Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendations
THE RESEARCH ON EARLY CHILDHOOD learning and program effectiveness reviewed in this report provides some very powerful findings:
Young children are capable of understanding and actively building knowledge, and they are highly inclined to do so. While there are developmental constraints on children’s competence, those constraints serve as a ceiling below which there is enormous room for variation in growth, skill acquisition, and understanding.
Development is dependent on and responsive to experience, allowing children to grow far more quickly in domains in which a rich experiential base and guided exposure to complex thinking are available than in those where they receive no such support. Environment—including cultural context—exerts a large influence on both cognitive and emotional development. Genetic endowment is far more responsive to experience than was once thought. Rapid growth of the brain in the early years provides an opportunity for the environment to influence the physiology of development.
Education and care in the early years are two sides of the same coin. Research suggests that secure attachment improves
both social competence and the ability to exploit learning opportunities.
Furthermore, research on early childhood curricula and pedagogy has implications for how early childhood programs can effectively promote development:
Cognitive, social-emotional (mental health), and physical development are complementary, mutually supportive areas of growth all requiring active attention in the preschool years. Social skills and physical dexterity influence cognitive development, just as cognition plays a role in children’s social understanding and motor competence. All are therefore related to early learning and later academic achievement and are necessary domains of early childhood pedagogy.
Responsive interpersonal relationships with teachers nur ture young children’s dispositions to learn and their emerging abilities. Social competence and school achievement are influenced by the quality of early teacher-child relationships, and by teachers’ attentiveness to how the child approaches learning.
While no single curriculum or pedagogical approach can be identified as best, children who attend well-planned, high- quality early childhood programs in which curriculum aims are specified and integrated across domains tend to learn more and are better prepared to master the complex demands of formal schooling. Particular findings of relevance in this regard include the following:
Children who have a broad base of experience in domain-specific knowledge (for example, in mathematics or an area of science) move more rapidly in acquiring more complex skills
More extensive language development—such as a rich vocabulary and listening comprehension—is related to early literacy learning.
Children are better prepared for school when early childhood programs expose them to a variety of classroom structures, thought processes, and discourse patterns. This does not mean adopting the methods and curriculum of the elementary school; rather it is a matter of providing children with a mix of whole
class, small group, and individual interactions with teachers, the experience of different kinds of discourse patterns, and such mental strategies as categorizing, memorizing, reasoning, and metacognition.
While the committee does not endorse any particular cur riculum, the cognitive science literature suggests principles of learning that should be incorporated into any curriculum:
Teaching and learning will be most effective if they engage and build on children’s existing understandings.
Key concepts involved in each domain of preschool learning (e.g., representational systems in early literacy, the concept of quantity in mathematics, causation in the physical world) must go hand in hand with information and skill acquisition (e.g., identifying numbers and letters and acquiring information about the natural world).
Metacognitive skill development allows children to solve problems more effectively. Curricula that encourage children to reflect, predict, question, and hypothesize (examples: How many will there be after two numbers are added? What happens next in the story? Will it sink or float?) set them on course for effective, engaged learning.
young children who are living in circumstances that place them at greater risk of school failure—including poverty, low level of maternal education, maternal depression, and other fac tors that can limit their access to opportunities and resources that enhance learning and development—are much more likely to succeed in school if they attend well-planned, high-quality early childhood programs. Many children, especially those in low-income households, are served in child care programs of such low quality that learning and development are not enhanced and may even be jeopardized.
The importance of teacher responsiveness to children’s differences, knowledge of children’s learning processes and capabilities, and the multiple developmental goals that a quality pre-
school program must address simultaneously all point to the centrality of teacher education and preparation.
The professional development of teachers is related to the quality of early childhood programs, and program quality pre dicts developmental outcomes for children. Formal early childhood education and training has been linked consistently to positive caregiver behaviors. The strongest relationship is found between the number of years of education and training and the appropriateness of a teacher’s classroom behavior.
Programs found to be highly effective in the United States and exemplary programs abroad actively engage teachers and provide high-quality supervision. Teachers are trained and encouraged to reflect on their practice and on the responsiveness of their children to classroom activities, and to revise and plan their teaching accordingly.
