Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Distinctions without a Difference? Preschool Curricula and Children's Development

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 8:50 AM
Brickell South (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Anamarie Auger1, Jade Marcus Jenkins2 and Winnie Yu2, (1)RAND Corporation, (2)University of California, Irvine
One's achievement and success in school is highly predictive of various indicators of long term well being including health, employment, earnings. Worrisome then is the growing disparity in school achievement between children from the wealthiest and the poorest families, which is already present before children enter formal school. The primary policy response to these disparities has been to expand early childhood education programs, which improve children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development, particularly for low-income children.  A surfeit of research shows that preschool can promote children’s cognitive and physical development, yet the tremendous variability in preschool quality and effectiveness both within and between different types of programs (e.g., Head Start and pre-kindergarten) and within and between states reveal how little is known about precisely what makes preschool effective. 

Our study aims to get inside the “black-box” of preschool classrooms to study a key element of the educational experience that has received relatively little research attention—curriculum—and examine the type and frequency of academic, social, and free-play activities that occur in preschool classrooms using different preschool curricula. Curricula prescribe goals for the knowledge and skills that children will master, the organization of the learning environment, and the roles of teachers and children. While teachers and policymakers can choose from more than fifty different published curricula programs, no clear guidance exists on which curricula are the most effective at promoting children’s development. Furthermore, most publicly funded preschool programs choose or mandate “whole-child” curricula, despite a dearth of rigorous evaluation evidence on their effectiveness in promoting school readiness.

We will examine whether and how the type and frequency of academic and free play activities differ between the most commonly used curricula in publicly funded preschool programs. Additionally using fixed effects models we will examine whether the type of preschool curricula (e.g., whole-child, academic) is associated with children’s developmental outcomes at the end of preschool. To answer these research questions we will use three large, representative data sets of preschool children: (1) Head Start Impact Study; (2) Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Study; and (3) NCEDL’s Multi-State Study of Pre-Kindergarten. All data sets contain information on curricula, classroom activities, and child academic and social-emotional outcomes. Additionally, participants in all datasets are majority low-income and are ethnically and racially diverse.

Preliminary analyses from all three datasets indicate that there emerge no differences in activities or effectiveness between the most commonly used whole-child curricula (Creative Curriculum and HighScope). Curricula that focus on specific academic domains (e.g., literacy) have increased academic literacy activities in the classroom.  Classrooms that report using any curricular package have more learning activities overall relative to classrooms where the teacher reports using no named curricula.  By understanding how different curricula influence classroom practices and children’s academic and social development, policymakers can better mandate the use of effective curricula in public preschool programs and gain a deeper understanding of factors that make preschool effective for low-income children.