Building a Better Preschool

By Celeste, Eric | The Learning Professional, August 2017 | Go to article overview

Building a Better Preschool


Celeste, Eric, The Learning Professional


This quote from a report aimed at early education teachers seems ripped from today's headlines. "Early childhood education ... is as dynamic and rapidly changing as any other field in human studies. It is increasingly difficult to stay abreast of new information because technological and ideological change is happening so rapidly. Recent attention has been given to early childhood education as a result of new investigations into the importance of preschool experiences, child welfare, and educational structures to support growth and learning."

It could have been written yesterday - but it wasn't. It's taken from a 2001 resource manual from U.S. Department of State titled Early Childhood Assessment and Teacher Training (Cobb, 2001). This shows that we've been talking about the unique aspects of professional learning for early education teachers for a long time, but many of the challenges are still largely the same.

First, even the highest-quality professional learning for 2nd grade through 12 th grade educators can differ in fundamental ways from high-quality professional learning for early education - especially if we expand the old pre-K through 2nd grade definition of early education to include ages 0 to 3 development.

And we should consider early education that broadly. That's why almost all early education experts now classify early education years as encompassing the ages of 0 to 8. This has only increased the need to differentiate professional learning between early education and traditional secondary schools.

"Traditional professional learning is grounded in the reality of working with children with more developed self-regulation skills, like the ability to sit in a seat and pay attention, as well as more developed brains," says Sadie Funk, executive director of First 3 Years, a Texas nonprofit that, over the past 35 years, has trained and mentored thousands of professionals in socialemotional care of infants and toddlers.

"Knowing that 80% of core brain development happens by age 3, and 90% by age 5, it's really important that early childhood education and ongoing professional learning focus on how the brain develops," Funk says. "And knowing this, we must help teachers to support very young children - 0 to 5 years old - in developing a strong base for cognitive and literacy skills as well as emotional control. All of these things are necessary for children to do well in school."

There's a lot to unpack there, but doing so gives us an important window into two crucial challenges of professional learning for early education: teacher preparation and ongoing professional learning (especially keeping up with brain science and social-emotional research).

In fact, the premier early education advocacy organization in the country, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), says in its current policy paper that, for high-quality early education to exist outside of tiny islands across the country, we must address these two problems and one more: disparity in early education teacher pay. To achieve widespread highquality early education opportunities for all students, NAEYC says, "Early childhood professionals must have excellent preparation, ongoing professional development, and compensation commensurate with their qualifications and experience" (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2015).

What do we mean by highquality early education? A simple but compelling case is made by Robert Lynch and Kavya Vaghul at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth in their report The Benefits and Costs of Investing in Early Childhood Education (Lynch & Vaghul, 2015). They, too, put professional learning and resources devoted to it as integral to a high-quality early education system. Lynch and Vaghul define a high-quality pre-K program as having the following qualities:

* The program boasts low childto-teacher ratios (10 to 1 or better), small class sizes (20 or fewer), and highly paid, wellqualified teachers and staff. …

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