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August 18, 2008

Picking a Pre-K Curriculum

John's response to Sara Mead's Early Ed Watch blog got me thinking -- how should districts choose a curriculum?  What are the pros and cons, both fiscally and educationally, to using different curriculum models? 

In Washington, DC, all three-year-old pre-k classes are expected to use The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. I use this curriculum in my classroom and love it -- it provides guidance about the physical environment, interactions with families, interactions with students, assessment, thematic unit planning, and more, and I am able to take that guidance and apply it to my classroom in ways that work for me and my students.  This is the only curriculum that I've ever used, so I'm not in a position to compare it to anything else, but my experience has been extremely positive. 

While the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) study does not find that Creative Curriculum has positive impacts on child outcomes overall, it does find positive effects on overall classroom environment, teacher-child relationships, and classroom literacy instruction for one subset of classrooms.  While these results are not reflected in the final analysis, I think that they are too important to be overlooked.  Pre-k students, of course, should be learning foundational academic skills -- these skills are the bulk of what was factored into the child outcomes measure of the study.  However, pre-k students should also be in an environment that promotes exploration and independence, builds trust, and is rich with opportunities to learn through books.  These practices, while hard to measure in tangible child outcomes, help children develop approaches to learning which are invaluable in their future educational and personal careers.  As a new teacher implementing Creative Curriculum, these were the areas where I felt the curriculum was most helpful.  It taught me how to foster those less tangible, but arguably more valuable, approaches to learning that were so critical for my students' success. 

Sara mentioned the issue of cost-effectiveness of different curriculum models.  In the IES study, Creative Curriculum teachers all received extensive training on the curriculum prior to beginning the school year (2.5 days for teachers new to the curriculum), had access to "ongoing curriculum implementation support" during the year, and received four on-site consultations during the year.  This approach was costly, but it sounds extremely comprehensive.  My training on Creative Curriculum looked quite different -- I was told the week before school started that I would be using the curriculum, was given an hour seminar about how to set up my classroom using the Creative Curriculum approach, and received the actual curriculum book about two weeks into the school year.  From there on out, I was left to my own devices.  I poured over the book and learned as much as I could, but I can only imagine how helpful it would have been to have someone come to my classroom and give me feedback about my implementation!  In Washington, DC, the cost of adopting Creative Curriculum was likely quite low, but in the IES study, it was likely much higher.  When considering the cost of implementing different curriculum models, districts need to factor training and professional development into the equation. 

John noted that a curriculum is only as effective as the teacher who implements it, and I couldn't agree more.  In addition to teachers, I think that state standards play a tremendous role in the effectiveness of curriculum models.  If a teacher is using a curriculum that doesn't have clear learning goals or desired child outcomes but is working in a state with strong pre-k standards, the teacher will be able to use those standards to guide his or her instruction and provide the appropriate learning experiences to students.  Alternatively, if a teacher is using a phenomenal curriculum with appropriate learning goals, they can compensate for weak state standards.  Currently, 41 out of 49 state pre-k programs have standards, and I'm sure that those standards vary in quality as much as the curriculum models reviewed by IES.  I don't have experience using standards in concert with a curriculum -- DC has standards for four-year-old pre-k, but standards for three-year-olds are still being developed -- and I would love to hear about other people's experience blending curriculum models and standards. Do you find that they help guide your instruction, or are they a hindrance to what you want to teach? 

Choosing a curriculum is clearly not an easy matter; there are numerous factors that must be considered, the foremost of which should be student outcomes.  But it is important not to look at those outcomes in isolation -- districts must consider the impact that teacher training, professional development, and alignment with standards have on student outcomes. 

I know that curriculum can be a hotly debated topic among teachers, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Comments

Jenn,

I think you touched on a really important point regarding the relationship between teachers, curricula, state standards, and their students. No curriculum is perfect in the sense that no one framework can meet the needs of all students at all times. Curriculum writers frequently use research to guide their efforts and increase the likelihood that their methods increase student achievement. Yet at the end of the day, those writers have never met your kids, and they are not in your classroom on a daily basis. Teachers needs to operate as strong leaders who can make sense of all of the resources provided to them to meet the needs of all learners.

Secondly, you're right that we should not overlook factors like classroom environment and teacher-student relationships. I would, however, like to see a more nuanced analysis of how all of these factors relate to one another. Where was the breakdown between inputs and outputs? Why did strong teacher-student relationships not produce stronger outcomes? Too often I think we assume that both are important, but not necessarily linked. Perhaps we should work backwards to determine how we can build classroom environments and cultures that further the development of students in all domains. I haven't conducted a study, but based on my years in the classroom my guess is it would come down to the extent to which teacher-student interactions and the environment respond to individual children (their interests, personalities, strengths and weaknesses). Not all labels, layouts, approaches to behavior modification, and positive reinforcement resonate with all children. And the details of these systems can influence student outcomes.

Sophia

Hi Jenn,

I think your reference to standards is important to all teachers. Over the past 20 years there has been a change in how teachers think about teaching. I have heard it referred to ask a paradigm shift in moving from a standards referenced to a standards based teaching method. I wrote about this before in response to a post that Vanessa wrote on "crayola curriculum." Here is the substance of the post.

I think the standards based vs. standards referenced paradigm shift has transformed teaching and learning more than teachers really think. This disconnect is due to the change in teaching over the past 10 - 15 years. When you use standards as your framework, how you teach the skills and knowledge you are responsible for, changes. For example, I received some very simple but, very important advice a couple years ago. A TLN colleague at the high school level said that he decided whether to use constructivist or behavioral approaches to content based on the nature of the content.

At the preschool level this changed some of my core beliefs about how to teach reading. I realized that letter recognition and recognizing letter sounds is a behaviorally oriented activity. Not that some students don't need a more constructivist approach sometimes but the basic idea is: the more times I expose kids to letters and letter sounds the more likely they are to remember them. Period. The instant recall for letter sounds we use as adults in understanding new words is based on this simple recall of sounds and grammatic rules. This freed me up from having to do a hands on activity for every letter to help kids "remember" the letter. All I had to do was submerge them in the alphabet for them to learn the letters. So, I changed how I taught.

Changes that I made to my teaching included:

* singing 3 - 5 different alphabet and letter sound songs every day
* singing these songs daily at the same time and in transitions between activities
* incorporating movement into songs
* dedicating one of 3 "small groups" every day to letter recognition/letter sounds and stories
* asking students to name letters consistently through out the day (not just at certain times)
* teach all of the letters from day one instead of one letter at a time
* focused direct teaching of letters students were not learning quickly instead of following a prescribed order


Of course, I did some of these things already but, it is the way that I did them that changed. It is the repetition that made them stick, not the cute art activity that we did this week for letter G.

Now that I am teaching my students how to read independently I am using more constructivist methods like word building, games, sorts and real reading of real texts.

Moving from standards referenced to standards based has meant that some of the "cute" activities that we did in the past don't get done. I do make time once or twice a week for those cute activities and as an artist I passionately encourage creativity in all its forms in my class. I haven't had any complaints from parents. They are happy their preschoolers are reading.

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