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Should the Common Core Extend Into Early Childhood?

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Guest post by Conor Williams

Amidst the various flying sparks surrounding the Common Core State Standards' implementation, sometimes it's easy to forget that their reach is limited. In their current form, the standards cover Math and ELA in the K-12 years. While that represents a considerable portion of the American education system, it is silent on other critical parts. This hasn't gone unnoticed in the early childhood education community. Education researchers and policymakers around the country have been exploring the viability of establishing more comprehensive developmental and early learning standards for children from birth to age five.

What --if anything-- can the early childhood education community learn from the Common Core? This document, from the Ounce of Prevention Fund's "Policy Conversations" series, offers one view of the costs, benefits, and political challenges of developing and implementing common early learning standards.

Start with the challenges. The Common Core is (newly) controversial, even though it covers areas of American education with a relatively strong tradition of specific academic standards. In contrast, the early education community has long resisted formal, sharply-defined expectations for their students.

There are good reasons for this. Young students are spontaneous and curious; early childhood educators have long been wary of attempts to impose order and standardization, lest they dull students' love for school and learning. What's more, young students are hard at work developing social and emotional skills that can be difficult to measure in a standardized manner. If the Common Core is controversial, we should expect plenty of fireworks around any attempt to get states to cooperate on early learning standards.

As serious as that hurdle is, however, there are also good reasons to push forward with common early learning standards. Researchers maintain that high-quality Pre-K is most effective when it feeds into an aligned K-3 (and K-12!) system. Since the vast majority of American K-12 students will be educated in schools using the Common Core, it follows that most states ought to develop matching early learning standards. Furthermore, as the Ounce puts it, "Many in the early learning community value alignment between early learning standards and K-12 standards. To the extent members of the early learning community want the Common Core to evolve in ways that are more reflective of research and best practice in child development, that cannot best be accomplished state by state by state -- that influence is most likely to be achieved by coalescing around a common set of early learning standards that can form the basis for a more structured conversation about how K-12 standards should evolve."

The document also notes that a common approach to early learning standards would be cost effective. Standards are expensive to produce -- and robust, research-based standards cost even more. States could save money (and time) by marshaling their resources and expertise behind a unified effort to develop common early learning standards to match their common K-12 standards. This would be particularly useful for the seventeen states that --as of 2010-- had no learning and development standards for infants and toddlers.

Better still, some states have already begun this work. After adopting the Common Core in July 2010, New York developed its "Prekindergarten Foundation for the Common Core." The standards cover the full gamut of students': 1) various "approaches to learning," 2) "physical development and health," 3) "social and emotional development, 4) "communication, language, and literacy" skills, and 5) content knowledge and cognition.

How are teachers responding? Brian, a New York pre-K teacher, says that the state's early learning standards "are process-oriented and intentionally general, which allows for necessary specialization. Insofar as they're a resource to draw on, I'm enthused. If you told me tomorrow that every 4-year-old program would be run strictly from them, I'd actually be concerned. That might ultimately be a positive step, but I doubt it'd be the ideal one. The standards likely exceed what is being done in a lot of places and thus would be a step forward, but I don't think strict uniformity ought to be the goal. I do believe that aligning standards --or really, curriculum-- is the way to go. There should be a purpose, a direction. But I worry about reverse-engineering that process on such a grand scale."

Brian's response echoes the document from the Ounce: "Early learning standards are intentionally broad, and go beyond K-12 academic subjects to include social and emotional standards." There's no question that common, nationwide early learning standards are a ticklish business, but there's also little question that more standardized expectations are coming. It remains for early childhood educators to decide whether they want to have a role in their development.

Conor P. Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation.

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