Panel Paper: Do Curricula Make a Difference? Comparing General Versus Content-Specific Curricula during Preschool

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 9:10 AM
Jemez (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Anamarie Auger1, Jade Marcus Jenkins1 and Margaret Burchinal2, (1)University of California, Irvine, (2)University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Curricula type is a much-researched topic in early childhood education. Results from recent studies indicate that children who receive targeted or content-specific curricula (e.g., literacy or math) during preschool show improvements in the targeted content domain (e.g., Clements & Samara, 2007). In fact, the Boston pre-k program evaluation found that the largest effects of the program were in the specific outcomes that were targeted by the curricula (Weiland & Yoshikawa, 2013). However, few studies have attempted to compare across types of curricula (e.g., general content vs. literacy) and examine their associations with children’s school readiness skills. Our study investigates whether the type of curricula children experience during preschool (age 4) is differentially related to their math, language, literacy, and socio-emotional skills.

Our primary analysis uses data from the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Initiative Study.  Beginning in 2003, 12 grantees across the U.S. were funded to study the effect of 14 preschool curricula on children’s academic and socio-emotional outcomes. This study includes children who were either in Head Start, private child care, or public preschool serving low-income children. We coded the curricula into categories (teacher designed, global, literacy, or math) based on the targeted domains. Curricula that focused on “whole child development” were coded as global, whereas curricula that targeted a specific academic domain were coded as literacy or math.

Data analysis includes both state fixed effects models and three-level (state, classroom, child) Hierarchical Linear Models to examine the associations between curricula type and children’s school readiness skills (vocabulary, spelling, math, socio-emotional) assessed at the end of preschool. Each model included the curricula indicators (teacher designed, global (reference), math, literacy), lagged assessment scores (Fall of preschool year), child gender, race, mother or primary caregiver educational level and age, family income, and indicators for employment, marital status, and receiving welfare.

Findings indicate that children in classrooms using literacy curricula showed significant improvements in their spelling skills (0.24 standard deviations (SD)) and marginal improvements in letter-word recognition (0.18 SD), but displayed significantly more problem behaviors (0.30 SD) and lower social skills (0.37 SD) compared with children in classrooms using global curricula. The math curriculum was positively, significantly related to math skills (0.41 SD) compared with children in global curricula. No significant differences were detected between children in a teacher designed curricula compared with children in a global curricula.    

Overall, our findings indicate the unique contribution of type of preschool curriculum on children’s school readiness.  Head Start and other early learning programs may do well to incorporate content-specific curricula to improve children’s skills in targeted content domains; however the negative effects of the literacy curricula on social skills and problem behaviors may imply a trade-off between cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes. Yet most Head Start classrooms across the country use a global curriculum—80 percent in 2009.  Therefore in our next stage of analysis we plan to use the data from the Head Start Impact Study to more closely examine whether different types of global curricula are more effective at improving children’s skills.