Formative Assessment:  Points to Consider for Policy Makers, Teachers, and Researchers

April 16, 2014

Formative assessment is one area in early childhood education where policy is moving at lightning speed. There’s been a lot of support for the appropriateness of this approach to assessment for young learners. Many policy makers and data users have “talked the talk,” perfecting the lingo and pushing the implementation of policies for this approach. Yet there are essential questions to consider when rolling out a plan or process for a state. In the brief released by the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO), I outline several considerations for policy makers in moving such initiatives. They’re briefly outlined below, along with considerations for teachers and researchers.

For Policy Makers

Policies around formative assessment in early childhood education will be most successful when the below “top 10” items are considered thoughtfully before implementing.

Overall Considerations for Policymakers Responsible for Formative Assessment Systems

  1. Does the purpose of the assessment match the intended use of the assessment? Is it appropriate for the age and background of the children who will be assessed?
  2. Does the assessment combine information from multiple sources/caregivers?
  3. Are the necessary contextual supports in place to roll out the assessment and use data effectively? (e.g., training, time, ongoing support)
  4. Does the assessment have a base or trajectory/continuum aligned to child developmental expectations, standards, and curricula?  Does it include all key domains?
  5. Does the assessment have a systematic approach and acceptable reliability and validity data?   Has it been used successfully with similar children?
  6. Are the data easily collected and interpreted to effectively inform teaching and learning?
  7. What technology is necessary to gather data?
  8. Are the data useful to teachers and other stakeholders?
  9. What are the policies for implementation and what is the roll-out plan for the assessment?
  10.  Will data be gathered and maintained within FERPA and other security guidelines? Are there processes in place to inform stakeholders about how data are being gathered and held securely to allay concerns?

I encourage all stakeholders in assessment (policy makers, administrators, parents/caregivers, etc.) to exercise patience with teachers learning the science of this process and perfecting the art of implementing such an approach. Although many effective teachers across the decades have been doing this instinctively, as we make the approach more systematic, explicit, and transparent, teachers may have a steep learning curve. However, with the considerations above as a part of the decision-making process, teachers will find it easier to be successful.  This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering  formative assessment. The report defines formative assessment and outlines its process and  application in the context of early childhood. The substance of this document is the issues for  consideration in the implementation of the formative assessment process. This guide provides a  practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of  selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering formative assessment. This guide provides a practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.

For Teachers

The intent of formative assessment is to implement the process of using data (observation or other) to inform individualized instruction. The link between this type of embedded assessment and instruction should be seamless. Teachers work with great effort at this on several different levels. Effective early childhood teachers:

  • use immediate feedback from children in the moment and adjust the interaction based on this feedback.
  • collect evidence over time to evaluate the child’s growth and to plan long-term learning goals. These goals are reviewed periodically and adjusted based on new evidence.
  • look at aggregate data across their classrooms.  They examine the data for trends and self-reflect on their teaching practices based on what the data are showing.

For Researchers

We must move forward by setting a strong research agenda on the effects of formative assessment in early childhood classrooms–and not allow policy to outpace research.  We need further research around using formative assessment processes to collect, analyze, and use the data to improve teaching and learning in the early childhood classroom. This must first include randomized trials of formative assessment, to examine the impact on classroom quality and child outcomes. The field needs a clear understanding of how teachers are trained and supported in collecting and using the data, and just what supports are needed for success. This should be coupled with a qualitative understanding of how teachers are using data in their classrooms. Finally, an understanding of who is using the data, in what capacity–and how it fits within the larger assessment system–should be components of any examination of formative assessment.

- Shannon Riley-Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER and CEELO


What the new OCR early childhood data do and do not tell us

March 26, 2014

Recently released to great interest is the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Early Childhood Data Snapshot. I want to call additional attention to this document and the survey behind it for two reasons. First, these new data identify serious educational problems that deserve more than one day in the sun. Second, these OCR data have significant limitations that policy makers, the media, and others should understand when using them. Public preschool education is delivered by a complex, interagency, mixed-delivery system that makes it more difficult to measure than K-12. Unless key limitations of the OCR survey are taken into account, users of the data can reach incorrect conclusions. For example, it was widely reported that 40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool. This is untrue: at the very least, every preschooler with a disability is offered a free appropriate education. The OCR survey also undercounts the provision of preschool education nationally, and its accuracy varies by state, which makes cross-state comparisons particularly perilous. Finally, definitions of such key terms as “suspension” are not what most people would assume, which complicates the interpretation of some high-profile findings.

