Tag Archives: early childhood

Closing Achievement Gaps Where They Begin

Last Friday, national experts in early learning met in Washington D.C. for a symposium on closing achievement gaps among young learners.

Co-sponsored by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), Children’s Defense Fund, and Sesame Street Workshop, the Success Starts Young event drew leaders from universities, state and local governments, and advocacy groups. Its three panels covered early learning standards, kindergarten readiness, and technology and young children’s learning. All told, the event centered on strategies to close the achievement gap between low-income children and their higher-income peers.

Several prominent experts spoke, including Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop.

We were pleased to see West Virginia in the spotlight for their universal pre-K program, which has been lauded as one of the most successful models in the nation. In 2002, the state passed legislation to ensure that every 4-year-old would have access to a pre-k classroom by 2013. In 2012, the National Institute for Early Education Research ranked West Virginia fifth in the nation for pre-K access for four-year-olds.

“In most states, the discussion about college and career readiness starts with high school,” said Clayton Burch, assistant director of the Office of School Readiness at the West Virginia Department of Education, who spoke on a panel on early learning standards. “In West Virginia, it’s a more balanced discussion because we’ve backed that discussion up into our PreK to 3rd grade. You’ll never get to the outcomes you’re looking for unless you have strong PreK to 3rd.”

Burch said the state’s largest providers of early childhood education—including Head Start, the Department of Health and Human Resources, and the Department of Education—worked together to come to a consensus on a common set of early learning standards for children ages 3 through 5 that can be used across settings. Unlike other states, West Virginia will not have to juggle multiple levels of learning standards in and out of the P-12 system, an approach that experts say better aligns the state’s system with the way kids learn.

“We’re kind of at a different point than a lot of other states,” Burch said. “It’s not one system trying to fit into another. It’s just one system.”

Other experts on the panel emphasized how early learning standards have to be culturally sensitive to address the needs of dual language learners, or of children who are learning both English and a home language at the same time.

Another panel discussed technology and young children’s learning. Authors Michael Levine and Lisa Guernsey discussed their new book, “Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens.” The book focuses on ways digital media can help promote literacy in young children, rather than undermine it. The authors profile innovative uses of digital media for learning and in some cases to support dual language learning. For example, in rural Maine, Comienza en Casa is bringing tablets loaded with educational apps to the homes of immigrant families and training parents on how to use the apps with their children to ready them for kindergarten.

“We need to get past the tired nagging of ‘no screen time’ and the overheated enthusiasm over apps as the holy grail of early education,” Guernsey said in a recent NPR interview about the new book. “Instead, let’s take a more mindful approach and combine the power of parents, educators, and high-quality media (print and digital) to make literacy opportunities available to all kids and families, regardless of income.”


Should Kindergartners Do Tougher Math?

Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For two weeks, we’ve been deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

Researchers have found that kindergarten is more academic than it used to be. Today’s kindergarteners spend about 25 percent more time on early literacy than they did in the 1990s, often at the expense of time for play and for subjects like art, music, and social studies.

At the same time, further research has indicated that kindergarten math is too easy. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that teachers spent 13 days a month teaching concepts that 95 percent of students had already mastered, like counting and shape recognition. Spending more time on such easier concepts was associated with lower math scores at the end of the year. But teaching more advanced concepts like addition and subtraction benefited everyone, even kids who entered kindergarten with the lowest skill levels.

So does kindergarten math need to be harder? Or more relaxed, to allow more time for socioemotional development? Experts say neither. Like much in STEAM learning, engaging young children in math is not just about what teachers teach, but about how they teach it. While kindergartners may benefit from learning more advanced math concepts, instruction can (and should) be engaging, hands-on, and playful.

 Like much in STEAM learning, engaging young children in math is not just about what teachers teach, but about how they teach it.

“[The] presumed dichotomy—that preschool and kindergarten must either be geared toward play and socioemotional development, or focused on rigorous academic instruction—is false,” wrote researchers Daphna Bassok, Amy Claessens, and Mimi Engel at Education Week. Engel is an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and lead author of the study about the math mismatch in kindergarten.

