New Report Tracks States’ Preschool Learning Standards

By Linda Jacobson — July 09, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 2 min read
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Corrected: This story should have cited Victoria Stebbins Frelow, a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, as one of the three authors of the study.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have crafted or are developing learning standards for preschool-age children, according to the first report to analyze this new trend in the early-childhood field.

The report comes at a time when states’ early-childhood systems are receiving increased scrutiny as part of the debate over the reauthorization of the federal Head Start program, which provides money to many preschool programs that serve poor children.

“Standards for Preschool Children’s Learning and Development: Who Has Standards, and How Were They Used?” is available from SERVE. (Requires Microsoft Word).

The development of preschool standards is still a “moving target,” however, and states vary tremendously in how their standards are being used, the researchers found.

Historically, the report released last month notes, the early-childhood field has shied away from articulating what young children should know and be able to do-in part because “development often occurs in spurts rather than unfolding evenly and uniformly across developmental areas,” the researchers write.

But over the past decade, many state agencies or organizations involved in preschool education have concluded that it is best to follow the K-12 system’s example by setting standards.

“It is ... not surprising that such attention to content standards for older children has led policymakers and others to question what is expected of children’s learning before they enter kindergarten,” according to the authors, Catherine Scott-Little, a senior program specialist at SERVE, a regional educational laboratory in Greensboro, N.C., and Sharon L. Kagan, a professor of education and early-childhood and family-policy development at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Debates about the benefits and drawbacks of preschool standards are likely to heat up as Congress focuses more attention on the reauthorization of Head Start. (“Head Start Imbroglio a Struggle For Hearts, Minds, Votes,” June 18, 2003.)

Republicans, who want to give a select group of states more authority over funding for Head Start, say some states have enough experience in the preschool area because they are operating prekindergarten programs.

But Democrats and advocates for the federal program are disputing that argument, and they are worried that states would use the money to make up for shortfalls in their state budgets.

Confusion Remains

While considerable effort has been made by states to write standards for young children, the authors of the standards study found that confusion remains over how to describe such expectations.

States have also not given a lot of attention to how the standards will be applied to children with disabilities or to children who do not yet speak English, according to the authors, who recommend that a national panel or task force be formed to address that issue.

In addition, the report points out, states have been more likely to write standards for language and literacy than for any other area, even though research has shown that social and emotional development also affects later performance in school.

The report recommends that preschool standards reflect all five dimensions of readiness identified by the now-defunct National Education Goals Panel: physical, social and emotional, approaches toward learning, language, and cognitive.

“If not, there is strong likelihood that the curriculum will be weighted toward domains that, while critically important, do not reflect the integration and richness of children’s early learning,” the report says.

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