Early Learning Standards: What Can America Learn? What Can America Teach? the Authors Share Their Experiences in Working with Representatives of Six Developing Nations in a Project to Draft Early Learning Standards

Article excerpt

PERHAPS nowhere is the international transmission of ideas and knowledge better understood or more widely practiced than in the field of early childhood education. For decades, transcontinental exchanges have made early childhood education an international hybrid.

LEARNING FROM ABROAD

America has welcomed innovations from abroad. From Germany a century ago came Friedrich Froebel's idea of the kindergarten. From the former Soviet Union came Lev Vygotsky's ideas about socially constructed knowledge and scaffolding. From Italy came the pioneering work of Maria Montessori and the widely admired practice of Reggio Emilia. Indeed, American early childhood education owes its very existence to the work of international pioneers.

This international influence may be necessary once again, as American early childhood education undergoes major intellectual shifts. Long-held theories about when, what, and how children learn are being questioned. The prominence of play, once the sine qua non of high-quality early education, is being challenged. (1) Curriculum, which once emanated directly from the child's interests, is now framed to comply with adult-developed standards. (2) And services for young children, once the purview of many small, community-based microenterprises, are increasingly becoming part of the education system. (3)

In response to these profound ideological shifts, American early childhood education has been besieged with reforms. While these reforms have targeted a variety of areas, including governance, finance, quality rating systems, professional development, and program accreditation (4)--to mention but a few-perhaps the most pervasive reform has been the introduction of learning standards to early childhood education.(5) Statements of what children should know and be able to do, these early learning standards now exist in 46 states. (6) Whether called benchmarks, frameworks, guidelines, or standards, such efforts are legion. We make a case here for enhancing the American standards movement in early care and education by learning from our international counterparts. We present cogent evidence from the Going Global Project, a sixnation initiative funded by UNICEF that provides valuable lessons for three pivotal aspects of the standards approach: content, values, and process. But first, a brief summary of the Going Global Project is in order.

For the past three years, we have been involved in this effort, working with Brazil, Ghana, Jordan, Paraguay, the Philippines, and South Africa to develop, validate, and implement early learning standards. (7) Representing several continents and a wide range of heritages and cultures, the countries also varied in their initial receptivity to early learning standards. As in the U.S., some international early care and education professionals were skeptical of the idea; they expressed grave concern about establishing a standard to which all children, coming from different backgrounds and having had variable opportunities, would be held equally accountable. Others were Only five states have comprehensive standards for physical and motor development at a time when childhood obesity ranks high on the national agenda. concerned with the nomenclature, feeling that "standards" implied a leveling that did not accommodate the diverse learning styles and approaches traditionally fostered in early childhood settings. Finally, still others were concerned that the development of early learning standards offered a "false promise" unless it was backed up by intensive professional and parental support.

Despite these concerns, through a structured and highly inclusive process, enriched by ongoing technical assistance, each country developed standards, taking the concerns of the skeptics into consideration. In all cases, the resultant standards were tailored to each country's unique values and social construction of children and childhood. Within each country, the process emphasized respecting and embracing internal cultural differences. …