Considerations For High-Quality Pre-K Curriculum Implementation

Takeaways from National Academies sessions on curriculum adoption and implementation from a state or local context
Blog Post
April 21, 2023

It has been almost a year since the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a Committee on A New Vision for High Quality Pre-K Curriculum. We first started writing about this work by interviewing Dr. Jeanne Reid, a Research Scientist at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, on the impetus for a national study on high-quality pre-K curriculum. The committee has since held public information gathering sessions on equitable curriculum development and considerations when selecting curriculum.

In March, the committee held three listening sessions with four different speakers, including two owners of early childhood education (ECE) programs, to understand curriculum adoption and implementation given a state or local context. Session moderators asked questions about who decides what curriculum to use, teacher involvement in the process, the cost and professional development required to implement with fidelity, and defining elements of an equity-driven, high-quality curriculum.

Below are some takeaways from the listening sessions:

The goal of curricula is to support child outcomes. A curriculum should affirm who children are and help them gain knowledge, skills, and a deep sense of belonging. There were similarities in how speakers described their processes of selecting curricula, which involved looking at evidence and research on the effectiveness of various curricula and whether it is developmentally informed. A few speakers noted the limitations of current research, which has mostly been done in the context of four-year-old, state-funded programs. While the findings provide valuable insights, as they typically serve children from families with low incomes, there needs to be more research on curricula addressing the racial, linguistic, and cultural diversity of children and the different settings in which children learn.

Ongoing professional development is a crucial component of implementing an equity-driven, high-quality curriculum. Professional development time needs to be structured and compensated. When it comes to implementing curriculum through the lens of anti-racism and liberation, speaker Choquette Hamilton, Founder and CEO of RISE Child Development Center, emphasized the importance of having a community to learn, implement, unlearn, and implement with, and noted how “if you try to do it alone, you’re going to miss something.” Implementing an equity-driven curriculum takes time and mental energy, and one current challenge is setting aside enough time during the workday for teachers to pursue this process intentionally.

In addition, one of the complexities of implementing curriculum across programs or settings is that people may have different expectations about what is developmentally appropriate or ideas for how to implement a strategy in their classroom. Professional development creates opportunities to align on developmentally appropriate skills, reflect on data, and share knowledge of best practices. Speaker Sarah Neville-Morgan, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction for Opportunities for All Branch at the California Department of Education, reflected on how “the scaffolding, the understanding how to differentiate - that’s hard. That doesn’t come naturally.” Teachers need to be deeply supported and adequately compensated if we are asking them to enter the field with these skills and, on top of that, maintain ongoing professional learning throughout their careers.

Educators deserve both autonomy and support when implementing a curriculum. All speakers talked about how learning experiences should be guided by the interests of children. Some speakers commented how there could be room for both teacher- and child-directed pieces and, at the same time, very playful and engaged learning. According to speaker Neville-Morgan, the need for structured and soft-scripted lessons is an equity issue. When a teacher is hired on a random Tuesday in November, they may not have time set aside to learn a curriculum. Soft-scripting can be helpful for new teachers or when teachers guide lessons in domains they may not be as confident in such as math, literacy, anti-racism, and social emotional learning.

There is an unmet need for an integrated birth-to-five curriculum that is aligned and articulated from birth up through the early grades. Amanda Williford, Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Virginia, pointed out that while there is evidence of effectiveness for domain-specific curricula, a teacher generally does not have the bandwidth to piece together curricula that focus on different domains. An integrated curriculum, across age groups and skills, would also be more aligned with the reality of home-based providers who teach children across multiple age groups. Three speakers shared how, because they were not satisfied with current curriculum options, they were in the process of or had previous experience developing curriculum. For example, Williford shared how she and other early childhood stakeholders in the state of Virginia developed a comprehensive birth through pre-K curriculum and professional development model that was accessible and scalable across programs and settings.

In addition, most existing curricula, while evidence-based, do not provide an accurate nor equitable portrayal of the diversity of children, family structure, race, ethnicity, abilities, language, culture, and income found in our country. Layering on lessons and materials does not make the existing curriculum equity-driven. For states and programs that do not have the resources to develop their own curriculum, speaker Hamilton suggested offering professional development to build teachers’ capacity to implement whatever curriculum is in front of them through an anti-racist lens even if it wasn’t originally designed that way.

Huge investments are being made into public pre-K, and we need to make sure the promise of high-quality pre-K is met for all children who enter these classrooms. We also need to acknowledge the current reality that a four-year-old may have multiple teachers over an entire school year. Curriculum, and the professional development provided to teachers who are implementing it, is one way to ensure a coherent and authentic connection between the stages of education that children are going to experience.

We’ll keep you updated as the committee wraps up the study and works on the final report, to be released sometime this Fall.

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