Data from this OCR survey point to problems with access to preschool education and with policies regarding suspensions from preschool programs and retention (grade repetition) in kindergarten.

  • Every child should have access to high-quality preschool education. Yet, nearly half of all 3- and 4-year-olds do not attend any preschool program, public or private, and even at age 4, when attendance is more common, just 64% of 4-year-olds not yet in kindergarten attend preschool, according the 2012 Current Population Survey.
  • The only “zero tolerance” policy that should apply in preschool is that there should be no preschool suspensions. Yet, a substantial number of preschoolers are suspended each year, with boys and African-American children more likely to be suspended than others. States and LEAs should examine their data, practices, and policies closely to prevent this problem.
  • States should look closely at their policies regarding kindergarten grade retention. Does it really make sense to pay for more than 1 in 10, or even 1 in 20, children to attend kindergarten twice? Better access to high-quality preschools, and added services in kindergarten such as tutoring for children who are behind, could be much more cost-effective. States with high kindergarten retention rates should be looking into why they are retaining so many children and what can be done to reduce these rates.

Universal access to high-quality public preschool addresses all of these problems. Better teachers, smaller classes, and more support from coaches and others would reduce suspensions. Such preschools would have more appropriate expectations for behavior, and teachers who can support the development of executive functions that minimize behavior problems. The lower quality of preschools attended by African-American children may partly explain their higher rates of preschool suspension. Finally, good preschool programs have been shown to reduce grade repetition, though bad policies are likely behind many of the high rates of kindergarten retention.

The importance of the problems identified by the OCR data raises another key issue to which most of this article is devoted: to use the data appropriately we must understand the limitations of the data and make sure we interpret them correctly.

Access is Complicated

Let us begin with the finding that “40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool.”  Federal and state laws require that every child with a disability be offered a free, appropriate education from ages three to five. Yet OCR data do not seem to consistently include these children when reporting preschool special education at either the LEA or school level. One reason is that some “school districts” include only older children, e.g., high school districts and vocational school districts. (About 1 percent of high school districts also provide preschool, typically to serve children of teen parents or as a vocational training program.) Limiting the analysis to districts with kindergarten, 70 percent report that they provide preschool, which still seems low. This is partly because some agencies other than LEAs are responsible for preschool special education services. It is also possible that some LEAs mistakenly stated that preschool was not provided. Turning to the number of children reported served, rather than the number of districts serving them, we find a similar problem. School reports undercount the numbers of preschool children receiving services, and the undercount is a bigger problem in some states than others. (A complete copy of the questionnaire can be downloaded here.)

The most obvious explanation for these undercounts is that the OCR survey respondents interpret the questions asking about children served in public school buildings.  At the district level, the OCR survey asks LEAs to first report the number of schools and then to report on their provision of preschool services. This may have led some districts to respond positively only when they served preschool children in public school buildings. At the school level, the OCR survey asks individual schools to report on whether they offer preschool programs and services “at this school” and the enrollment count table specifies “only for schools with these programs/services.”  Whether or not this has any influence on LEA interpretation of the survey, it seems likely that each school reports only preschool offered physically in that school.

Different Data Sources Yield Different Counts

Just how different are the OCR numbers on enrollment from estimates of total enrollment in preschool education offered by states and local education agencies derived from other data sets?  The OCR survey reports 1.4 million enrolled. Data from the Current Population Survey, minus Head Start enrollment, leads to an estimate of about 1.8 million children attending state and local preschool education programs, indicating that the OCR survey is low by about 400,000 children or 22% of the total. In terms of preschool special education services, the OCR data report about 300,000 children, but the Office of Special Education Programs reports 430,000 3- and 4-year-olds receiving special education services under IDEA, and there are additional preschoolers served who are older (while younger children are included in the OCR data). Preschool special education may account for a substantial portion of the undercount, but it seems unlikely to account for the majority of the problem. In sum, the OCR survey undercounts of numbers of children receiving public preschool education from states and LEAs when those served outside public schools are included.

