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Penn Child Research Center

Mandates, Models, and Methods, Oh My!

A Strategic Look at the Essential Components of Early Childhood Education

Albert M. Greenfield Memorial Lecture, April 27, 2011

Jerlean E. Daniel

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How do we make sure that children are ready to learn when they reach elementary school? The answer: a lot of hard work.

Because early childhood educators must find a way to balance all the parts of a young child’s life, says Jerlean Daniel, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and keynote speaker for the 2011 Albert M. Greenfield Memorial Lecture, “Our work is the real rocket science.”

According to Daniel, we need an early childhood curriculum that integrates all the parts of a child’s life, making the child, her family and her teachers partners through open-ended, two-way communication. We need a curriculum that supports not only children’s academic achievement, but their social and emotional development as well. In addition, Daniel said, “We need to take children seriously as partners in their own education.” They need to know what’s expected of them and how to take charge of their learning.

As a case in point, Daniel described her visit that morning to two Philadelphia Head Start classrooms using the Evidence-based Program for the Integration of Curricula (EPIC), a comprehensive, rigorously tested early childhood program designed by Penn GSE Professors John Fantuzzo, Vivian Gadsden, and Paul McDermott for preschool children from an underserved, minority urban population. It was clear that the children knew what was expected of them. “The teachers were not having to police the room… they were doing what adults in that community do – making materials available, working with small groups, but the children were working on their own and with each other. And when a dispute erupted, they handled it; they took charge.”

A substantive curriculum like EPIC’s, that conforms to national standards of learning, must also incorporate assessment proven to be appropriate for the population the curriculum serves.

Daniel named four things that early childhood educators need from an assessment tool.

Educators must be able to measure individual children’s progress, using assessments that are designed for and validated on the population the educators are actually working with. The assessments must show that children are learning what they need to learn and that the program they are following is meeting standards set by the government. Finally, the educators must be able use the information yielded by the assessments to adjust their instruction to each child’s needs and abilities. An assessment that fails to accomplish all of these goals is inadequate to the task, Daniel stated.

Finally, she said, early childhood educators need dynamic professional development, where they have an opportunity to work together, share ideas, and solve problems. “Instead of just handing them a book and saying, ‘Here’s the way we’re doing things now,’” Daniel said, “we must give teachers the autonomy to take control of their own work and their own learning.”

After Daniel’s keynote speech, a panel of Penn GSE scholars described how EPIC answers Daniel’s call for assessments, curricula and professional development that balance the needs of the whole child.

Professor Paul McDermott explained that EPIC’s assessment tool, the Learning Express, was developed to measure children’s progress in acquiring language, literacy, and math skills during the EPIC randomized controlled trial. Because standard assessments are designed for children who test in the 50th percentile, and the Head Start children for whom EPIC was designed generally fall between the 15th and 20th percentiles, the Learning Express had to be built as a criterion referenced test from the ground up, in conformity with national and state standards and with sensitivity to detect skill growth within one school year. The Learning Express was used to inform the development of the EPIC curriculum. It also provided evidence that contributed to the creation of the EPIC formative assessment measures, which are used by teachers to monitor children’s progress.

Professor Vivian Gadsden described how EPIC focuses on developing the whole child—not just academic skills, but also social and emotional development—through a series of scaffolded “building blocks” tailored to each child’s needs. EPIC allows teachers to engage children based on their individual differences and make adjustments as the children progress. One of the most important parts of EPIC is making connections with the children’s families, through oral and written communication, home learning activities, and displaying and celebrating the work that parents and other adults do with the children.

John DeFlaminis, executive director of the Penn Center for Educational Leadership, discussed distributed leadership, which is the basis for professional development in EPIC and which will be expanded and strengthened as EPIC grows. Distributed leadership forgoes traditional hierarchies in favor of leadership teams with shared responsibility for analyzing EPIC assessment data and adapting the curriculum to each child’s needs. Within these teams, teachers share their expertise as they collaborate and learn together, enhancing their competence and autonomy—a process, DeFlaminis said, that breeds a culture of success.

Following the panelists’ presentations the question and answer session focused primarily on the importance of connecting with families in meaningful ways.  Both Daniel and Gadsden stressed the need to work hard to understand families, to make the assumption that they want the best for their children, and to be persistent in identifying the “nugget of good intention” to build on. Daniel and DeFlaminis also spoke to the power of allowing teachers to take charge of their own professional development, capitalizing on what Daniel called “their thirst to be the best they can be.” DeFlaminis suggested that parents should be involved in future school-based distributed leadership teams so that the home and community environments that function as students’ teachers outside the classroom could contribute productively to the culture of success so necessary to children’s growth and development.

Greenfield Lecture convener Professor John Fantuzzo concluded the event with the statement that quality education for young children depends on making strong and dynamic connections – “a dance” between all of the components of early childhood education presented by Daniel and the expert panelists: purposeful assessment; integrated curriculum with substantive participation of families working in concert with educators; and dynamic professional development.