Three recent reports of the National Academies address different aspects of education for very young children from a variety of perspectives. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000) provides a detailed look at the many factors that influence development in very young children. Eager To Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers (National Research Council, 2001b) describes the current status of the programs in which young children are educated, setting that description in the context of recent contributions from the field of cognitive science. Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics (National Research Council, 2001a) closely examines mathematics learning and describes each of its facets; although this report does not focus on the learning of very young children, its conclusions and recommendations have important implications for preschool education.
Each of these reports contributes to an evolving base of evidence that the early learning programs to which children are exposed are extremely important. Because of this research, expectations for early learning are very different than they were even as recently as a decade ago. With increased recognition of the intellectual capacities of young children (3- and 4-year-olds), as well as a growing understanding of how these capacities develop and can be fostered, has come a growing recognition that early childhood education, in both formal and informal settings, may not be helping all children maximize their cognitive capacities.
The National Research Council (NRC), through the Center for Education (CFE), wishes to build on the work in early childhood it has already done. In particular, the NRC wishes to focus on research on young children and their learning of mathematical and scientific ideas. The workshop that is the subject of this report, one in a series of workshops made possible through a grant to the CFE from the National Science Foundation, is the starting point for that effort. The center’s mission is to promote evidence-based policy analysis that both responds to current needs and anticipates future ones. This one-day workshop was designed as an initial step in exploring the research in cognition and developmental psychology that sheds light on children’s capacity to learn mathematical and scientific ideas. The workshop brought experts together to discuss research on the ways children’s cognitive capacities can serve as building blocks in the development of mathematical and scientific understanding. The workshop also focused on curricular and resource materials for mathematics and science found in early childhood education settings as a means to examine particular research-based assumptions that influence classroom practice.
The workshop was a collaborative effort in which the Mathematical Sciences Education Board and the Board on Science Education, both of which operate under the umbrella of CFE, ensured that the perspectives of both subjects were well represented. The committee that planned the workshop began with a charge that included these questions:
What is the state of research into the basic cognitive building blocks in mathematics and science? What does this research base suggest about the development of conceptual underpinnings in these subject areas?
Is there a body of research that addresses both conceptual development in these subject areas and environmental influences?
How are these concepts now addressed across early childhood education settings in the United States?
In what ways can the research about conceptual building blocks in early mathematics and science development be used to help minimize later achievement differences in these subject areas across racial and socioeconomic groups?
Researchers specializing in both mathematics and science were invited to provide an overview of the current state of the scholarship that addresses these questions. Experts in the development of science and mathematics curricula for very young children were invited to offer their perspectives and describe several working programs that promote science or mathematics learning. The committee that planned the workshop did not evaluate the effectiveness of these programs, but merely identified a variety of programs that it believed would provide the basis for a stimulating discussion of the topics it was charged to explore. This summary report of the discussions and presentations at the workshop is designed
to frame the issues relevant to advancing research useful to the development of research-based curricula for mathematics and science for young children. All the invited experts were asked to provide their perspectives on a set of specific questions about research and practice (which are detailed in the next two sections).
A one-day workshop on such a complicated topic can provide only a starting point to guide policy makers, researchers, and education professionals. The sole purpose of this report is to describe the discussions that took place at that workshop. However, issues for further investigation are explored in two afterwords.
EARLY CHILDHOOD CARE AND EDUCATION
The nature of what is required to make sure that children begin kindergarten truly ready for school—and the importance of doing so—have become more widely understood in recent years. These developments have come during a period in which growing numbers of families have sought care of some sort for their young children. The percentage of women in the labor force grew from 33 percent in 1950 to 60 percent in 2000. In 2000, the percentage of mothers who work outside the home was at 73 percent, and it was 61 percent for mothers of children under 3 years of age (Committee for Economic Development, 2002, p. 7).
Thus, very young children need care as well as education, and the care available to families takes many forms. In 2001, 56.4 percent of children under the age of 5 were regularly attending a center-based early childhood care and education program (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2004).1 The learning that takes place in these centers varies widely. Although measuring the quality of early childhood education is complicated, a number of indicators suggest that many children, especially those living in poverty and with other risk factors, are “served in child care programs of such low quality that learning and development are not enhanced and may even be jeopardized” (National Research Council, 2001b, p. 8).
Even in centers that are making conscientious efforts to provide a rich learning environment, the nature of what they are providing seems to vary considerably. Each state regulates early childhood centers in its own way, while the federal regulatory structure focuses on health and safety; the regulations of many states have relatively little to say about the pedagogical content of programs (National Research Council, 2001b). As a consequence, many young children in
Another way of considering how many children are in some kind of child care is through data collected by the Children’s Foundation: it reports that in 2004 there were 117,284 licensed child care centers and 300,032 regulated family child care homes. The foundation estimates that many more home day care centers exist than are included in the data because they are not licensed. (see www.childrensfoundation.net [accessed 5/29/04]).
the United States may not be benefiting from the substantial body of knowledge that has accumulated about how they learn.
Few people would claim that research on young children’s learning could by itself address all of the problems in the United States’ approach to educating its youngest children. Nevertheless, research findings that have accumulated in recent decades provide a critical underpinning for improvements in policy and practice. Cognitive development in science and mathematics has received particular attention from scholars in recent years. The cognitive skills in mathematics and science displayed by young children are not only the roots of later literacy in those areas, they are also building blocks in the development of the capacity to comprehend complex relationships and reason about those relationships. Indeed, research has highlighted the importance of the link between early learning experiences and subsequent achievement (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000). Yet elementary school teachers observe a wide range in the children who come to them, in terms of their readiness for school in these critical areas. The deficits are most apparent in children with socioeconomic risk factors (National Research Council, 2001b).
A full discussion of the many factors that have stood in the way of the goal of providing all children with access to high-quality early education was beyond the scope of the workshop, which focused on the understanding of young children’s capacities in mathematical and science thinking and on ways to better support learning in those two areas. Recent research has explored some facets of young children’s growth in cognitive capacities that support later learning in mathematics and science, and the workshop began with an examination of some of the key results of that work.