State Approaches Vary

As states differ in how they fund and operate preschool education, the extent to which the OCR data comprehensively capture preschool enrollment varies greatly by state. Looking state by state, it appears that the OCR survey performed fairly well in measuring regular preschool enrollment in most states. However, it grossly undercounted preschool provision in Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. These states make extensive use of private providers for public preschool education. In addition, the OCR figures diverge significantly from the IDEA counts for 10 other states. There are a number of possible reasons for more widespread “undercounting” of preschool special education including: contracting with private providers for special education, responsibility for preschool special education in agencies other than LEAs, and service delivery in homes and other nonpublic school settings. Some preschoolers receive only individualized therapy or other services under IDEA, rather than a publicly provided classroom experience, but neither the OCR nor other data sets allow for the determination of how many children receiving IDEA services are in classrooms funded by public education.

For some states, the data appear to be reasonably accurate when compared to data for the same year from NIEER.[1] Data from the NIEER Yearbook as well as the OCR report are compared below for select states. For states like Georgia and Florida, where many programs are not funded through LEAs, this comparison indicates that the OCR numbers are very incomplete measures of the number of children provided with public preschool education. Relative to total enrollment in state-funded preschool education (which does not include all LEA provision or all preschool special education), Florida is undercounted by about 120,000 and Georgia by more than 30,000. Even in states where funding flows through districts, many children seem likely to have been unreported because they are not served in public schools, which seems to be the case in New York. Also interesting is the case of Wyoming which served 2,207 preschoolers aged 3 and 4 under IDEA, yet the OCR report has Wyoming serving just 13 children under IDEA. While the discrepancies could result primarily from OCR school level respondents counting only children served in public school buildings, this may not be a complete explanation.

State

NIEER Preschool Yearbook OCR Report
State-Funded Pre-K Enrollment
IDEA Enrollment, 3s and 4s (from Office of Special Education)
Public School Preschool Enrollment
Special Education Enrollment
Florida 175,122 21,007 57,286 16,351
Georgia 82,868 8,561 50,779 8,612
New Jersey 51,540 10,683 48,186 9,839
New York 102,568 45,390 56,540 3,857
Wyoming 0 2,207 624 13

New Jersey allows us to conduct a more fine-grained comparison of OCR data with data from LEAs that include children served by private providers. A simple statewide comparison might suggest reasonably full reporting for New Jersey. New Jersey enrolled about 51,000 children in state-funded pre-K which is not very different from the OCR number. However, about half of the 51,000 in state-funded programs attended private providers (including Head Starts) contracted with districts. New Jersey’s districts vary greatly in the extent to which they serve preschoolers through private providers.  When we look at the numbers district by district, we find that the OCR and district totals closely correspond for districts serving children only or overwhelmingly in public school buildings, but  for districts relying heavily on contracted private providers the OCR numbers correspond closely only to the numbers in public school buildings. The OCR report identifies more than 20,000 preschoolers served in New Jersey public schools who are not funded through the state pre-K programs, which just happens to be close to the number served under contract who are not in the OCR data. This strengthens our conclusion that the OCR data represent only children in public school buildings. This is not to fault the OCR survey in the sense that this is what it is designed to do, but this is not how the OCR data have been widely interpreted, nor is it adequate as a survey of preschool education offered through the public schools (and not just in their own facilities).

Suspension and Retention Data

Given the limitations of the OCR data on numbers of children served, the total numbers should not be used as estimates of all children provided preschool education by the states and LEAs. They much more closely approximate the numbers served in public school buildings. Comparisons across states, LEAs, and schools, should be approached with great caution. It is unclear exactly how this might affect the percentage of children reported as suspended, but it seems unlikely to overturn either the general conclusion that suspensions occur at a disturbing rate or that they are higher for African American children and boys. However, comparisons of suspensions across states or districts might be distorted by limitations of the data.

Another aspect of the survey with the potential for misunderstanding is presented by the definition of “suspensions.”  In the OCR survey the definition includes not just children who have been sent home, but also those temporarily served in other programs offering special services for children with behavior problems. Such placements are not necessarily bad for children or to be avoided. However, the data do not allow for any division between children sent home and children sent to more appropriate placements. Nevertheless, the high rate at which children are temporarily removed from their regular classrooms for behavior problems is cause for concern.