Both class size and adult-child ratios are correlated with greater program effects. Low ratios of children to adults are associated with more extensive teacher-child interaction, more individualization, and less restrictive and controlling teacher behavior. Smaller group size has been associated with more child initiations, more opportunities for teachers to work on extending language, mediating children’s social interactions, and encouraging and supporting exploration and problem solving.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
What is now known about the potential of the early years, and of the promise of high-quality preschool programs to help realize that potential for all children, stands in stark contrast to practice in many—perhaps most—early childhood settings. How can we bring what we know to bear on what we do?
A committee of the National Research Council recently addressed that question with regard to K-12 education (National Research Council, 1999). While the focus of this report differs from theirs, the conceptual framework for using research knowledge to influence educational practice applies. In this model, the impact of research knowledge on classroom practice—the ultimate goal—is mediated through four arenas, as depicted in Fig-
ure 9–1. When teachers are directly engaged in using research-based programs or curricula, the effect can be direct. This is the case in some model programs. But if research knowledge is to be used systematically in early childhood education and care programs, preservice and in-service education that effectively transmits that knowledge to those who staff the programs will be required.
While we have argued that the teacher is central, effective teachers work with curricula and teaching materials. In Chapter 5 we refer to exemplary curricula that incorporate research knowledge. Changing practice requires that teachers know about, and have access to, a store of teaching materials.
Quality preschool programs can be encouraged or thwarted by public policy. Regulations and standards can incorporate research knowledge to put a floor under program quality. Public funding and the rules that shape its availability can encourage quality above that floor, and can ensure accessibility to those most in need. And finally, program administrators and teachers, as well as policy makers, are ultimately accountable to parents and to the
public. Parents’ expectations of, and support for, preschool programs, as well as their participation in activities that support early development, can contribute to program success.
The chance of effectively changing early childhood education will increase if the four arenas that influence practice are addressed simultaneously and in a mutually supportive fashion. The committee’s recommendations address each of these four arenas of influence.
At the heart of the effort to promote quality preschool, from the committee’s perspective, is a substantial investment in the education and training of preschool teachers.
Recommendation 1: Each group of children in an early childhood education and care program should be assigned a teacher who has a bachelor’s degree with specialized education related to early childhood (e.g., developmental psychology, early childhood education, early childhood special education). Achieving this goal will require a significant public investment in the professional development of current and new teachers.
Sadly, there is a great disjunction between what is optimal pedagogically for children’s learning and development and the level of preparation that currently typifies early childhood educators. Progress toward a high-quality teaching force will require substantial public and private support and incentive systems, including innovative educational programs, scholarship and loan programs, and compensation commensurate with the expectations of college graduates.
Recommendation 2: Education programs for teachers should provide them with a stronger and more specific foundational knowledge of the development of children’s social and affective behavior, thinking, and language.
Few programs currently do. This foundation should be linked to teachers’ knowledge of mathematics, science, linguistics, literature, etc., as well as to instructional practices for young children.
Recommendation 3: Teacher education programs should require mastery of information on the pedagogy of teaching preschool-aged children, including:
Knowledge of teaching and learning and child development and how to integrate them into practice.
Information about how to provide rich conceptual experiences that promote growth in specific content areas, as well as particular areas of development, such as language (vocabulary) and cognition (reasoning).
Knowledge of effective teaching strategies, including organizing the environment and routines so as to promote activities that build social-emotional relationships in the classroom.
Knowledge of subject-matter content appropriate for preschool children and knowledge of professional standards in specific content areas.
Knowledge of assessment procedures (observation/performance records, work sampling, interview methods) that can be used to inform instruction.
Knowledge of the variability among children, in terms of teaching methods and strategies that may be required, including teaching children who do not speak English, children from various economic and regional contexts, and children with identified disabilities.
Ability to work with teams of professionals.
Appreciation of the parents’ role and knowledge of methods of collaboration with parents and families.
Appreciation of the need for appropriate strategies for accountability.
Recommendation 4: A critical component of preservice preparation should be a supervised, relevant student teaching or internship experience in which new teachers receive ongoing guidance and feedback from a qualified supervisor.
There are a number of models (e.g., National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) that suggest the value of this sort of supervised student teaching experience. A principal goal of this experience should be to develop the student teacher’s ability to integrate and apply the knowledge base in practice. Col-
laborative support by the teacher preparation institution and the field placement is essential. Supervision of this experience should be shared by a master teacher and a regular or clinical university faculty member.
