Early childhood education has evolved rapidly in the previous two decades. Not only has the number of children to preschool programs risen substantially, the government and parents are becoming increasingly aware of the high chances of success of children attending preschools. Research and studies have highlighted the preparedness of children when sent to preschools. The government has taken substantial measures to ensure that there is “no child left behind” in availing education initiatives are being taken to ensure the optimal academic growth of children to which preschool education is a major contributor.
The article aims to explore the issues related with the preschool programs. The article aims to additionally highlight the importance of preschool education in children and how it can prove highly beneficial to the cognitive and social development of children. In doing so the author attempts to expose some of the differences in the approaches taken by different preschools while elucidating the two most common approaches, instructivist and constructivist.
The article explores the preschool programs in California and the different kinds of techniques and approaches employed, thereby elucidating the effects of the same on the children. Further, the author aims to shed some light on the state of private and public preschools as also the preschools for the low-income groups which are free of cost.
In doing so, the author aspires to emphasize the fact that the primary goals of all preschools are the optimal development of the children and as such a combination of approaches must be employed to devise the best programs suited for children.
Preschool education in the United States of America dates back to the early eighteenth century, and essentially began for infants to be educated “outside the home”, since their parents were not believed to be capable enough to educate them at home (Beatty, 1995). The kindergarten schools were founded in the nineteenth century by Friedrich Froebel in Germany and progressed in America as public and private kindergarten institutions.
While the early nineteenth century witnessed the development of many private nursery schools, the government has stepped up efforts to establish public preschools essentially for the poor children by way of the ‘Head Start’ program. Abigail Eliot, the founder of the earliest nursery school in America and Sheldon White, a psychologist who played a key part in the Head Start program are believed to be key personalities in the development of preschool education in the United States.
In a startling revelation by the study, it is now understood that only one child out of ten, below the age of four years, is able to avail of the state program for preschool children. It has further been disclosed that, California has reduced its funding per child as compared to the previous years NIEER (2005). Asserting that California “is falling behind”, and has “remained on the side lines” in its ability to ensure that “all children have access to preschool and enter kindergarten ready to learn” (NIEER, 2005).
The major findings of the report depict that California is at the nineteenth position among the thirty-eight states that have funding programs for preschool children (NIEER, 2005). California has also been shown to rank below the states of Texas, West Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Kansas, and Arkansas in the enrollment of preschool children for programs that would help to ensure their readiness for school (NIEER, 2005). This information about the extent of the problem should be presented in Ch 1: Background of the Problem.
The report also elaborates that the state of California falls short in meeting with the quality standards of preschool programs. Asserting the importance of preschool programs in facilitating the chances of students in kindergarten and the future academic years, the report affirms that the state of California is not compliant with the class size pre-requisites or the education of teachers involved in preschool programs (NIEER, 2005). The report elaborates that seventeen states of America have necessitated the need for college degrees for teaching preschool children which is a prime “component of the Proposition 82”, but California has failed to do the same (NIEER, 2005).
The report additionally confirms that the funding for the preschool programs for the state of California has seen a marked reduction by 2.1 million dollars in the period of three years starting from the year 2001-2002 to the year 2004-2005, showing a subsequent decrease in the average funding for each child by two hundred and eight dollars (NIEER, 2005). The report affirms that the Proposition 82 has the capacity to fund all quality preschool programs for children (NIEER, 2005).
The need for Preschool education to meet the demands of the Current Curriculum
More and more kindergarten schools are now including relatively advanced curricula and syllabi in their programs as a result of which it has become imperative for parents to equip their children to succeed in their kindergarten schools. Pre-school experience and learning have therefore adopted a substantial shift in their content in order to match up with kindergarten programs. While there are many disagreements regarding the syllabus and the methods of instructions in the fields of childhood educational programs, notable shifts have been witnessed in the basic requirements of children, who are potential kindergarten students.
The recent curricular programs necessitate the children to excel in some of the required skills, which determine their “readiness” for kindergarten schools (Nurss, 1987) and the basic criterion of readiness programs includes the mastery of “literacy and numeracy” skills (Jacobson, 1996). “Readiness” for the “instructional situation” (Nurss, 1987), refers to the necessary basic skills which children attending kindergarten schools are expected to know, including social skills, perceptual skills, motor skills, and language skills.
While these are the primary skills expected by most Kindergarten teachers, the nature of expectations additionally depends upon certain other relative issues varying from school to school including the level of the syllabus and the behavioral requirements included in the curriculum and the desired accomplishments of the program. Egertson (1987) states that “readiness tests” are used by many schools to determine whether the children would have a good chance of success in schools.
Problems Caused Due to Being Unprepared for Kindergarten
Several studies and researches have proved that children, who do not attend pre kindergarten programs or are unprepared to attend kindergarten schools, illustrate several academic problems, not only in their kindergarten success but also later in life. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, (2003) children, who have not received enough training in reading alphabets, often lag behind in their ability to read well even at the end of the Kindergarten program.
Pre school education is being considered a crucial aspect of academic progress in children and is believed to affect the later years of the student’s academic success as well. While quality pre-school education and training gives an impetus to the cognitive and social developments of the child, lack of it results in far reaching negative effects, which has been established by research.