The accuracy of the kindergarten retention data also deserves scrutiny. Earlier this year, NIEER collected state data on grade repetition by grade level from state sources of information, though not all for the 2011-12 year. Across all 27 states for which we obtained data, our figures averaged 8/10 of a percentage point lower. Comparing only those for which we had 2011-12 data, our figures averaged ½ of one percent lower. At least judged relative to the only other source we have, the OCR retention data seem reasonably accurate. That the OCR data are slightly higher might reflect efforts to minimize the appearance of a problem.  There are some large discrepancies for a few states. Arkansas had 12 percent kindergarten retention in the OCR data and 6 percent in the state data we obtained; Michigan had 7 percent kindergarten retention in the OCR data and 12 percent in the state data we obtained. For such states, it may be useful to review the data on a district-by-district or school-by-school basis to identify reasons for the discrepancies. Even with kindergarten retention there can be differences due to interpretation. For example, should children who enter a transitional kindergarten program after kindergarten be considered retained?  What about children who enter kindergarten after a year of transitional K?  Any problems with the data would not negate the conclusion that some states have very high rates compared to others and that this deserves consideration by policy makers.

Overall, OCR has provided a valuable service by collecting these early childhood data. Without the OCR data, there would be no basis for raising the issue of preschool suspensions and no way to track progress on this issue in the future. Similarly, without the OCR data there would be no basis for comprehensive state-by-state comparisons on grade retention at kindergarten. Nevertheless, great care must to be taken to recognize the limitations of the OCR data, and the federal government should do more to reduce those limitations. OCR is already working to improve the next survey. Ultimately, they may have to go beyond a school-based survey, because much of public education for preschool children takes place outside of public school buildings even when it is under the auspices of the state education agency (SEA). And, in some states public preschool education is not entirely under the SEA. Possibly, states could supplement LEA data by providing the same basic information for preschoolers they serve outside public school buildings. In addition, procedures might be added to verify that respondents properly understand all questions, especially for states where the responses seem at odds with data from other sources. Some data might be collected in more detail: preschoolers suspended at home with no services separated from those in alternative placements; preschool education children in classrooms separated from those served elsewhere; and, transitional K separated from repetition in regular K.  If you have additional suggestions, particularly based on knowledge of your state’s preschool services systems, OCR would undoubtedly welcome them.

- Steve Barnett, NIEER Director

 

[1] Though NIEER data report on enrollment in state-funded pre-K enrollments, they do not include LEA preschool services that are not part of state-funded pre-K or IDEA; NIEER data will not capture the full undercount.


The Empire State Leads the Way

March 18, 2014

Two of New York’s most distinguished leaders who shared a family name (Roosevelt) were strong advocates for the 99 percent, long before that term was common with their campaigns for the “Square Deal” and the “New Deal.” Today’s leaders are poised to echo their efforts with what might be called the “Real Deal.” A key element of the real deal is to give every child access to a world class 21st Century education, beginning with high quality pre-K for all.  New York State has been promising universal preschool to its children for 20 years. With leadership from the NYC Mayor, the Governor, and Legislators in the Senate and Assembly they are finally moving to fulfill that promise–a victory for New York’s young learners and the middle class. Last week, the State Senate proposed supporting free full-day prekindergarten and after-school programs in New York City with $540 million per year in state funds over 5 years.  The Assembly has already endorsed Mayor de Blasio’s plan for expansion with a pre-K and after-school tax on NYC’s wealthiest.

The next step is for leaders to come together behind a single plan to move forward, with a firm commitment to financing and a timeline for delivering on this promise. Recent statements indicate that New York’s leaders are prepared to put partisanship and personal ambition aside to do right by the state’s children.  The Assembly and Mayor have indicated they can accept the Senate plan. The Governor has repeatedly said he supports fully funding pre-K and should join them and make this plan a reality. If he does so, he will have propelled the preschool-for-all movement to a major turning point, not just in New York, but in the nation.  New York is the third most populous state.  If it were an independent country it would have the world’s 16th largest economy. With high-quality public education beginning at age four for all, New York will become a model for other states and even countries beyond our borders.

