New Shanker Study Shows Value of Investing in Preschool

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A new report from the AFT and the Albert Shanker Institute suggests that early, age-appropriate instruction in language, literacy, mathematics and science can have significant, long-lasting effects on preschool children's social and cognitive skills. Released on Dec. 11, "Preschool Curriculum: What's in It for Children and Teachers" synthesizes the best research on how young children learn in those academic domains and discusses the implications for improving preschool education. The report also says that aggressive, expanded instruction in these areas may yield economic benefits by reducing the learning disparities between rich and poor children that predate preschool and escalate through elementary and into middle school.

"Preschool Curriculum: What's in It for Children and Teachers" provides detailed, research-driven recommendations for what preschool-age children should be learning. While 43 states and the District of Columbia have adopted early childhood standards designed to prepare children to take on the academic requirements of the elementary grades, these standards are of varying quality, often underestimate what young children are capable of absorbing, and are not always adapted to the unique ways in which young children learn best.

"Especially in these recessionary times, we need to ensure that every dollar we invest in our children's education has the maximum impact," says Randi Weingarten, president of both the AFT and the Shanker Institute. "Early childhood education is an essential investment. But to ensure that it actually yields the intended results—meaning that we increase the likelihood that all children, especially children who grow up in poverty, come to school ready to learn—we must provide our preschool teachers with research-backed methods and materials that challenge students and build on their natural curiosity and desire to learn. That is the import of this new report by the Shanker Institute."

"The research clearly shows that young children are capable of learning much more than was previously thought," says early childhood education expert Barbara Bowman, a past president of both the Erikson Institute and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "All of us have a stake in ensuring that all children have the opportunity to succeed in school; this means giving them access to rich content and quality instruction as early as possible."

Adds Susan Neuman, former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education: "Most poor children enter preschool at a disadvantage. They have fewer books at home, know fewer vocabulary words, and have less access to the libraries, museums and stimulating educational materials that engage children in learning. A good preschool curriculum, such as the one described in this report, could help to close this knowledge and opportunity gap."

The report makes recommendations in various academic domains:

Oral Language: In order for pre-K programs to help close the academic achievement gap, oral language must be a primary focus. A study by Hart and Risley, "The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3," found that 3-year-olds who grew up in poverty possessed half the vocabulary of their middle-class peers. This vocabulary gap remained five years later at age 9. Thus, the amount of dialogue between preschool children and caregivers can be seen as a key determinant of instructional quality. Reading aloud about a broad range of topics, and active classroom discussions, should be used to help build children's vocabulary and develop their background knowledge. The accomplishments preschoolers should master include a range of listening and speaking skills that help prepare them for classroom participation in elementary school, and for conversation with both peers and adults.

Literacy: Literacy development begins at birth, and early experiences with literacy have lasting effects as children develop the attitudes, knowledge and skills that prepare them to become readers and writers. In addition to developing the rich vocabulary and broad background knowledge they will need to comprehend texts, preschool students should be taught how to hear and manipulate the sounds in oral language (phonological awareness) and to name and recognize letters of the alphabet so that, eventually, they can put it all together by matching sounds with letters. Also, children should gain an understanding of the conventions of print, such as how to turn pages and in which direction to read.

Mathematics: As with language and pre-reading skills, children who grow up in poverty tend to enter school already lagging behind their middle-class peers in developing key mathematics knowledge and skills—a gap that can foreshadow later academic struggles. Although educators once wondered whether mathematics instruction was appropriate for pre-K children, research now indicates that children are "predisposed" to learn simple mathematics as early as infancy. In pre-K, teachers can help children build on this natural predisposition through instruction, games and hands-on activities that focus on five major areas of mathematics: numbers and operations, algebra, geometry, measurement, and data analysis and collection.

Science: Young children are naturally curious about the world, and they regularly ask "why" and "how" questions that logically lead to scientific inquiry. Pre-K science can capitalize on children's natural desire to discover new information and explore new ideas, through guided activities and free exploration using science tools and materials. A strong pre-K program should help children develop science knowledge in physical science, life science and earth science. Teachers can and should lead scientific inquiries, introduce science vocabulary, and integrate science with mathematics and literacy. Science also should be hands-on with students, using magnets, magnifying glasses, rulers, timers and other instruments.

The report also discusses the role of parents. As the first and most important teachers in any preschooler's life, parents help children develop academically through a range of activities, such as modeling reading behavior, engaging in extended conversations, asking open-ended questions, finding books on a wide variety of topics to read aloud, playing rhyming games, explaining new vocabulary, and turning everyday experiences (such as shopping and baking) into opportunities for mathematical and scientific play. In this regard, "Preschool Curriculum: What's in It for Children and Teachers" is also a resource for parents of preschoolers, with ideas on toys, books, math manipulatives and science materials that can help foster learning.

December 11, 2008