High-Quality Pre-K Curriculum: What Does It Really Take?

Considerations when enacting and selecting pre-K curriculum.
Blog Post
Feb. 15, 2023

The Committee on A New Vision for High Quality Pre-K Curriculum, convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, continues to make headway on its study of pre-K curriculum quality for children ages three through five.

To date, the committee has held two public information gathering sessions. The first session, which took place last September, explored considerations when developing linguistically and culturally affirming high quality pre-K curriculum and how to adapt curriculum for children with diverse abilities. The committee held its second session in January, inviting six panelists to discuss factors and issues related to enacting, selecting, and implementing pre-K curriculum.

One of the themes that panelists touched on was to consider the contexts and settings in which curriculum has been developed and studied. Osnat Zur, PhD of WestEd described that “when curriculum developers write plans, develop learning experiences, they are not doing it for a particular child in your group. They are thinking about the general research . . . and a lot of it comes from middle-class white families.” Research about the effectiveness of curriculum is supposed to be representative of and generalizable to all children, but when certain populations of children, such as tribal communities, are not included, the data can be limited in telling us whether the impact really extends to all children.

Panelist Scott Moore noted how curriculum “should build on the best of what we know, but we should also know that there’s so much we don’t and have humility and respect to that.” Panelists pushed the committee to ask the following questions: Do we have the research that tells us what we need to know? Is it enough and enough for our particular context? Do we need more research?

The panelists also emphasized the importance of thinking through how the curriculum will be applied in different contexts and settings. Decision makers at every level are wrestling with political and community contexts that vary widely. Panelists from North Dakota and West Virginia discussed how the political climate influenced their current four-year-old early childhood programs, such as not being able to use the term pre-K or having to illustrate local control within their instructional materials selection process. In addition, programs serving three- and four-year-olds often use multiple funding streams in order to provide full-day programming and serve more families. However, each funding stream has its own set of requirements that influence curriculum choice and implementation.

Furthermore, cultural, linguistic, and family contexts matter. One panelist described how implementing a curriculum responsively and effectively is a synergy between the children and families in the classroom and the curriculum’s content and framework. Most importantly, teachers should be able to individualize curriculum based on their knowledge of the strengths, needs, and interests of the children and families in each classroom. One panelist led a review of 17 preschool curricula and found that existing curricula provided limited information on how to implement culturally responsive practices, adapt learning experiences based on children’s interests, and learn from families. Taking all this into consideration, multiple panelists emphasized how curriculum cannot be prescriptive. Curriculum implementation must be seen as an ongoing and evolving process, and a strong coaching program is vital to supporting teachers in this process.

Finally, panelists discussed how important it was to engage those who have to implement the curriculum throughout the entire process. There is an opportunity to leverage the expertise of those currently working with children and involve them in the process of how to adapt the curriculum to different community contexts. A panelist from West Virginia described how their instructional materials adoption committee was composed of a wide range of practitioners, including educators from different early childhood settings and programs, instructional coaches, and IDEA Part C coordinators. This helps to develop shared definitions and ensure alignment across the different program standards and regulations so there is buy-in and consistency in the operationalization of the curriculum later down the line.

As panelist Kim Nall summarized, high-quality pre-K curriculum is not just about what you take out of the box or what the calendar says you’re supposed to do,

It’s that the child is telling me that this is what’s important in their world. How can I scaffold that experience to make it meaningful and make it life changing for them? . . . We sometimes forget that these are three and four year olds, and as soon as we embrace it, and we allow teachers to embrace it, that’s when we are able to allow children to learn the way they need to learn. They show us. We just need to pay attention.

Our team will continue sharing the progress of this committee’s work. The final report, to be released later this year, will include recommendations on the fundamental principles guiding the development and use of effective and equitable pre-K curriculum, funding and policy mechanisms available to facilitate the selection and implementation of pre-K curriculum, and training and professional development that will enable early childhood educators to select appropriate curriculum and support learning for all children.

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