As we reported in our 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook, New York State has some way to go to achieve this goal of national and international leadership in early education.  It currently serves about 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, ranking ninth in the nation for enrollment, but funding per child has not kept pace with program expansion, jeopardizing quality.
NY state enrollment
NY state spending

Providing adequate funding and a timeline for implementation is a major step toward the real deal in pre-K, but political leaders must also support the hard work needed to successfully implement this plan and deliver the promise.  This will require a relentless focus on quality, and a shift from campaigning to governing that will provide pre-K programs with the support and accountability required to achieve and maintain excellence in every pre-K classroom.  At this stage it is important to ensure that state and local agencies have the resources to guide this continuous improvement process, as in other states where pre-K has produced the promised results (Michigan, North Carolina, and New Jersey, to name a few).

When well implemented, pre-K is a valuable and important long-term investment.  At NIEER we estimate that by offering all children quality pre-K, New York will actually realize a net reduction of more than $1 billion in its education budget by 2030. This figure includes cost-savings as a result of reducing special education placement and grade retention.  It does not include other long-term benefits from improving the education of New York’s children–increased productivity and economic growth and better health outcomes, among them.

New York isn’t alone in the pre-K push. Even states that have not historically supported pre-K are getting in on the investment, including: a small program in Hawaii; a pilot program in Indiana; and a new program legislated in Mississippi.  Yet, New York’s UPK initiative, if done well, could become the nation’s leading example of good early education policy because of its proposed quality and scale.  It’s time for every New Yorker to get behind this initiative and work with the Governor, Mayor, and legislative leaders of both parties, to carry through on New York’s 20-year-old promise.

- Steve Barnett, Director

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


Teacher-led? Child-guided? Find the Balance in Preschool Classrooms

March 7, 2014

By Kimberly Brenneman, NIEER Assistant Research Professor

“Stick to the rules that I say.”  It’s a refrain from my childhood, uttered by my next-door neighbor to make clear that while we were playing at her house, she got to choose what we did and how we did it and to change her mind any time she pleased. I’m sometimes reminded of these backyard days when I read the debates on play in early childhood classrooms.  It’s almost as if some believe that a teacher who plans and leads learning experiences is telling children to “stick to the rules that she says.”

In a recent study[i], colleagues and I explored the possibility that, rather than limiting children’s free play science interactions, a planned, whole group lesson might actually enhance them.  We introduced kids to the function of a balance scale during morning meeting.  The lesson was interactive, and kids got to hold items to feel which was heavier, then put them on the scale to find out that the side with the heavier item always tipped down.  Then we tested a few pairs of items that were hard to distinguish by felt weight.  It became clear that the function of the balance scale was to help us know which of two things was heavier when our sense of felt weight could not.  After the lesson, we adults placed the scale back in the science area with no comment and children were let loose to interact with centers as they wished.  Meanwhile, we observed the science area and counted the number of minutes that children were present there.  We had done similar counts prior to the balance scale intervention and found few children went to the science area, and no child ever touched the balance scale.  After the intervention, many children went to the science area to explore the balance scale and, while doing so, found lots of other interesting objects and possibilities for play.  Their knowledge of the function of the scale also increased, compared to their earlier knowledge and to that of children who hadn’t participated in the balance scale intervention.

A balance scale in action in a classroom. Photos courtesy of Kimberly Brenneman.

A balance scale in action in a classroom. Photos courtesy of Kimberly Brenneman.

We don’t know how much of what kids learned about the scale originated in the large group experience, and how much from interacting with the scale during choice time.  What we do know is, that without an adult intervention to introduce kids to this tool, it is unlikely any of them would’ve learned about it on their own.  None of them ever went near it. Using an engaging and interactive planned lesson to show and explain how a tool or material is used need not mean that play and self-guided exploration have been stifled.  Instead these teaching strategies could mark the beginning of higher quality play and increased learning, guided by children, but inspired by their teacher.

[i] Nayfeld, I., Brenneman, K., & Gelman, R.  (2011).  Science in the classroom: Finding a balance between autonomous exploration and teacher-led instruction in preschool settings. Early Education & Development, 22(6), 970-988.


