It's Circle Time for Pre-K | Teachers College Columbia University

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It's Circle Time for Pre-K

President Obama's proposal to expand early childhood programs has sparked a debate about a strategy many believe should be a national priority.


"IT gets late awfully early around here" describes the educational development of young children as aptly as it does the baseball season. Study after study has shown that the first three years of life are a critical window for stoking young brains with vocabulary, social skills, mathematical thinking and much more -- and that the failure to capitalize tracks most children toward the wrong side of the achievement gap.

That's why many early childhood education advocates were elated in February when President Obama proposed Preschool for All, a partnership of the federal and state governments to expand high-quality preschool to include all four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.

TC has played a leading role in the evolution of pre-K since the field took hold in the United States. The nation's first publicly financed kindergarten was established in St. Louis in 1873 by future TC faculty member Susan E. Blow. She espoused the formal, structured method developed by Friedrich Frobel, founder of Germany's first kindergarten, who believed that children should be carefully nurtured like young, delicate plants. She also recommended creative but purposeful and sequenced use of materials.

American education was forever altered when another TC faculty member (and student of John Dewey), Patty Smith Hill, broke with Frobel and introduced a model of early childhood education at TC's Horace Mann School that emphasized unstructured play and extensive physical activity. Early child-care and education programs expanded during World War II, as many mothers went to work to assist in the war effort. Head Start, the federal pre-kindergarten program, was launched in 1965 and currently serves about 900,000 three-and four-year olds from poor families. Created in 1995, Early Head Start serves infants, toddlers and, in some instances, pregnant mothers. 

Today members of TC's faculty continue to advise on early childhood policy, produce research that influences policy and practice. They also implement high-quality programs, including the College's Rita Gold Early Childhood Center and Hollingworth Preschool. Here, four TC experts discuss the Obama proposal and other issues in early childhood education.

The President has often said that he wants to promote high-quality programs. How do you define high quality?

SHARON LYNN KAGAN: The President's proposal is great, because it has really put early childhood education on the map. The strength of the proposal is that it addresses kids from birth to school age by, for example, increasing the country's support for our home visiting programs. And he is really concerned about high-quality programming, early learning standards, and high-quality, well trained teachers. To me, high quality means attention to physical, social and emotional well-being; how kids approach learning, language and literacy, and cognitive knowledge and processes. It's important to specify these things. We need to be collecting data on what kids are doing and how they're doing, and we need assessment for instructional improvement. Formative assessment is usually best in the beginning years. High quality also means having great teachers and great learning environments, along with families who are involved in their children's education and development.

CELIA GENISHI: Obama's idea is great, but great ideas always have two sides. Some fear that Obama's emphasis on testing and measurement would be pushed down to the pre-K level. And my own desire would be closer to "play-centered." Play is the main medium for exploration. I would put that need for play in the context of what human beings need, and in the political context, I would contend that play should be a right for children. The other thing I would say -- and this is persuasive to some parents -- is that play is the context for learning things that will eventually become academic, like literacy and math.

Past studies have offered conflicting evidence on how long the beneficial effects of pre-K last and for whom. What does more recent research tell us about the efficacy of early childhood education?

JEANNE BROOKS-GUNN: Well, one study is mine, the Infant Heath and Development Program, in which we studied about 1,000 kids across eight sites who got the same intervention at each site in the second and third years of life. Because it wasn't just targeted at low-income kids, like Head Start, we were able to see whether there was a differential effectiveness between those who were low-income and those who were not. And we found that the program was most effective for low-income children and also, given your question, that the effects seen when children were 18 were higher achievement scores and lower incidence of juvenile delinquency. Also, further evidence of long-term effects comes from longitudinal studies comparing siblings who did and did not go to Head Start.

Does that argue for targeting the program at low-income families and not making it universally available across all income levels?

BROOKS-GUNN: There's not as much research showing positive effects for more affluent kids. Much less is known about this because most of the evaluations have been done with poor kids. Our Infant Health and Development Program study is one of the few that shows that you get the effects that you'd think you'd get; that is, bigger effects for the kids from poorer families. At the same time,
two city-wide pre-K programs in Boston and Tulsa have
reported results that suggest effectiveness of pre-K programs for children in families further up the income distribution.  Offering pre-K programs to more families is an option that some states have taken up or implemented. 

Assessment is a hot button in all areas of education. What kind of assessment makes sense for pre-K?

KAGAN: I don't oppose assessment, but it has got to be done very carefully and in all domains of development.

SUSAN RECCHIA: Some of my colleagues and I are looking at the President's proposal as a two-horned message. On the one hand, we know from years of research -- and certainly the more recent research -- that children learn at a very young age and that some of the things that happen in the first few years of life are really foundational to later learning in all areas of growth and development. So expanded pre-K seems like a no-brainer, and of course it's something that other countries have done before us and something that we should be embracing.
On the other hand, with the way that education right now privileges certain kinds of measurement and knowledge, there's also a little bit of trepidation about what it means to make pre-K available for all children in the country. Do we just push down this over-emphasis on academics to younger children, many of whom, we know, are from diverse families and are not going to be coming to that knowledge in the way that traditional assessments assume that children do? I'm concerned that the way these things get interpreted and get applied often ends up not meeting the needs of so many children. 

So if we're going to add all these children to early childhood programs, where are the teachers going to come from, and how do we make sure they are well educated and prepared?

KAGAN: There is concern about scalability, because if we ramp up programs rapidly, we will not have enough quality personnel to staff the programs. We also have to keep our eye on quality for those coming into the new programs and for those already serving young children. Many feel our current workforce lacks the capacity to meet even current needs. Now that doesn't mean that people can't be retrained -- indeed, there are many such efforts taking place throughout the nation. The government is spending a lot of money and providing technical assistance to states to gin up quality -- but it remains a concern that a program is only as good as its staff, and if you don't have a well-trained staff, you've got a problem. You need a whole infrastructure -- quality data, good standards, good assessments, well-trained people to work with kids -- all of that needs to be provisioned for if we want quality services and decent outcomes.

RECCHIA: There's been a lot of change in the field of early childhood, but not at a universal level. Higher pay doesn't necessarily mean higher quality. There also is a big question about leadership, who's overseeing early childhood programs, what are their qualifications, are they providing enough support for their staff to continue to stay fully engaged and do their job.

How should early childhood educators be evaluated?

RECCHIA: It's important for leaders to understand that teacher performance does not happen in a de-contextualized way. Yes, there have to be standards, and ideally teachers should meet these standards to work in the field. And there have to be ways of monitoring that. But to impose overly tight restrictions on teachers that end up narrowing possibilities for children's learning instead of expanding them, I see that as problematic. We should strive for the best quality teaching practice, but we should be mindful of the communities in which teaching and learning are occurring, and of the importance of the different roles that early care and education play for children
and families.

Will the added focus on child care, and the fact that more middle-class parents and guardians need it, be enough to get the President's proposal through this deficit-obsessed Congress?

BROOKS-GUNN: There's much more of an acceptance today than a decade ago that kids do start going to school at age four in America. It's much more normative. So I'm hopeful.

KAGAN: We all are taking it one step at a time. We're guardedly optimistic about the overall future of the President's
initiative, but we understand that social policy is incremental. It will be done when it's done and not before.

RECCHIA: The question is, what do we believe as a nation is going to bring our children, and our nation as a whole, into the future in the best possible way? I think it has more to do with a national will. If we want to put our emphasis on children, who are our future, then that's where we need to go, so questions about what we can and can't afford -- well, it really depends on how we want to slice the pie.      

Published Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2013