The Role of Curriculum Models in Early Childhood
Education. ERIC Digest.
by Goffin, Stacie G.
Prior to the introduction of experimental preschool intervention programs
in the late 1950s, systematic variation of early childhood programs was
minimal. This situation changed with the advent of early intervention programs
for preschool-aged children, including the launch of Head Start in 1965
and its continuation into the primary grades in 1967 via Project Follow
Through. These two federal programs propelled a national search for early
childhood curricula that would effectively prepare children from low-income
families to succeed in school. The era was marked by systematic comparisons
among a burgeoning array of new curriculum models. Interest waned in the
late 1970s and early 1980s, however, as research revealed the limited differential
impact of various models on children's academic achievement.
Interest in comparing the effectiveness of curriculum models resurfaced
in the late 1980s. Questions about the public education of 4-year-olds,
efforts by national organizations to define appropriate educational practices
for young children, and results of longitudinal research that challenged
earlier conclusions that varying curricula did not contribute to different
child outcomes helped rekindle interest (Powell, 1987). However, as demand
for child care and concern about its impact escalated in response to women's
growing labor force participation, interest in differences among early
childhood curriculum models diminished once more.
Use of early childhood curriculum models is again on the rise, fueled
in part by the growth of state-financed prekindergarten programs. This
revival can be attributed to at least four trends: (1) the galvanizing
power of Goals 2000 and its first education goal that all children will
enter school ready to learn, (2) heightened concern about the low academic
achievement of children from low-income families, (3) state policy makers'
responses to findings from neuroscience on early brain development, and
(4) widespread evidence documenting the overall low quality of center-based
and family child care. Well-studied curriculum models are being promoted
to school districts and state officials as the means to ensure dependable
quality in early childhood programs, deliver consistent child outcomes,
and provide accountability for public investments in early childhood education,
especially for 3- and 4-year-olds (Goffin & Wilson, 2001).
TYPES OF EARLY CHILDHOOD CURRICULUM MODELS
The term curriculum model refers to a conceptual framework and organizational
structure for decision making about educational priorities, administrative
policies, instructional methods, and evaluation criteria. Although they
vary in their underlying premises, curriculum models provide well-defined
frameworks to guide program implementation and evaluation.
A wide range of early childhood curriculum models exists, but little
is known about the number of early childhood curriculum models presently
in use or the number of early childhood programs that use them. Early childhood
curriculum models most often are used in center-based settings providing
half-day and full-day programs. They are used in public schools, Head Start,
and community-based programs. Consistent with their origin, curriculum
models are most often used in programs serving low-income children.
Among the best known and most widely used early childhood curriculum
models are the Creative Curriculum, the Developmental Interaction Approach
(sometimes called the Bank Street approach), the High/Scope Curriculum,
and the Montessori method. Descriptions of these and other early childhood
curriculum models, many of which extend into the kindergarten and primary
grades, can be found in Epstein, Schweinhart, and McAdoo, (1996), Goffin
and Wilson (2001), and Roopnarine and Johnson (2000).
Theories of child development have served as the principal foundation
for curriculum model development. Variations among curriculum models reflect
differences in values concerning what is more or less important for young
children to learn, as well as in the process by which children are believed
to learn and develop. These variations inform the role of teachers, the
curriculum's focus, the classroom structure, and the ways in which children
participate in learning.
Early childhood curriculum models also vary in terms of the freedom
granted to teachers to interpret implementation of the model's framework.
Some curriculum models are highly structured and provide detailed scripts
for teacher behaviors. Others emphasize guiding principles and expect teachers
to determine how best to implement these principles. Curriculum models,
regardless of their goals and the degree of flexibility in their implementation,
however, are designed to promote uniformity across early childhood programs
through the use of a prepared curriculum, consistent instructional techniques,
and predictable child outcomes.
