what pre-k children should know and be able to do and how they learn, but it’s written in a very accessible way that makes it easy for practitioners and lay readers--including policymakers and parents--to understand. The Shanker Institute has done an important service in producing this report.

As attention at the federal level is increasingly focused on expanding funding for early education, federal level policymakers should take a close look at this report. If we are to get sustained educational results from new early education investments, it is critical that federal policymakers take steps to ensure that states and programs receiving federal funding use quality early education curriculum. Yet defining such a requirement can be difficult. This report provides useful tools to start moving towards a strong definition of quality pre-k curriculum that can be integrated into federal early education funding streams.

While the Shanker Institute's report focuses on pre-k curriculum, many of the key quality features it identifies are also applicable across the early elementary grades. Specific content and learning expectations change as children progress academically, but integrated learning, scope and sequence, ongoing assessment, and opportunities for learning through play and practice are just as important for second graders as they are for pre-kindergarteners. Moreover, strong pre-k curriculum is the crucial foundation for implementing an aligned Pre-k through 3rd grade early learning curriculum. Given the weakness of state standards in the K-3 grades, as well as of many early elementary curriculum, it would be incredibly valuable for the Shanker Institute, or some similar organization, to build on this report to create a curriculum guide for these privileged domains across the PK-3 spectrum. For now, though, we’re incredibly pleased just to have this report as a valuable resource.


Thanks, Sara--Also, the importance of Teacher Quality

Thanks for highlighting this important issue, Sara. You’re right to point out that many policymakers have never seen what a high-quality pre-k classroom looks like. It is also true that defining quality can be difficult when there are so many key benchmarks to consider.

We have wrestled with this challenge in our work as well. In addition to Mr. Shankner’s new book, another helpful resource to illustrate what high-quality pre-k looks like is a video we released last fall entitled, “What Children Learn in Pre-K.” We followed five students in their high-quality pre-k classroom for a full year to demonstrate how children benefit from interacting with their classmates and an outstanding teacher (watch it here: http://preknow.org/resource/whatchildrenlearn.cfm). We also have a parent checklist in English and Spanish.

Here at Pre-K Now, we believe that a teacher’s ability to interact with each child and skillfully scaffold their learning is the most important factor in determining the quality of a state’s early education program. In fact, we’re releasing a Teacher Quality report next month that touches on this topic.

Looking forward to working with you and the larger education community to share these – and more – resources to educate policymakers and determine the best early education practices and policies for states in the days and years ahead!

A new way to practice reading comprehension for Pre-K'rs

Thanks for sharing your insight.
I'm a mom of two. I became passionate about fine tuning computer games to motivate kids to LOVE reading and to do some surprising "What if's" by using technology twists (in this case "Living Ink") in our game.

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My team collaborated with learning scientists, reading specialists, and cognitive psychologists for three years to truly understand how children play and learn - and combine these in a REALLY FUN and HIGH QUALITY game.

Please let me know if you would be interested in trying ItzaBitza.

thank you and best.

Margaret, CEO Sabi, Inc.