Play, Mathematics, and False Dichotomies

March 3, 2014


NIEER is hosting a blog forum on play-based learning in early childhood education, including posts from national experts in the field. Learn more about the forum here. Some worry that the push for quality education even partially driven by a desire to improve achievement may deprive children of important childhood experiences. Others worry that unstructured play without teacher engagement does little to develop children’s minds, particularly for children at high risk of academic failure. 

By Douglas H. Clements & Julie Sarama, University of Denver

Let’s stop the cycle of “abuse”—or at least confusion—that stems from false dichotomies in early education. “Play vs. academics” is arguably the main one. Of course children should play. But this does not mean they should not learn, and even play, with mathematics. Consider the following.

  1. In their free play, children naturally engage in mathematics.[i] Observations of preschoolers show that when they play, they engage in mathematical thinking at least once in almost half of each minute of play. Almost 9 out of 10 of children engage in at one or more math activities during play episodes.[ii]
  2. This mathematical play reveals intuitive knowledge of many concepts that most people think young children can’t understand, from arithmetic, to proportions, to parallelism and right angles. Unfortunately, the same children may not “understand” these concepts when they arrive in middle school. If they are not helped to mathematize (reflect on, give language to) their early “theorems in action,”[iii] the ideas do not become theorems in thought.
  3. Many adults, including early educators, believe that sequenced, intentional instruction will harm children’s play. These concerns are misplaced. Math and literacy instruction increase the quality of young children’s play. Children in classrooms with a stronger emphasis on literacy or math are more likely to engage in a higher quality of social-dramatic play.[iv] The new ideas energize high-level play activity. Thus, high-quality instruction in math and high-quality free play do not have to “compete” for time in the classroom. Doing both makes each richer. Unfortunately, many adults believe that “open-ended free play” is good and “lessons” in math are not.[v]  They don’t believe that preschoolers need specific math teaching.[vi] They don’t realize that they are depriving children not only of the joy and fascination of mathematics, but of higher-quality free play as well.
  4. If children play with mathematical objects before they’re asked to solve problems with them, they are more successful and more creative.[vii]
  5. These and other examples bring us to a fascinating type of play: mathematical play. Here we do not mean play that involves mathematics. We mean playing with mathematics itself.
    building blocks

What does this look like in action? Just after her fourth birthday, Abby was playing with three of the five identical toy train engines her father had brought home. Passing by, her mother asked, “Where are the other trains?” Although her mother was out of sight, Abby spoke to herself. “Oh, I have five. Ummm…[pointing to each engine] you are one, two three. I’m missing ‘four’ and ‘five’—two are missing! [She played with the trains for another minute.] No, I changed my mind…I have ‘one,’ ‘three,’ and ‘five.’ I’m missing ‘two’ and ‘four.’ I gotta find them two.”

When Abby first figured out how many she was missing, she was using math in her play. But when she decided that she would renumber the three engines she had with her ‘one,’ ‘three,’ and ‘five’ and the missing engines ‘two’ and ‘four’ she was playing with the notion that the assignment of numbers to a collection of objects is arbitrary. She was counting not just objects, but also words. She counted the words “four, five” to see there were two missing, and then figured that counting the renumbered counting words “two” and “four” also yielded the result of “two.” She was playing with the idea that counting words themselves could be counted.

What does all this mean regarding children’s development and learning? Free play experiences form the intuitive, implicit conceptual foundation for later mathematics. Later, children represent and elaborate these ideas—creating models of an everyday activity with mathematical objects, such as numbers and shapes; mathematical actions, such as counting or transforming shapes; and their structural relationships. This is the process of mathematization.[viii]. Recognizing the difference between foundational and mathematized experiences is necessary to avoid confusion about the type of activity in which children are engaged.[ix] They need both.

Unfortunately, adults often do not provide the mathematics experiences.[x] Our own work with teachers on curricula has been stonewalled many times by an administrator saying: “Our philosophy is that we are play-based.” Not only does this statement ignore all the evidence on play and learning,[xi] it is based on a pernicious false dichotomy that harms the children in their care. 

