Standards Ignore Youngest Pupils' Needs, Researchers Say
Some education researchers say state academic standards too often ignore the needs of preschool- and elementary-age children because the standards are crafted by middle and high school educators.
That problem was emphasized at this year's conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Held here Nov. 8-11, the conference attracted close to 30,000 people who work in early-childhood education.
During a conference session on content standards for kindergarten and the primary grades, Diane E. Paynter, a senior associate at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning in Aurora, Colo., elaborated on why state standards don't work well for early-childhood educators.
She said McREL's research shows that K-2 standards written by states often list the skills or knowledge that children should master by the end of 2nd grade. But they don't specify the "underlying knowledge" that educators should teach to help children get to that point, Ms. Paynter said.
Also, Ms. Paynter said, standards frequently emphasize activities that children should be able to perform, but they don't spell out the knowledge that youngsters need to accompany those skills.
Worries About Testing
To help primary-level teachers develop better ways for teaching reading, McREL, a regional education laboratory funded by the U.S. Department of Education, has produced a standards document that emphasizes the small steps that children need to learn to become good readers.
The document, "A Framework for Early Literacy Instruction," explains that its purpose is to "provide more detailed guidance around early literacy instruction than afforded by currently available national and state standards documents."
Still, teachers who work in early-childhood education are often resistant to standards and assessments. They believe standardized testing, in particular, is an inaccurate and developmentally inappropriate way of measuring the progress of young children.
Many researchers say those concerns are valid.
"Pre-K and kindergarten kids are the least prepared for assessment," Richard M. Clifford, a co-director of the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said at this conference session.
Even so, in another session at the NAEYC conference, Marilyn Jager Adams, who served on the committee that wrote the National Academy of Sciences' report "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children," stressed that assessment is a vital tool for teaching children to read.
"How else do you find out if they are understanding what they are supposed to?" said Ms. Adams, who is a senior scientist at BBN Technologies, an Internet company in Cambridge, Mass. "If a child can't read by the time they are in 4th grade, school is awful for them."
In addition to discussions about standards, there was much talk at this year's conference about how states have been increasing expenditures for prekindergarten programs. And many states are turning to school districts to provide those programs, said researchers in one of several sessions about the pre-K movement.
The 1995 National Household Education Survey, conducted by the Education Department, showed that roughly 900,000 pre-K children were being served in a public elementary, junior high, or high school.
The University of North Carolina's National Center for Early Development and Learning is following the trend.
"What are the implications of schools serving younger children?" Mr. Clifford of UNC asked during a session here. With Education Department funds, the center is seeking to address that question.
In five or six states, the center will choose 40 pre-K classrooms that are linked to public schools. Researchers will visit the classes twice during the 2001-02 school year, and four children from each class will be randomly selected for assessments of literacy, language, and mathematics skills. Those children will be followed into their kindergarten year.
The study will also collect information on high-quality practices and parents' views about the programs and their children's development.
United States vs. the World
While early-childhood education has become a higher-profile policy area in recent years, this year's conference highlighted that the United States has taken an approach that differs from that of many other countries.
How the United States compares internationally was the topic of two NAEYC sessions focusing on a recently completed study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that examines social policy and gathers related data in 29 industrialized countries.
The study compared early child- care and education policies and practices in the United States with those of 11 other countries. It was designed to gather cross-national information that could be used to improve policies affecting young children in all participating countries.
"You understand your own culture best when you see it through the eyes of another culture," said Sharon L. Kagan, a former NAEYC president and a child- development researcher at Yale University.
The delegation that reviewed U.S. programs wrote in a report that they were impressed by the variety of choices American parents have, such as center-based programs and family child-care centers in private homes.
And they noted that public-private partnerships, such as Smart Start in North Carolina, have made considerable improvements in the quality of child care and early-childhood-education services.
But the authors expressed concern that those who work with young children in the United States don't have adequate preparation or professional development. They recommended, for example, that this country take a more universal approach to early-childhood education by working with the public school system.
They also argued that paid parental leave is a "much-needed policy commitment to family support."
Because the public and policymakers have been bombarded with reports recently about early-childhood education, the University of North Carolina's Mr. Clifford said he was worried the international analysis wouldn't receive as much attention in the United States as it deserves.
"We're too arrogant about this," he maintained. "We think we're the best in the world and we don't have much to learn from other countries."
Children and Violence
Another pressing issue at this year's conference was societal violence and its implications for early-childhood education.
Researchers have studied young children who have been victims of violence, but little is known about how children who witness violence are affected by what they see, said Jamilah R. Jor'dan, who has worked with young urban children in Chicago.
"When the environment is not safe, children feel helpless and ineffective," said Ms. Jor'dan, who also serves as the executive director of the Chicago Accreditation Partnership, which helps child-care programs serving poor children earn NAEYC accreditation. "Preschool children are especially vulnerable to violence."
Children who are exposed to violence become aggressive, show "uncaring behavior," and act out violent scenes, Ms. Jor'dan said.
In the same session, Suzanne M. Randolph, an associate professor of family studies at the University of Maryland College Park, talked about her research in high-risk neighborhoods.
She found, for example, that in high- crime areas, mothers were so worried about their own survival that they didn't spend much time talking, reading, and telling stories to their children.
Professionals in the early-childhood field, she said, should intervene by holding family workshops that focus on ways to increase communication between parents and children.
Mothers were also isolated in the communities studied, Ms. Randolph added. "They don't come out of their houses. They don't go to school functions."
Vol. 20, Issue 12, Page 12