Early Childhood Education (ECE) is the term frequently applied to the education of young children from birth through age 8. Although early childhood education has existed since the creation of kindergarten in the 1800s, the last decade has seen a tremendous amount of attention devoted to the subject of early education for young children.
The first national goal focuses directly on the early childhood years: “By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn.” We believe that from the time of birth, all children are ready to learn. However, what we do or don’t do as individuals, educators, and collectively as society can impede a child’s success in learning. For example, if we do not provide adequate health care and nutrition for our youngsters, those children entering the public schools will already be behind their healthier, properly fed peers.
The current educational practices of testing children for kindergarten entry and placement, raising the entrance age to kindergarten, adding an extra “transitional” year between kindergarten and first grade, and retaining children in preschool, kindergarten, or first grade are attempts to obtain an older, more capable cohort of children at each grade level. These educational strategies suggest that current curriculum expectations do not match the developmental level of the children for whom the grade is intended. In effect, these strategies blame the victims, the children, rather than confronting the real problem–an inappropriate curriculum.
The focus of this program, therefore, is to address curriculum and assessment issues related to the education of young children and discuss ways schools can change to become ready for children. Information that follows has been excerpted from position statements and guidelines developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE) for appropriately educating young children, ages 3 through 8.
The Need for Early Childhood Curriculum and Assessment Guidelines
The decade of the 1980s saw numerous calls for widespread school reform, with changes recommended in teacher education, graduation requirements, school structure, and accountability measures. With the advent of the 1990s, school reform finally took on the essential question: what to teach (Rothman, 1989). Critiques of prevailing curriculum content and methods, and calls for sweeping change were issued by such national organizations as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1989), the International Reading Association (1989).
The National Council of Teachers of English (Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford, 1989), the National Commission for the Social Studies (1989), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990), the National Association of State Boards of Education (1988), the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (1989), and others. The early childhood profession, represented by the NAEYC, entered the educational reform debate by issuing influential position statements defining developmentally appropriate practices for young children (Bredekamp, 1987).
These reports reflect a growing consensus that the traditional scope and sequence approach to curriculum with its emphasis on drill and practice of isolated, academic skills does not reflect current knowledge of human learning and fails to produce students who possess the kind of higher-order thinking and problem-solving abilities that will be needed in the 21st century. Past success in improving basic skills in the “3 Rs” has not been matched by success in improving reading comprehension, writing fluency, or math problem-solving ability. In addition, it is evident that our schools are failing to produce future generations with even a working knowledge of the natural, physical, and social sciences, much less the kinds of minds that will create new knowledge in these areas. Specifically, these national organizations call for schooling to place greater emphasis on:
*Active, hands-on learning
*Conceptual learning that leads to understanding along with acquisition of basic skills
*Meaningful, relevant learning experiences
*Interactive teaching and cooperative learning
*A broad range of relevant content, integrated across traditional subject matter divisions
At the same time, these national organizations unanimously criticize rote memorization, drill and practice on isolated academic skills, teacher lecture, and repetitive seatwork.
These national organizations also have raised concerns about the negative effects of traditional methods of evaluation, particularly standardized paper-and-pencil, multiple-choice achievement tests. There is increasing recognition that curriculum reform must be accompanied by testing reform. National organizations are now calling for more performance-based assessments that align with current views of curriculum and more accurately reflect children’s learning (Fair-Test, 1990; Kamii, 1990; NCTM, 1989; NAEYC, 1988; Bredekamp, 1987; National Commission on Testing and Public Policy, 1990).
While NAEYC’s previously published position statements provided clear guidance about how to teach young children, they were less specific on what to teach. In implementing developmentally appropriate practice, teachers and administrators must make decisions about what to teach and when, and how to best assess that learning has taken place.
Curriculum development should take into account the many sources of curriculum:
*Child development knowledge
*Individual characteristics of children
*Knowledge base of various disciplines
*Values of our culture
*Knowledge children need to function competently in our society (Spodek, 1988; 1977; in press)
The task of developing curriculum is made more difficult by the fact that these diverse sources of curriculum may be in conflict with one another. For example, the values and priorities of parents and the community are significant factors to be considered in determining what should be learned; however, parents and community will not necessarily agree on all goals. The expertise of early childhood professionals should also influence decisions about appropriate goals for children (Katz, 1989). To some extent, curriculum decisions should represent a negotiation process with parent and community expectations about what is taught influenced by professional expertise about how to teach and when content is appropriate.