Some question whether what is known as Developmentally Appropriate Practice
(DAP), as described by the National Association for the Education of Young
Children (NAEYC), should be classified as a curriculum model. But DAP does
not meet all the criteria of a curriculum model. It was created not as
a fully developed curriculum but as a tool to help practitioners and policy
makers distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate teaching practices
with young children, regardless of the curriculum approach under review.
This same question has been raised regarding the Reggio Emilia approach,
an innovative early childhood program from Reggio Emilia, Italy, that has
captured the imagination of early childhood educators around the world.
Proponents of the Reggio Emilia approach resist the U.S. tendency to define
the approach as a curriculum model because they believe the designation
is contrary to the program's dynamic and emergent quality. Contrary to
the structure imposed by curriculum models, educators in Reggio Emilia
are engaged in continual renewal and readjustment informed by reflection,
experimentation, and practice.
COMPARATIVE EVALUATIONS OF CURRICULUM MODELS
Empirical comparisons of early childhood curriculum models have been
dominated by two questions: (1) To what extent are the programs experienced
by children really different from each other? and (2) Are some programs
better than others in producing desired outcomes?
Comparative evaluations now suggest that early childhood curriculum
models do affect child outcomes. Differences in child outcomes among models
tend to reflect the intent of the curriculum model being evaluated. Further,
findings are accumulating that suggest potential negative consequences
associated with highly structured, academic preschool programs (Marcon,
1999; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997; Goffin & Wilson, 2001).
The focus of contemporary evaluations has shifted, however, from comparisons
of specific early childhood curriculum models to the differential impact
of early intervention programs defined as either academically or developmentally
oriented. Yet there also is recognition of the limitations of curricular
reform. As a result, contemporary early intervention programs are increasingly
likely to extend beyond use of curriculum models to include preventive
health, parent education, and family support components.
A QUANDARY FOR THE FIELD
Driven by public demands for positive child outcomes, the sense of urgency
surrounding school reform, and the prevalence of poor-quality child care,
early childhood curriculum models are being promoted as a way of ensuring
that public dollars are wisely spent and that children enter school ready
to learn. Consistent implementation of curriculum models has the potential
to raise the standards of care and education experienced by young children.
In light of uneven expectations for teachers' professional preparation
and variability across the states in child care licensing standards, early
childhood curriculum models can improve programmatic quality through the
consistent implementation of well-articulated curriculum frameworks, thereby
lifting the floor of program quality in early childhood education.
Some experts, however, believe that by their design, curriculum models
lower expectations for early childhood educators and diminish the professional
responsibilities of early childhood teachers. To achieve consistency across
sites, curriculum models operate by using predictable representations of
teaching and learning, relying on fixed interpretations of the nature of
children and teachers, and minimizing variation across sites. Teachers
function less as reflective practitioners and more as technicians who implement
others' educational ideas. The increasing use of curriculum models, therefore,
challenges the early childhood profession to examine its image of teachers
and deliberate how best to improve children's daily experiences in early
childhood settings (Goffin & Wilson, 2001).
See the Early Childhood Education Curriculum Models Resource List of
related publications and organizations.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Epstein, A. S., Schweinhart, L. J., & McAdoo, L. (1996). Models
of early childhood education. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press. ED 395
Goffin, S. G., & Wilson, C. (2001). Curriculum
models and early childhood education: Appraising the relationship (2nd
ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Marcon, R A. (1999). Differential impact of preschool models on development
and early learning of inner-city children: A three-cohort study. Developmental
Psychology, 35(2), 358-375. EJ 582 451.
Powell, D. R. (1987). Comparing preschool curricula and practices: The
state of research. In S. L. Kagan & E. F. Zigler (Eds.), Early
schooling: The national debate (pp. 190-211). New Haven, CT: Yale University
Roopnarine, J. L., & Johnson, J. E. (2000). Approaches
to early childhood education (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice
Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). The High/Scope preschool
curriculum comparison study through age 23. Early Childhood Research Quarterly,
12(2), 117-143. EJ 554 350.