Recommendation 5: All early childhood education and child care programs should have access to a qualified supervisor of early childhood education.
Teachers should be provided with opportunities to reflect on practice with qualified supervisors. This supervisor should be both an expert teacher of young children and an expert teacher mentor. Such supervisors are needed to provide in-service collaborative experiences, in-service materials (including interactive videodisc materials), and professional development opportunities directed toward improvement of early childhood pedagogy.
Recommendation 6: Federal and state departments of education, human services, and other agencies interested in young children and their families should initiate programs of research and development aimed at learning more about effective preparation of early childhood teachers.
Of particular concern are strategies directed toward bringing experienced early childhood educators, such as child care providers and prekindergarten and Head Start teachers, into compliance with standards for higher education and certification. Such programs should ensure that the field takes full advantage of the knowledge and expertise of existing staff and builds on diversity and strong community bonds represented in the current early childhood care and education work force. At the same time, it should assure that the fields of study described above are mastered by those in the existing workforce. These programs should include development of materials for early childhood professional education. Material development should entail cycles of field testing and revision to assure effectiveness.
Recommendation 7: The committee recommends the development of demonstration schools for professional development.
Many people, including professional educators of older chil-
dren, do not know what an early childhood program should look like, what should be taught, or the kind of pedagogical strategies that are most effective. Demonstration schools would provide contextual understanding of these issues.
The Department of Education should collaborate with universities in developing the demonstration schools and in using them as sites for ongoing research:
on the efficacy of various models, including pairing demonstration schools in partnership with community programs, and pairing researchers and in-service teachers with exemplary community-based programs;
to identify conditions under which the gains of mentoring, placement of pre-service teachers in demonstration schools, and supervised student teaching can be sustained once teachers move into community-based programs.
Good teachers must be equipped with good curricula. The content of early childhood curricula should be organized systematically into a coherent program with overarching objectives integrated across content and developmental areas. They should include multiple activities, such as systematic exploration and representation, planning and problem solving, creative expression, oral expression, and the ability and willingness to listen to and incorporate information presented by a teacher, sociodramatic and exercise play, and arts activities.
Important curriculum areas are often omitted from early education programs, although there is research to support their inclusion (provided they are addressed in an appropriate manner). Methods of scientific investigation, number concepts, phonological awareness, cultural knowledge, languages, and computer technology all fall into this category.
Because children differ in so many respects, teaching strategies used with any curriculum, from the committee’s perspective, need to be flexibly adapted to meet the specific needs and prior knowledge and understanding of individual children. Embedded in the curriculum should be opportunities to assess children’s
prior understanding and mastery of the skills and knowledge being taught.
Teachers will also need to provide different levels of instruction in activities and use a range of techniques, including direct instruction, scaffolding, indirect instruction (taking advantage of moments of opportunity), and opportunities for children to learn on their own (self-directed learning). The committee believes it is particularly important to maintain children’s enthusiasm for learning by integrating their self-directed interests with the teacher-directed curriculum.
Recommendation 8: The committee recommends that the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and their equivalents at the state level fund efforts to develop, design, field test, and evaluate curricula that incorporate what is known about learning and thinking in the early years, with companion assessment tools and teacher guides.
Each curriculum should emphasize what is known from research about children’s thinking and learning in the area it addresses. Activities should be included that enable children with different learning styles and strengths to learn.
Each curriculum should include a companion guide for teachers that explains the teaching goals, alerts the teacher to common misconceptions, and suggests ways in which the curriculum can be used flexibly for students at different developmental levels. In the teacher’s guide, the description of methods of assessment should be linked to instructional planning so that the information acquired in the process of assessment can be used as a basis for making pedagogical decisions at the level of both the group and the individual child.
Recommendation 9: The committee recommends that the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services support the use of effective technology, including videodiscs for preschool teachers and Internet communication groups.
The process of early childhood education is one in which interaction between the adult/teacher and the child/student is the
most critical feature. Opportunities to see curriculum and pedagogy in action are likely to promote understanding of complexity and nuance not easily communicated in the written word. Internet communication groups could provide information on curricula, results of field tests, and opportunities for teachers using a common curriculum to discuss experiences, query each other, and share ideas.