In summary, young children engage in significant mathematical thinking and reasoning in their play, especially if

(a) they have knowledge about the materials they are using (e.g., building blocks or other manipulatives or toys),

(b) the task is understandable and motivating, and

(c) the context is familiar and comfortable.[xii]

Math can be integrated with children’s ongoing play and activities…but this usually requires a curriculum and a knowledgeable adult who creates a supportive environment and provides challenges, suggestions, tasks, and language. Combining free play with intentional teaching, and promoting play with mathematical objects and mathematical ideas is pedagogically powerful.[xiii]

References


[i] van Oers, B. (1996). Are you sure? Stimulating mathematical thinking during young children’s play. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 4, 71-87.

[ii] Seo, K.-H., & Ginsburg, H. P. (2004). What is developmentally appropriate in early childhood mathematics education? In D. H. Clements, J. Sarama & A.-M. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education (pp. 91-104). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

[iii] Vergnaud, G. (1978). The acquisition of arithmetical concepts. In E. Cohors-Fresenborg & I. Wachsmuth (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2nd Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (pp. 344-355). Osnabruck, Germany.

[iv] Aydogan, C., Plummer, C., Kang, S. J., Bilbrey, C., Farran, D. C., & Lipsey, M. W. (2005). An investigation of prekindergarten curricula: Influences on classroom characteristics and child engagement. Paper presented at the NAEYC, Washington, DC.

[v] Sarama, J. (2002). Listening to teachers: Planning for professional development. Teaching Children Mathematics, 9, 36-39.

Sarama, J., & DiBiase, A.-M. (2004). The professional development challenge in preschool mathematics. In D. H. Clements, J. Sarama & A.-M. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education (pp. 415-446). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

[vi] Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2009). Learning and teaching early math: The learning trajectories approach. New York, NY: Routledge.

[vii] Bruner, J. (1985). On teaching thinking:  An afterthought. In S. F. Chipman, J. W. Segal & R. Glaser (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills.  Volume 2:  Research and open questions (Vol. 2, pp. 597-608). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Holton, D., Ahmed, A., Williams, H., & Hill, C. (2001). On the importance of mathematical play. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 32, 401-415.

[viii] Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2009). Early childhood mathematics education research: Learning trajectories for young children. New York, NY: Routledge.

[ix] Kronholz, J. (2000, May 16). See Johnny jump! Hey, isn’t it math he’s really doing?, The Wall Street Journal, p. A1; A12.

[x] Tudge, J. R. H., & Doucet, F. (2004). Early mathematical experiences: Observing young Black and White children’s everyday activities. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19, 21-39.

[xi] Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2009). Building blocks and cognitive building blocks: Playing to know the world mathematically. American Journal of Play, 1, 313-337.

[xii] Alexander, P. A., White, C. S., & Daugherty, M. (1997). Analogical reasoning and early mathematics learning. In L. D. English (Ed.), Mathematical reasoning: Analogies, metaphors, and images (pp. 117-147). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

[xiii] Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2005a). Math play. Parent & Child, 12(4), 36-45.

Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2005b). Math play: How young children approach math. Early Childhood Today, 19(4), 50-57.

Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (in press). Learning and teaching early math: The learning trajectories approach (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.


Reflections on Play: Join the Conversation

February 25, 2014

The early childhood field has a history of conflict over means and goals that periodically erupts into public debates about the role of play versus academics and construction versus instruction. Concerns about whether preschool and kindergarten have become too stressful and regimented are met head on with concerns that they are academically weak and fail to cognitively challenge children. These conflicts have been intensified by increased demands for assessment  and Common Core State Standards driving curriculum in the early grades.

kids playing dressup

Some worry that the push for quality education even partially driven by a desire to improve achievement may deprive children of important childhood experiences. Others worry that unstructured play without teacher engagement does little to develop children’s minds, particularly for children at high risk of academic failure. Fears are further fanned through research with one recent study reporting that kindergarten may be “too easy,”  and another questioning the assumption of causal relationships between play and child development in the areas of creativity, reasoning, and executive function.

If this debate takes place only in the popular press it seems all too likely that we will be propelled into yet another unproductive and oversimplified debate over play versus academics. To promote a better discussion, NIEER will be hosting a conversation beginning with brief blog posts from experts in early childhood education on play; the goals, content, and methods of early education; and what best practice should look like in the early years. We want you to get involved! Leave comments on the blog with your own thoughts on play-based learning in preschool, share resources on Facebook and Twitter, and catch up on our past writings on the importance of play.


