Study: 'Whole-child' curricula fall short on building early math, literacy skills
- Learning in early childhood is an integrated process that involves multiple areas of kids' development. But preschools that only use a “whole-child” curriculum are not giving young students the math and literacy experiences they need to be prepared for kindergarten, according to a study from researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).
- The researchers drew data from the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Initiative Study — which was conducted in 18 locations, with more than 2,900 children and used 14 different curricula, including widely used whole-child programs, HighScope and Creative Curriculum.
- They found that children randomly assigned to classrooms using a literacy-focused curriculum had slightly higher overall literacy scores than those in classes using the two whole-child programs. They also had higher math and overall academic scores than those in classrooms with a locally designed curriculum. Finally, those in math-focused classrooms had significantly higher math and overall academic scores than those in classrooms with the two whole-child programs.
Preschool teachers — especially those working in school-based or district-led programs — are often caught between how some administrators think learning should look and their knowledge of appropriate teaching practices for young children. Research, however, has shown that young children are more capable of acquiring early academic skills than perhaps previously thought — especially when they are curious and inquisitive, and are allowed to explore and play.
Jade Jenkins, an assistant professor of education at UCI and the lead author of the study, said whole-child programs — which are often required by state preschool programs as well as Head Start — have many strengths. They lead to higher classroom quality, meaning that children can choose from a wide array of learning materials, that classrooms are organized and that there is an emphasis on positive interactions between teachers and children. But she added that preschools using a whole-child curriculum should consider adding a supplementary program specifically focused on math, reading or social-emotional skills. In the classrooms studied, “only those with the content-specific curriculum in addition to whole-child made a difference for kids’ outcomes,” she said in an email, adding that such programs “provide more specific tasks for teachers, with better manuals and teacher scripts to provide more support for guiding learning experiences.”
Teaching Strategies, which publishes Creative Curriculum, responded in an email that the research was based on an outdated version of the program that hasn't been used for several years and is different "from the sort of comprehensive curriculum and support that we offer and that programs utilize today." And Iheoma U. Iruka, chief research innovation officer with the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, said the study doesn't consider other skills beyond math and literacy. "HighScope’s strengths-based curriculum builds children’s learning in all areas of development needed for school readiness and for success later in life, like self-regulation, executive function and socio-emotional skills," she said in an email. She also noted that "fidelity" to a curriculum and whether teachers are well-prepared can have a significant impact on child outcomes.
Jenkins added that administrators can provide ongoing professional development for teachers through coaching and by using assessment data to understand children’s needs. “The idea that preschool should work to develop the whole child will never change, because development at this age is so interrelated and fast,” she said. “However, the curricula categorized as whole-child does not have a clear value added to children’s learning in preschool.”
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