Engel and her fellow researchers are not sure why the math mismatch happens. They hypothesize that teachers may be teaching to the curriculum, or perhaps not moving the class along until the students with the lowest skills are caught up. But she believes that slightly adjusting the math curriculum can improve the skills kids have when they leave kindergarten.

Additional research from Professor Greg Duncan at the University of California Irvine has found that early math skills are more predictive of success than reading skills. In a study of 20,000 kindergartners, Duncan found that students who learned the most math skills in kindergarten tended to have the highest reading and math scores years later, even after controlling for IQ and family income.

So there is consensus that early math skills are critical for success and should be taught in engaging ways. But Engel points out that while there is an enormous body of research on effective strategies to do so in reading, there is less agreement in early elementary classrooms on how to teach math in engaging ways. That knowledge is still making its way into classrooms.

In recent years, efforts based out of Pittsburgh, like the Early Learning of Math through Media project, have aimed to help early-education teachers feel more confident about teaching math in conceptual ways that make sense to young learners.

“It’s a great platform to build deeper understanding and confidence among these early educators,” Nancy Bunt, program director for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Math and Science Collaborative, wrote Remake Learning in an email last year about the project.

Science writer and anthropologist Gwen Dewar makes another good point about the findings of the math study. She said that while cynics may say changing math content will have only modest effects on end-of-year test scores, teaching math in a more conceptual, engaging way can affect how kindergartners think of math on the whole.

“How many kids will end the school year feeling excited about mathematics?” she wrote. “How many kids will feel prepared to move onto more advanced topics later?”

Oddly enough, “M” seems to be the least talked-about letter in the acronym STEAM, perhaps because ideas about math are so engrained in many of us. But thinking differently about how teachers approach the subject could mean a lot not just for stronger math skills but for achievement in STEAM learning subjects across the board. 

Do Digital Tools Belong in Preschool?

In a preschool classroom in Washington, Pennsylvania, about a half hour south of Pittsburgh, a group of 2-year-old children are taking pictures of a tree using their school’s digital camera. The child holding the camera has been designated the “photographer of the day” by his teacher, Jill Fulton. This particular photo session is part of a year-long project to document how the tree is changing through the seasons.

“We have a VTech toddler friendly camera. So they can’t break it,” Fulton says. “They have full range of it. I get a lot of pictures of trees and grass. They are like little paparazzi.”

Fulton, who is a teacher in the toddler room at Just Us Kids, a care provider that serves children from infancy to age 12, says using the digital camera helps kids explore the natural world around them and observe the changing seasons. But, she says, her students love the toy cameras they have in the play area inside their classroom just as much. The toy cameras also help kids learn about their environment, though in different ways—through imagination and make-believe.

A young photographer at Just us Kids. Photo/Jill Fulton.

Early childhood professionals have long been cautious about introducing digital technologies into early childhood classrooms, fearing that screen media will displace time kids should be spending playing, digging in the dirt, or interacting with peers and adults—the kinds of hands-on engagement that research shows best promotes learning for kids of this age.

But some early childhood educators are starting to feel differently. Educators here in Pittsburgh may be on the cutting edge of using the newest technology with the youngest learners in ways that are developmentally appropriate for 2 t0 5-year-olds.  Educators aren’t simply sticking students alone in front of a screen to play around with the latest apps. Rather, they are, as Fred Rogers once said, “putting the children first,” thinking creatively about how to incorporate today’s technology in ways that match young children’s unique developmental needs.

“If Maria Montessori were alive today, the tools we would see in early childhood classrooms would look very different,” says Michelle Figlar who heads up PAEYC, Pittsburgh’s chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the leading advocacy group for early childhood educators. “We think that digital tools absolutely fit into that environment in the same way building blocks and water tables and sand tables do.”

Figlar tells educators to always keep their goals front and center and remember not to get blinded by technology’s “bells & whistles.” “Technology is always just a tool to help us get there,” she says.

From 1968 to 2001, Pittsburgh was home to Fred Rogers, who filmed his pioneering TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the city, using the technology of his day to promote learning in the early years. Today, the Fred Rogers Center and NAEYC are helping early childhood professionals imagine new possibilities for their classrooms that include today’s latest interactive technology.

