School & District Management

Reporter’s Notebook

November 19, 2003 4 min read
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State-Financed Pre-K Shows Positive Effect, New Research Says

Children in state-financed prekindergarten programs make learning gains through the year and continue to show academic growth in kindergarten, concludes research presented here this month at the annual convention of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Researchers from three universities have been studying the structure and child outcomes of public pre-K programs in six states: Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and parts of California and New York.

By looking at test-score results by family-income level, they’ve found that nonpoor children in state-financed pre-K programs perform at roughly the national average, while poor children start out scoring below those averages but then bring their scores close to those of children from higher-income families.

“The fact that we do see progress tells me that [such programs] are partially meeting their goal,” said Richard Clifford, a research associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Researchers from the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and the University of California Los Angeles, are also involved in the ongoing study.

However, the researchers are not yet able to explain why many of the programs are scoring only in the “mediocre” range on a widely used measure of classroom quality, the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, Revised Edition.

When the classroom-quality scores were examined more closely, they showed that pre-K teachers were keeping children engaged, had positive views toward children, and gave them a good deal of choice in activities. Classrooms were also well-equipped with furniture and materials.

But teachers in the programs being studied are getting the lowest scores on attending to routine tasks, such as making sure children wash their hands after they go to the restroom and before they eat. Children are also spending too much time lining up and making transitions from one activity to another, the research shows.

“We wish we were seeing more social interaction during those times,” said Sharon Ritchie, an education researcher at UCLA, who also spoke during a session here.

The researchers suggested that a lack of well-trained teachers does not appear to be the problem. A significant proportion—almost 70 percent—of the pre-K teachers in the study have bachelor’s degrees or higher, making them a more highly educated group than most who work in early-childhood education.

The growth of state pre-K programs is one reason the Washington-based NAEYC decided to revise its position statement about curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation.

As last updated in 1991, the statement did not address such current issues as the demand for accountability and the growing diversity of families, NAEYC officials said at the Chicago gathering.

The new statement, which was adopted just before the Nov. 5-8 conference, was jointly approved by the NAEYC and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education.

The new position statement, “Early Childhood Curriculum, Assessment, and Program Evaluation: Building an Effective, Accountable System in Programs for Children Birth Through Age 8,” is scheduled to be available online from National Association for the Education of Young Children.

According to the updated statement, curriculum for young children should keep them active and engaged. In addition, it says, assessment results should be used to improve learning, and early-childhood-education programs should be evaluated using multiple measures.

Leaders of the two organizations said they hope the policy will guide both early-childhood educators and state policymakers as they work to improve programs serving children from birth through age 8, and try to meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“We are tremendously excited about this position statement and about the significance it will have in our field,” said Marilou Hyson, the NAEYC’s associate executive director for professional development.

What’s more, the previous vision statement addressed only programs serving children ages 3 to 8. The new one covers the time from birth to age 3 as well.

Because of that, the organizations prepared detailed descriptions of recommended instructional and assessment practices for educators working with infants and toddlers, as well as educators of preschoolers and children in the primary grades.

The new statement also says considerably more about the use of assessment than the previous one.

“We want to send a clear message that good early-childhood programs make assessment a central part of their work,” Ms. Hyson said.

The two professional groups also maintain that random sampling of children—instead of testing each child—is preferred when educators are conducting large-scale tests.

—Linda Jacobson

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