Special Report

States Try to Specify What Young Children Should Learn

By Scott Spicer — January 10, 2002 3 min read
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What should children be expected to know and to learn before they arrive at school? Despite an increasing body of research suggesting that children’s early experiences are important to their ability to succeed in school, the debate persists about just what adults should expect from very young children and when.

For some, the idea of setting standards for preschool is a sign that educators and caretakers are taking seriously the importance of the early years for developing preliteracy, science, and mathematics skills, as well as ensuring healthy social and emotional development.

For others, though, the very term “preschool standards” conjures up thoughts of 3- and 4-year-olds under academic pressure, sitting through lessons and taking tests instead of enjoying, and learning from, unstructured play.

Today, of the 39 states plus the District of Columbia that finance preschool programs, 16 have standards for preschool in place. And six of those states--California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, and Washington--require that preschool programs adhere to those standards.

But no state with preschool standards currently uses them to hold preschool children responsible or accountable for their performance, as is sometimes the case with K-12 standards. Rather, the standards are meant to help teachers diagnose weaknesses in pupils’ knowledge and abilities so they can address them at an early stage--before the children enter kindergarten or 1st grade.

Varied Content, Specificity

Across the states, preschool standards take many forms and vary greatly in their level of detail. In some cases, state preschool standards layout the expectations for the programs and what opportunities they must offer children. Other states have set standards that describe what preschool children should be able to do.

Washington state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, for example, centers its expectations on what preschools should teach, mandating that the curriculum include opportunities for children to engage in “active learning for decisionmaking and problem-solving.”

In contrast, the standards of the Maryland Model for School Readiness focus more on what children should know, and provide indicators for how to assess whether they are meeting the expectations. One of Maryland’s 20 early-childhood standards, for example, states that “the child applies mathematical concepts in formal and informal learning situations.” The expectation is followed by examples of children’s activities that would constitute meeting that standard.

Preschool standards vary not only on where expectations lie, but also in the content of those expectations. Some standards zero in on the basic knowledge children need to acquire; others begin to address more complex cognitive skills. And some states’ standards focus more than others’ on social development and the fostering of positive attitudes toward learning.

Georgia’s preschool standards in “scientific development,” for instance, emphasize some of the basic facts and concepts preschoolers should learn about their surrounding world: “Children will investigate and describe the states of matter (solids and liquids); children will recognize characteristics of different seasons; children will participate in activities to explore the Earth (rocks, soil, air) and sky (clouds, sun, moon, stars).”

In contrast, Connecticut’s standards underscore the thought processes and cognitive skills children should develop as they gain concrete knowledge. Connecticut’s standards for mathematical/scientific thinking require that preschool children “ask questions about and comment on observations and experimentation; use language that shows understanding of scientific principles to explain why things happen; engage in a scientific experiment with a peer or with a small group.”

Social and emotional skills are important features of preschool standards in Connecticut and Maryland. Connecticut’s emphasize conflict-resolution skills in young children. Maryland’s include expectations for how children will develop and function both as individuals and as part of a group. Preschoolers in Maryland, for instance, are expected to “attempt new experiences independently” and to “persevere in activities independently.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week

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