Review of Kaufman, Kaufman, and Nelson’s Learning Together: The Law, Politics, Economics, Pedagogy, and Neuroscience of Early Childhood Education

April 21, 2016

The early years prior to formal primary schooling are characterized by a wide range of experiences for children. As a result, it is not surprising that there are strong opinions both for and against the schooling that is provided for children at this age. Kaufman, Kaufman, and Nelson’s Learning Together: The Law, Politics, Economics, Pedagogy, and Neuroscience of Early Childhood Education provides a strong argument for investing in early childhood programs, emphasizing the educational, social, and economic benefits for children and the US as a whole. The authors stress the importance of providing high-quality programs, which they contend are characterized by a socially constructive approach to learning that develops children’s capacity to construct knowledge by building relationships. While a common misconception is that a socially constructive approach to early childhood education is bold and progressive, the authors make the case that it is actually supported through US educational policy, framers of the US constitution, and the foundations of American educational law.

The book is broken up into three sections. The first section outlines the political, pedagogical, legal, and economic case for investing in early childhood education. Several contentious points are brought to light as the history and philosophy of American education is put forth, such as the notion that America fails to provide adequate and equitable access to early childhood education and the huge racial and socioeconomic disparities that exist in terms of access. Despite the combined federal and local funding sources that are used for early childhood programs, an additional $24 billion would be needed to provide high-quality early childhood programs for every 4-year-old nationwide. Combined with dollars that are already being spent on early childhood, this would represent less than 10% of public funds spent on education. They also touch on alternative initiatives (i.e. standardized testing and school choice) to reform American education and show how early childhood bridges these other highly debated reforms by allocating public funds for both public and private providers.

The second section looks at the effectiveness of various pedagogical approaches and references numerous research studies to show the benefits of a social constructivist approach. Research that supports this type of classroom approach shows positive effects on children’s self-regulation and executive functioning skills, and these skills have been shown to produce even greater academic achievement effects later on. The Reggio Emilio and Tools of the Mind curriculums are offered as social constructivist curriculums. The section goes on to discuss how the latest neuroscience research also supports this approach, which shows how the brain is affected by early experiences.

The final section of the book gives strategies for increasing access and creating social constructivist classrooms. The authors review the use of litigation as one strategy, as well as the use of various public investments such as RTT and state sources. They conclude by sharing stories from social constructivist early child settings, which provide clear examples of what is necessary for a worthwhile investment.

Overall, this book is quite useful for providing a broad understanding of the history and philosophy of early childhood education, and an in-depth rationale for increasing our investment in EC programs. I would recommend it to anyone who is questioning the reasoning behind early childhood education. I would also recommend it to anyone interested in reviewing a substantial body of research on the effectiveness of high quality EC. Through its review of research on early childhood coupled with information on several court cases surrounding an adequate and efficient education, this book is a valuable resource for gaining an evidence-based understanding of the benefits of early childhood education.

While the final section on strategies for increasing access to early childhood programs and creating socially constructive classrooms is a useful read, it is more informative than practical. For instance, it says that we need to put more dollars into early childhood programs, but it does not give strategies for where that extra money can come from. If we need to add $24 billion to give every 4-year-old access to a high quality early education program, where can we pull this money from that will not severely hurt another initiative? The authors make an effort to advocate early childhood in place of standardized testing and school choice, but it is unlikely that perspectives on these two reforms will simply disappear with the introduction of universal access to early childhood programs.

Lastly, the authors present a thorough review of research that documents the benefits of the social constructivist approach. Thus, they recommend Reggio Emilio and Tools of the Mind as social constructivist curriculums. While social constructivism has indeed proven to be beneficial for children, it converges with constructivism in many areas and constructivist-based curriculums have also proven to result in large benefits. For instance, the High/Scope curriculum is widely used in the US and the authors touch on its impacts in detail in their review of the Perry preschool study. However, the two approaches are so polarized throughout the book even though they are similar in so many ways and both have shown positive impacts on children.

The authors will be expanding upon the information they put forth in Learning Together: The Law, Politics, Economics, Pedagogy, and Neuroscience of Early Childhood Education in a new book titled ‘The Pre-K Home Companion’, which is due to be released in June 2016. This latter book is targeted specifically toward families who seek to answer the question, “which Early Childhood program is best for my family?” It’s a useful read for a different audience and will also be reviewed on the NIEER website at the time it is released.

-Jessica Francis, NIEER Research Fellow

New Resources for Educators, Policy Makers and Families of Young DLLs

April 15, 2016

The challenges of educating young Hispanic DLLs is currently at the forefront of many conversations. Due to the sheer numbers of young DLLs aging into early care settings and kindergarten, the learning outcomes for preschool age DLLs has mounting implications for educators and policy makers alike. One aspect of the conversation centers on the importance of access to high quality preschool programs for young DLLS. Others focus on the challenges faced by educators and administrators when serving this growing population in their classrooms and schools. Policy makers and research groups have been working simultaneously to identify strategies and programmatic approaches that promise to help both teachers and their students. 

One facet of the conversation that has become increasingly emphasized is the potential benefit that bilingualism can bring if home language learning is fostered and valued within a school context for instruction. This goes against traditional perspectives on English language acquisition programs which have prized English proficiency as the overarching goal, using the home language as a transitional tool for adding English. Such practices have been shown to contribute to the loss of first language for students, which presents other challenges for children and families. Still, despite the benefits of dual language supportive classroom environments for early learners, this approach is not without limitations. This includes the lack of teachers who are bilingual themselves as well as a short supply of English speaking teachers who have the necessary training and guidance to work with young DLLs effectively. A lack of widespread understanding of not only best practices, but also of knowledge of DLL student learning trajectories also hinders this approach.

While research and evidence exists, documented hurdles in existing dual language efforts include a lack of uniformity across policies that regulate teacher preparation and credentialing, identification of DLL children’s language proficiencies for placement in bilingual programs, standards and guidance for teachers, and approaches towards family engagement. The lack of cohesive policies in turn creates DIY-type approaches and practices that vary widely from school to school, district to district, and state to state. This is particularly problematic when even those in leadership roles are in need of more information.

In efforts to help fill these gaps, the Heising-Simons and McKnight Foundations recently provided support for researchers to convene for a National Research Summit on the Early Care and Education of Dual Language Learners in Washington DC in the fall of 2014. Researchers were commissioned to create five papers that focused on new directions in research, policy, and practice relative to young DLLs. The summit allowed the researchers to present these papers as well as to engage in conversation with each other about how to move the field forward. Specifically, the topics of the papers include:

  • Research Based Models and Best Practices for DLLs across PreK-3;
  • Perspectives on Assessment of DLLs, PreK-3;
  • Human Resource Development;
  • The Critical Role of Leadership in Programs Designed for DLLs,
  • PreK-3; Policy Advances & Levers Related to DLLs in PreK-3

These papers are now accessible, as are shorter briefs tailored to various audiences including administrators, “policy makers,” “policy thinkers,” and a specific set for parents available in seven different languages. Because the briefs are a product of both the papers and the discussions of the summit, they provide a rich set of recommendations for all the audiences that they were intended for.  

While the research community and the educators that work with young DLLs work to provide the best experiences possible, there is still much to be learned. Educators and practitioners who are steeped in their already demanding work need access to current information and tools that can guide their practice. These papers are an important resource as they address not only researchers and policy makers, but parents and teachers as well. In short, change can only come about when these key groups are included as participants in the discussion. The papers highlight the importance of specialized approaches to educating dual language learners and how directors, teachers, families and children need to be supported, and why.

–Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, NIEER Senior Research Coordinator

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