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.