Why does it matter what works in Pre-K curriculum?
First off, you know a report is a big deal if it has a two-and a half page glossary AT THE FRONT of the study. Secondly, you know a study is important when it makes it into the "mainstream" education media and blogs. I nearly missed this one because the "producers" (the National Center of Education Research) didn't put much money into the advertising. Thanks to Sara Mead at Early Ed Watch, a New America blog, we get to hear about this huge report on Pre-K Curriculum. Sara did a great job summarizing a 400 plus page study of 14 pre-k curriculum. She pointed out that the study, (don't hold your breath while you read this out loud, you might turn purple) Effects of Preschool Curriculum Programs on School Readiness: Report from the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Initiative told us some new things but was definitely not definitive. She questioned the lack of attention to the cost of the curricula studied and the reliability of comparisons to a control group that uses multiple types of curricula. She also mentioned that the 4 approaches that were found to show positive effects as compared to the curricula in the control group were not necessarily more effective than the other curricula studied.
Sarah's teased out this nugget though,
"that curriculum does matter and some curricula can produce better learning outcomes for children than others."
Here is a list of the curricula studied. I really want to hear from educators who have used these curricula as to their effectiveness with their students.
I am not familiar with any of these curricula enough to make any judgments. I have seen Creative Curriculum used effectively by effective teachers and ineffectively by ineffective teachers. I looked at MaGraw-Hill when I was on the curriculum committee for our school district to choose a new reading program. When I was on the committee I kept asking, "Why don't we just train the teachers on how to teach kids to read and then let them use student's interests and experiences to teach?" My education specialist said, "That would be great but we need something a teacher can use without any of that training. Turn-over is too high and many of our new teachers are fresh out of college." I guess I just had to agree, I mean I didn't deal with hiring issues, I didn't have that perspective. But, it kept nagging at me that maybe turn-over wouldn't be that high if teachers were able to have more control over their classroom. What this study is looking for, by taking out all of the situational reality of student background, teacher experience and training, teacher pay, etc. etc. is ultimately a "Teacher Proof" curriculum.
Here are the curricula that the study found to be effective.
- DLM Early Childhood Express Supplemented with Open Court Reading Pre-K had positive effects on reading, phonological awareness, and language at both the end of pre-k and the end of kindergarten.
- Pre-K Mathematics supplemented with DLM Early Childhood Express Math software had positive effects on math at the end of pre-k.
- Curiosity Corner, developed by the Success for All Foundation, had positive effects on reading at the end of kindergarten (but not pre-k).
- Early Literacy Learning Model had positive effects on language at the end of kindergarten (but not pre-k).
Sarah brings up the idea of cost. How much does each curriculum cost and what is the cost/benefit ratio? Can we (meaning policymakers not teachers) be sure we are getting our money's worth with these curricula?
When it comes to pre-k, funding is always an issue. Whenever a good idea comes along, like hiring teachers who are capable of planning and implementing effective instruction regardless of the curriculum, policy makers want to know, how much is it going to cost? When deciding on certification requirements for a teacher who is capable of planning developmentally appropriate curriculum I would imagine decision makers would want to hire teachers with bachelor's degrees and some specialized training in early childhood development. Policymakers may think that they can keep the cost of a high quality pre-k down by only requiring teachers to have a high school diploma but spending more on "effective curriculum". This is where, as Sarah has written before, it is important to consider the impact on child outcomes of marginal investments in areas like hiring teachers with specialized degrees. Pre-K Now has worked with the Institute for Women's Policy Research to conduct the study, Meaningful Investments in Pre-K: Estimating the Per-Child Costs of Quality Programs that helps policymakers answer some of these questions.
Sarah mentioned that the NCES doesn't do a very good job of publicizing its studies housed on the What Works Clearinghouse. I have written about the idea of the "What Works Clearinghouse" (WWC) before and the idea of scientifically based curriculum. Personally I feel that when you broaden the scope of a study to include money then you have to address the either/or type questions that crop up like, why pay for expensive curriculum if teachers might not implement it with what researchers like to call "fidelity"? When you talk about money you have to talk about what is better for kids, informed professional practice or fidelity to proven programs.
I have a very teacher oriented view of curriculum. Any curriculum is only as effective as the teacher. Even the best curriculum can't overcome bad teaching. It is great that we are looking at curriculum and trying to find "what works" but I can't help but ask, "How will this study help kids?" What would a kid benefit more from if we are talking dollars and sense? Is it better to have a highly effective curriculum or a highly effective teacher? Does it matter what works in pre-k curriculum if we aren't willing to invest in the other quality indicators that will create high quality pre-k programs like low teacher-child ratio and effective professional development?
What do you think?