States can play a significant role in promoting program quality with respect to both teacher preparation and curriculum and pedagogy.
Recommendation 10: All states should develop program standards for early childhood programs and monitor their implementation. These standards should recognize the variability in the development of young children and adapt kindergarten and primary programs, as well as preschool programs, to this diversity. This means, for instance, that kindergartens must be readied for children. In some schools, this will require smaller class sizes and professional development for teachers and administrators regarding appropriate teaching practice, so that teachers can meet the needs of individual children, rather than teaching to the “average” child. The standards should outline essential components and should include, but not be limited to, the following categories:
Class size and teacher-student ratios;
Specification of pedagogical goals, content, and methods;
Assessment for instructional improvement;
Educational requirements for early childhood educators; and
Monitoring quality/external accountability.
Recommendation 11: Because research has identified content that is appropriate and important for inclusion in early childhood programs, content standards should be developed
and evaluated regularly to ascertain whether they adhere to current scientific understanding of children’s learning.
The content standards should ensure that children have access to rich and varied opportunities to learn in areas that are now omitted from many curricula—such as phonological awareness, number concepts, methods of scientific investigation, cultural knowledge, and language.
Recommendation 12: A single career ladder for early childhood teachers, with differentiated pay levels, should be specified by each state.
This career ladder should include, at a minimum, teaching assistants (with child development associate certification), teachers (with bachelor’s degrees), and supervisors.
Recommendation 13: The committee recommends that the federal government fund well-planned, high-quality center-based preschool programs for all children at high risk of school failure.
Such programs can prevent school failure and significantly enhance learning and development in ways that benefit the entire society.
Policies that support the provision of quality preschool on a broad scale are unlikely without widespread public support. To engender that support, it is important for the public to understand both the potential of the preschool years, and the quality of programming required to realize that potential.
Recommendation 14: Organizations and government bodies concerned with the education of young children should actively promote public understanding of early childhood education and care.
Beliefs that are at odds with scientific understanding—that maturation automatically accounts for learning, for example, or that children can learn concrete skills only through drill and practice—must be challenged. Systematic and widespread public
education should be undertaken to increase public awareness of the importance of providing stimulating educational experiences in the lives of all young children. The message that the quality of children’s relationships with adult teachers and child care providers is critical in preparation for elementary school should be featured prominently in communication efforts. Parents and other caregivers, as well as the public, should be the targets of such efforts.
Recommendation 15: Early childhood programs and centers should build alliances with parents to cultivate complementary and mutually reinforcing environments for young children at home and at the center.
FUTURE RESEARCH NEEDS
Research on early learning, child development, and education can and has influenced the development of early childhood curriculum and pedagogy. But the influences are mutual. By evaluating outcomes of early childhood programs we have come to understand more about children’s development and capacities. The committee believes that continued research efforts along both these lines can expand understanding of early childhood education and care, and the ability to influence them for the better.
Research on Early Childhood Learning and Development
Although it is apparent that early experiences affect later ones, there are a number of important developmental questions to be studied regarding how, when, and which early experiences support development and learning.
Recommendation 16: The committee recommends a broad empirical research program to better understand:
The range of inputs that can contribute to supporting environments that nurture young children’s eagerness to learn;
Development of children’s capacities in the variety of cog-
nitive and socioemotional areas of importance in the preschool years, and the contexts that enhance that development;
The components of adult-child relationships that enhance the child’s development during the preschool years, and experiences affecting that development for good or for ill;
Variation in brain development, and its implications for sensory processing, attention, and regulation;
The implications of developmental disabilities for learning and development and effective approaches for working with children who have disabilities;
With regard to children whose home language is not English, the age and level of native language mastery that is desirable before a second language is introduced and the trajectory of second language development.
Research on Programs and Curricula
Recommendation 17: The next generation of research must examine more rigorously the characteristics of programs that produce beneficial outcomes for all children. In addition, research is needed on how programs can provide more helpful structures, curricula, and methods for children at high risk of educational difficulties, including children from low-income homes and communities, children whose home language is not English, and children with developmental and learning disabilities.
Much of the program research has focused on economically disadvantaged children because they were the targets of early childhood intervention efforts. But as child care becomes more widespread, it becomes more important to understand the components of early childhood education that have developmental benefits for all children.
