Pre-K Curriculum Quality: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

A Q&A with expert Dr. Jeanne Reid of Teachers College
Blog Post
April 25, 2022

As pre-K programs across the country continue to expand, more attention is being paid to exactly what content children should be taught to adequately prepare them for the grades that follow. Recently, the National Academies of Sciences announced that it will convene a committee of experts to make recommendations for creating a new vision of high-quality pre-K curriculum for children ages three through five.

To learn more about pre-K curriculum quality, we interviewed Jeanne Reid, a Research Scientist at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Reid has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in collaboration with EdSolutions, the education consulting firm, to support the Foundation’s work on pre-K curriculum. We interviewed Dr. Reid by email in April 2022 to learn more. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important to use high-quality curricula in pre-K classrooms?

As evidence of the effectiveness of pre-K programs has accumulated, many states and districts across the country have been expanding their pre-K programs while trying to increase the quality of their programs. Empirical research has supported these efforts by identifying the components of pre-K programs that are most important. The use of an evidenced-based curriculum has been found to be one of the key elements in programs that successfully promote children’s learning.

What makes a pre-K curriculum high-quality?

We know that a pre-K curriculum, or a set of curricula, needs to address the whole child, i.e., the inter-related domains of early learning and development: physical and motor, cognitive, social and emotional, language and literacy, and approaches to learning. Curriculum should also be aligned with each state’s early learning standards, which articulate what children should know and be able to do after a year in pre-K in each of these five domains (although some states label their domains differently). Most states also require that a pre-K curriculum be grounded in our knowledge of child development and have evidence of effectiveness in promoting children’s learning. But other questions about curriculum content and pedagogies generate more debate. For example, should pre-K curricula focus on a single domain or skill area, or should they be “comprehensive” in their approach to children’s learning? What does it mean for a curriculum to be “play-based,” and is that compatible with teacher-led instruction? What does it mean for a curriculum to be “culturally responsive” and “anti-bias,” and can pre-K curricula be “equitable” without them? These are unsettled questions in the early education field.

What is the current state of pre-K curricula use across the country?

Most, if not all, states require that pre-K programs use a curriculum. Almost half of the states review available curricula to produce a list of those that are either recommended or required for use in each state’s pre-K programs. Many states allow programs to create their own curriculum, though this approach usually requires some state approval. So, just about every state-funded pre-K program is probably using a curriculum of some kind, although what “using” means varies widely. Some programs are committed to careful implementation of a curriculum that has been thoughtfully chosen, while others might purchase a curriculum, but not really use it as intended. Studies of curriculum “fidelity” show that curriculum implementation varies widely across programs and classrooms.

What is the national study?

The National Academies of Sciences has convened a committee of diverse experts to conduct a consensus study of pre-K curriculum quality for children ages three to five, with special attention to the needs of Black and Latina/o children, dual language learners, children with special needs, and children in poverty. The study will support equitable curriculum development, state and center-level pre-K curriculum selection, and local curriculum implementation. The committee will review research on early childhood development and consider the lived experience of diverse young children, their families, and early childhood educators. The committee’s report will be issued sometime next year.

Why is a national study of pre-K curricula needed at this time?

Transformative changes in early childhood education have altered how we think about “quality” in a curriculum. Children in preschool programs are more diverse by race/ethnicity, country of origin, and their primary home language than ever before. We have new knowledge about what skills are most important to accelerate all children’s early learning. Our understanding of the cultural nature of early learning has also advanced, uprooting assumptions about what curricular content, pedagogies, and activities work best (or don’t) for diverse children. For example, the acquisition of language among dual language learners is now informed by research that indicates the advantages of bilingual skills and the inseparability of language and culture. And of course, we are paying belated attention to racial/ethnic inequities that early childhood systems may reinforce, rather than mitigate.

Amidst these changes, many district and program directors are choosing pre-K curricula without a lot of guidance and knowledge of early child development. And as I said, we lack a consensus on what constitutes a “high-quality” curriculum. The result is that sometimes curriculum choices are based more on good marketing than on what might be best for a given community of teachers and families. For all these reasons, a national study that strives to produce a consensus statement to guide curriculum decisions could be very valuable.

In an ideal world, how would districts, schools, and teachers select and use curricula in pre-K classrooms? What supports are needed for high-quality implementation?

Ideally, program directors and teachers would carefully select a curriculum that meets a set of criteria for what constitutes quality and that aligns with their community’s values, strengths, and needs. We would also want to see tight alignment between the state early learning standards, the curriculum, and formative assessments that are used to promote reflective practice and curriculum differentiation for individual children. Finally, professional learning opportunities, including customized and sustained coaching, would be offered to support teachers as they engage in an ongoing process of learning and improvement. With all that in place, every child could have exciting opportunities to learn and thrive in pre-K classrooms!

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