The Profound Impact of Early Education

February 10, 2014

Every family in the United States should be able enroll their child in good preschool program, beginning at age three and ought to have access to good child care–including that provided by themselves at home–for infants and toddlers.  The benefits would be profound for our children and the larger society, especially children from low-income families–half of all young children–but not only for them. Today we are far from achieving this vision of a more nurturing society and our progress has been painfully slow over the last two decades.  All levels of government will have to increase their support for young children and families, including the federal government which can best lead the way by priming the pump–providing financial support and incentives that encourage and enable state and local governments to develop sustainable quality programs.  For example, federal matching funds that start off big and gradually decline are well-designed to address the major challenge to state and local funding of pre-K: states must pay for pre-K now, but the off-setting cost-savings grow year by year as children progress through the grades.

Only about half of 3-and-4-year-olds attend a preschool program. From a national observational study where the quality of care for 4-year-olds was directly observed, we know that few children attend good preschool programs. Public programs improve quality somewhat for children in poverty, so children in middle-income families actually attend worse programs on average. However, many young children are in family day care homes that provide even worse care, so much so that the family day care homes attended by most African-American and Hispanic children are of low quality. Our under-funded child care subsidy systems are perversely designed to encourage this and may actually increase the number of children in settings that harm their development.  As Cindy Lamy and I point out in our chapter in the recently published book Closing the Opportunity Gap, edited by Prudence Carter and Kevin Welner, much of the educational failure and inequality that plagues our country is rooted in children’s experiences before they enter kindergarten.

In recent debates some have claimed that the federal government already spends a great deal on the care and education of young children and that most of this is wasted on ineffective programs. These claims are based on faulty math and misrepresentation of the evidence. Take for example, Grover Whitehurst’s estimate that the federal government spends $5,000 on every young child in poverty. He begins with $20 billion in annual spending on children–fair enough, Ron Haskins and I calculated that number together. But there are 5 million children in poverty, which yields $4,000 per child in poverty. And, of course, all of this is not spent just on children in poverty, so it would be much more reasonable to divide by the number of children under 5 in low income families = about 10 million children, and a  figure of $2,000 per child.

How does federal spending on disadvantaged young children’s care and education compare with federal largesse more generally?  Let’s consider two examples. The tax break for capital gains and dividends which allows wealthy hedge fund managers to pay a 15% income tax rate costs taxpayers $83 billion annually. In 2012, the federal government spent more than $20 billion on farm subsidies received by a small, relatively wealthy population. The 2014 farm bill increases so-called “crop insurance” subsidies that are actually open-ended revenue insurance for farmers.  If Congress set evidence-based priorities for all programs based on returns to the taxpayers, young children would see more money, not less.

What about the claims that federal money spent on young children is wasted?  I would have to agree that lost opportunities abound, but not as the critic’s suppose. Let’s get this clear: the Head Start national impact study’s oft cited intent-to-treat estimates grossly underestimate the program’s actual impacts, and even modest Head Start benefits likely generate benefits that exceed costs. Critics also seem to be in some kind of time warp that missed the last decade of Head Start reform and the evidence that these reforms increased effects on language and literacy development (if only Congress would call an expert in early language and literacy development to testify, surely this would be noted).

The biggest problems with federal programs for young children are that they ask too much of too little money. Nevertheless, both child care and Head Start spending could be better focused on learning and teaching. No amount of wishful thinking will permit this to be accomplished by reducing their budgets or just giving the money to states. The first step to improve Head Start should be doubling notoriously low salaries for highly effective teachers. The second step should be to dramatically reduce bureaucratic compliance requirements for any Head Start that agrees to be judged instead by teaching quality and children’s learning gains. The President’s pre-K proposal is in its own way a Head Start reform proposal that puts states in charge of the education of 4-year-olds; those two steps I set out above would go far toward enabling Head Start to integrate with and enhance state pre-K. States like West Virginia and New Jersey have already successfully integrated their programs with Head Start and child care at high standards. Federal policy that followed such leads could support states to significantly improve opportunity for America’s youngest citizens.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “The ‘Noble Intention’ of Giving Early Education” from Fawn Johnson.


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