With respect to disadvantaged children, we know that quality intervention programs are effective, but better understanding the features that make them effective will facilitate replication on a large scale. The Abecedarian program, for example, shows many developmental gains for the children who participate. But in addition to the educational activities, there is a health and nutrition component. And child care workers are paid at a level
comparable to local public school teachers, with a consequent low turnover rate in staff. Whether the program effect is caused by the education component, the health component, or stability of caregiver, or some necessary combination of the three, is not possible to assess. Research on programs for this population should pay careful attention to home-school partnerships and their effect, since this is an aspect of the programs that research suggests is important.
Research on programs for any population of children should examine such program variations as age groupings, adult-child ratios, curricula, class size, looping, and program duration. These questions can best be answered through random assignment, longitudinal studies. Such studies raise concerns because some children receive better services than others, and because they are expensive. However, random assignment between programs that have very similar quality features, but vary on a single dimension (a math curriculum, for example, or class size) would seem less controversial. The cost of conducting such research must, of course, be weighed against the benefits. Given the dramatic expansion in the hours that children spend in out-of-home care in the preschool years, new knowledge can have a very high payoff.
Research is also needed on the interplay between an individual child’s characteristics, the immediate contexts of the home and classroom, and the larger contexts of the formal school environment in developing and assessing curricula. An important line of research is emerging in this area and needs continued support.
Recommendation 18: A broad program of research and development should be undertaken to advance the state of the art of assessment in three areas: (1) classroom-based assessment to support learning (including studies of the impact of methods of instructional assessment on pedagogical technique and children’s learning), (2) assessment for diagnostic purposes, and (3) assessment of program quality for accountability and other reasons of public policy.
All assessments, and particularly assessments for accountability, must be used carefully and appropriately if they are to resolve, and not create, educational problems. Assessment of young
children poses greater challenges than people generally realize. The first five years of life are a time of incredible growth and learning, but the course of development is uneven and sporadic. The status of a child’s development as of any given day can change very rapidly. Consequently assessment results—in particular, standardized test scores that reflect a given point in time— can easily misrepresent children’s learning.
Assessment itself is in a state of flux. There is widespread dissatisfaction with traditional norm-referenced standardized tests, which are based on early 20th century psychological theory. There are a number of promising new approaches to assessment, among them variations on the clinical interview and performance assessment, but the field must be described as emergent. Much more research and development are needed for a productive fusion of assessment and instruction to occur and if the potential benefits of assessment for accountability are to be fully realized.
Research on Ways to Create Universal High Quality
The growing consensus regarding the importance of early education stands in stark contrast to the disparate system of care and education available to children in the United States in the preschool years. America’s programs for preschoolers vary widely in quality, content, organization, sponsorship, source of funding, relationship to the public schools, and government regulation.
As the nation moves toward voluntary universal early childhood programs, parents, and public officials face important policy choices, choices that should be informed by careful research.
Recommendation 19: Research to fully develop and evaluate alternatives for organizing, regulating, supporting, and financing early childhood programs should be conducted to provide an empirical base for the decisions being made.
Compare the effects of program variations on short-term and long-term outcomes, including studies of inclusion of children with disabilities and auspices of program regulation.
Examine preschool administration at local, county, and state levels to assess the relative quality of the administrative and support systems now in place.
Consider quality, infrastructure, and cost-effectiveness.
Review the evidence that should inform state standards and licensing, including limits on group size and square footage requirements.
Develop instruments and strategies to monitor the achievement of young children that meet state and national accountability requirements, respect young children’s unique learning and developmental needs, and do not interfere with teachers’ instructional decision making.
At a time when the importance of education to individual fulfillment and economic success has focused attention on the need to better prepare children for academic achievement, the research literature suggests ways to make gains toward that end. Parents are relying on child care and preschool programs in ever larger numbers. We know that the quality of the programs in which they leave their children matters. If there is a single critical component to quality, it rests in the relationship between the child and the teacher/caregiver, and in the ability of the adult to be responsive to the child. But responsiveness extends in many directions: to the child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical characteristics and development.
Much research still needs to be done. But from the committee’s perspective, the case for a substantial investment in a high-quality system of child care and preschool on the basis of what is already known is persuasive. Moreover, the considerable lead by other developed countries in the provision of quality preschool programs suggests that it can, indeed, be done on a large scale.