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Our Stupid Blind Spots on Early Childhood Standards and Curriculum

Earlier this week, the U.S. Departments of Education and HHS released an FAQ for the Early Learning Challenge RTT application, which contains useful information for states seeking to compete for the grant.

This section of the FAQ, though, struck me as exemplifying so many things that are currently wrong with our current dialogue on both early childhood and standards:

E-3. How will peer reviewers evaluate the content of States' Early Learning and Development Standards submitted in response to selection criterion (C)(1)? Applicants are expected to submit their State Early Learning and Development Standards as part of their response to selection criterion (C)(1). States are also expected to submit documentation that their Early Learning and Development Standards are developmentally, linguistically, and culturally appropriate for all children; address all of the Essential Domains of School Readiness and are of high-quality; and are aligned with the State's K-3 academic standards. Peer reviewers will focus their evaluation on the documentation submitted by the State, such as validation that the Standards are developmentally, linguistically, and culturally appropriate for all children. Reviewers can refer to the actual Early Learning and Development Standards as needed to confirm the documentation provided. The Departments will not review or approve the content of States' Early Learning and Development Standards.

So, the feds are going to judge states' early learning standards based on whether they are "comprehensive" and "culturally appropriate," but heaven forbid they look at whether the standards are actually any good or not, whether they actually cover the content and skills young children actually need to be prepared for success in school, or whether they are clear and specific enough to be useful to parents and teachers in helping them prepare children for success.

Ok, I know, this is an extension of a the broader weirdness of our federal-state system where the feds are forbidden from looking at or judging curricula and that has extended to saying the feds can't judge the content or quality of standards (RTT included similar language about not judging the content of Common Core standards states were signing onto for RTT).

But it also reflects an issue of lack of attention to or serious judgement of curriculum in early childhood circles. For example, the National Institute for Early Education Research State of Preschool Yearbook judges states based on whether they have early learning standards for pre-k that are comprehensive--but not the quality of the standards themselves. A number of state pre-k programs and QRIS require pre-k and childcare providers to show that they have curricula, but do not actually judge whether the curricula are any good. And a lot of preschool curricula or not very good, or are not bad per se but are more an approach to teaching than clear guidance for teachers on what to cover or how to introduce new topics to young children or things you can do in your classroom every day with kids. And as long as the feds and states refuse to go there, we're not going to see measurably better results in the most important dimensions of early childhood quality (such as the quality of interactions between children and adults, as opposed to whether you have a sink and the type of surface on your playground) or on school readiness outcomes.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead's Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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