Preschool Is School, Sometimes: Making Early Childhood Education Matter

By Pianta, Robert C. | Education Next, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Preschool Is School, Sometimes: Making Early Childhood Education Matter


Pianta, Robert C., Education Next


Democrat Tim Kaine, the current governor of Virginia, campaigned on a platform that included universal pre-K education. In Hartford, Connecticut, Mayor Eddie Perez established an Office for Young Children within his cabinet. At the federal level, perhaps the most prominent early-childhood initiative that has come from the Bush administration is "Early Reading First," a national effort to deliver effective reading instruction to young children. Providing early learning experiences to children has found a place on political agendas nationwide. Why? Increasingly, early childhood education is viewed as a point of leverage for addressing low levels of, and gaps in, K-12 achievement.

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What do we know about the quality of existing early-childhood programs? What does the research tell us about designing public policies to improve outcomes for children? Two recent large-scale studies of the early education system provide a contemporary perspective: the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (NICHD SECCYD) and the National Center for Early Development and Learning (NCEDL) Multi-State Pre-K study.

What We Know

1. Prior to entering kindergarten, American children spend time in a wide assortment of settings. Enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds in early education programs now approaches 70 percent of that population and is growing annually. The disparities in educational opportunity before kindergarten are dramatic and easily explain many of the achievement gaps seen later on.

2. Despite extensive participation, too few of the students who are in the greatest need of high-quality early education experiences receive them, and the few who do are unlikely to receive them consistently once they enter the K-12 system.

3. Demand for early childhood education has grown far faster than the system's capacity to staff expanding programs. Universal pre-K programs for 4-year-olds will require at least 200,000 teachers, with estimates of 50,000 additional teachers needed by 2020. If high-quality services are to be provided, many more early-childhood educators need to be attracted into the profession and trained appropriately.

4. Rapid enrollment growth is intensifying the need for evidence-based training and ongoing support of early childhood educators. The approach that appears most promising provides teachers with extensive background in child development and focused, regular, individualized feedback about their classroom interactions with children.

5. Nearly every single piece of legislation, policy, or program design requirement involving early education and child care states that such programs must be of high quality. But the measures of quality are often limited to program components; they are seldom direct assessments of children's instructional and social experiences in classrooms. Estimates of "quality" that rely on these proxies may not correspond to the experiences that produce social and academic skill development.

How Can We Best Measure Quality in the Early Education Classroom?

The evidence is quite clear that it is the teacher's implementation of a curriculum, through both social and instructional interactions with children, that produces effects on student learning. Classroom observations thus provide the most valid information on the educational experiences of young children. Structural indicators, such as the curriculum being used, teacher credentials, and other program factors, are only proxies for the instructional and social interactions children have with teachers in classrooms. Yet many states and localities measure program "quality" only in terms of proxies--the credentials of teachers, the size and spaciousness of the facilities, the amount of learning material available, and the length of the preschool day. Except for the last characteristic, these "quality indicators" do not measure what programs offer young children that is educationally important. …

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