In 2012, the Fred Rogers Center partnered with NAEYC to release a position statement on using technology and interactive media in early childhood programs.

“We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development,” -Rita Catalano, the Fred Rogers Center.
“We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development,” says Rita Catalano, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center. The position statement therefore included some important caveats. Namely, it recommends limiting passive screen time (such as TV) for children ages 2–5, and avoiding it entirely for children under age 2. And they warn that if technology is provided without guidance and education, “usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development.”

The Rogers Center is drawing on child development research to help professionals and parents define quality media experiences for young children. They see potential in interactive touch screen media, and have compiled examples for how to use technology tools and interactive media in age-appropriate, intentional ways.

Technology, for example, can help add insights to a hands-on experience. PAEYC’s Michelle Figlar says a colleague once described a group of 3-year-olds working in the block corner, building houses modeled on their own. Their teacher used the iPad to show the children pictures of their actual houses using Google map’s street view, zooming out to show the children their street and neighborhood. The experience, she said, was a perfect example of an optimal use of an iPad in an early childhood classroom.

“It brings it to where the children are. It’s intentional. It’s totally integrated. ‘I can see where my house is, what it looks like, and I can show my friends.’ It’s social studies. In this instance, the iPad helped to make a real life experience tangible for the children.”

The Fred Rogers Center is also working to support teachers with professional development programs and their Early Learning Environment (Ele), a web-based support system designed to offer resources and guidance in early literacy and digital media literacy to under-resourced parents, family childcare providers, and early childhood educators.

Jill Fulton is one of hundreds of educators who have attended workshops led by the center this year. She says she’s not a techie in other areas of her life, but the professional development sessions have really helped open her eyes to how to use technology appropriately with 2-year-olds.

For example, Fulton displays photos and video from her classroom each day in a digital frame so parents and children can look at them together at the end of the school day. A similar project, Message from Me, adapts existing technologies like email, digital cameras, and microphones, to enhance parent-child communication about what happens during the school day. Kiosks placed in classrooms enable children ages 3 to 5 to record their daily experiences and send them to their parents. The project is a partnership between the CREATE Lab, the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University, and PAEYC.

“The technology is great,” says Figlar. “But the goal of the project—to increase communication among parents, teachers and young children and improve language development—is what’s primary.

Especially in very low-income neighborhoods, where we know from the research that learning vocabulary is very important—that is a beautiful way of using technology.”

Photo/Brian Cohen

Pittsburgh is home to a growing cadre of design professionals, artists, and technologists who are creating partnerships with educators to design better technology for kids.

“It’s always about the children and everyone puts them first,” Figlar says. “They are not just looking to make the next best app they can make money off of. It’s a very reciprocal relationship.”

PAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center are also both working with organizations like Common Sense Media, and with librarians and museum educators in Pittsburgh to make sure that children have developmentally appropriate learning experiences across their community.

A lot of families come to the library to have access to a computer, according to Mary Beth Parks, the coordinator of children’s services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. So librarians have an important role to play in helping families and educators use computers and other digital tools in ways that promote learning and literacy. At the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh librarians are incorporating iPads into storytime, making developmentally appropriate iPad apps like interactive books and educational games available to children and caregivers.  Parks says this way of using technology is important because it not only “provides access to technology but also models instructional methods and techniques that can be used by the child’s first teacher—their parent or caregiver.”

Similarly, partnerships with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh are helping to make sure young children in the region have plenty of opportunities to experiment with technology in a hands-on way. The museum’s innovative MAKESHOP is an exhibit space where kids and adults can experiment with physical materials and digital tools. Hands-on play with technology, the museum’s director Jane Werner says, is important to help children begin to grasp at a young age that they can be creators, not just consumers, and that technology is something they can have control over.

The museum hosts classroom visits and two Pittsburgh Public School Head Start classes in the museum itself.

Werner concurs that the partnerships that take place on behalf of children in the region are unique.  “We tend not to get territorial,” she told me last spring. “There’s so much work to be done, we all realize it, and we all work together.” Fred Rogers would be proud.