The report of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2002) affirms, that children who have not learned their alphabet before entering kindergarten, continue to lag behind even by the end of the first grade. Thus, while the pre-school programs equip the child with the ability to learn and understand the kindergarten curriculum with ease, it is also highly effective and beneficial in the long term academic progress and development of children. Advanced research and studies have established a correlation between the lack of pre-school education and its continuing effects on subsequent education. In a study to show the recurrent problems Connie (1988) establishes that if fifty children have reading problems in their first grade, the problems will exist in forty-four of them, even in the fourth grade.
Some Reasons Why Kindergarten Children are Unprepared
According to the NCES (2004), nearly forty-nine percent of the children who are admitted into kindergarten school belong to either middle-class families or even upper classes. The NCES (2004) also confirms that a majority of children from the rural and suburb areas are not adequately prepared for school at the time they take admission into kindergarten. There are several factors that are likely to affect the ‘readiness’ of children for kindergarten schools.
The educational qualifications of mothers, the financial status of families, and the family involvement all contribute to the likelihood of children being prepared for kindergarten schools. While Wilson (1986) states that women who become unwed mothers at very early ages in their lives have a greater probability to remain poor and have more children, in addition to the cessation of their own education. This serves as a contributing factor in the inability to prepare children for kindergarten in unfavorable circumstances. The Educational Testing Service (1992) asserts that the families with lower financial resources may be unable to provide children with atmospheres conducive to their academic competence especially the ability to read well.
However, there is a growing body of research that opposes the fact that the financial status of families is a key determinant of children’s ability to read or be prepared for school. Clark (1989) confirms that children from very poor families or families with low academic attainment have been successful in equipping their children with the necessary skills before entering kindergarten. Similar revelation has been made by Scott-Jones (1987) who studied that, children from poor and underprivileged families have been trained with the necessary skills at homes, which have proved helpful in their academic achievements at kindergarten.
Basic Skills required for Admission to Kindergarten Schools
Early childhood educational programs are now attracting more attention than ever. With increased focus and research, it has now been proved that the pre-school skills in children are crucial so that “every child enters school ready to learn” in order to achieve academic success (Children’s Defense Fund 2001, online). Pre-kindergarten education among children has been confirmed to be vital positive contributor on not only the social and psychological development of children but also ensures improved performance in the later academic years (Peisner-Feinberg, et. al., 1999). There are several requirements for children seeking admission to kindergarten school, some of which are discussed below.
Social Skills and Behavioral Requirements
Children of kindergarten schools are now expected to have the ability to work and learn in the educational milieu of the school either autonomously or in groups, big and small. The children are required to possess the ability to work and complete the given assignments, as well as the ability to be a part of a group for story-telling activities (Nurss, 1987). Qualities of turn taking and sharing are also pre-requisites among kindergarten children and they are required to follow more than two verbal directions of their teachers.
Children also have to be responsible and look after their possessions. Additionally, children must have the ability to adhere to rules and regulations of the school while valuing the possessions and belongings of others, whether the school or their co-students. Children must be able to complete their works and assignments in the given school periods and are required to be able to differentiate between schedules of work and play so that they can function appropriately within the parameters of the given tasks (Bradley, 1984; LeCompte, 1980).
Children are expected to be skilled in certain basic physical functions such the ability to walk, run and climb along with the ability to effectively synchronize the eyes and hands so as to be able to hold and write with a pencil or crayon and grasp scissors. These skills are necessary for the children to attempt writing assignments, which necessitate the audio-visual ability to able to distinguish between the various visions, and sounds they are exposed to in school. The kindergarten schools additionally require the students to identify their own names and differentiate between the names of colors, sizes and shapes (Nurss,1987).
Cognitive and Language Skills
The ability to express with fluency is a pre-requisite to be admitted in kindergarten schools and this cognitive skill benefits them to master the language by comprehending the written material in books or even verbal stories and dialogues (Nurss, 1987).
The Age Factor
While most kindergarten schools consider the age of a child to be a criterion for admission, research has proved that older age does not have a significant contribution to the success of children in schools (Meisels, 1987; Wood, 1984).
We see that the curricula of kindergarten schools now necessitate children to be ‘ready’ making preschool education vital among children. Preschool education has many benefits and enhances the cognitive, social and motor development of young children. While poverty and academic qualifications of mothers are the factors that could affect the ‘kindergarten readiness’ of children, preschool education can be an important criterion for children to achieve academic success. At the end of the day, it is essential that students enter kindergarten with the basic skills required regardless of how they are in fact acquired.
Preschool education among children is considered to be highly crucial to the cognitive growth and development of children. Research has indicated that the effects of preschool education are positive and have many long-term benefits. The chapter identifies the current trends in pre school education while elucidating the two distinct approaches of instrucitvism versus constructivism. The chapter also highlights the primary aim (goals) of preschool education in children.
Preschool is the term used for the programs and curriculum to train and educate young children and enable them to be ‘ready’ for kindergarten schools. Preschool education has begun to receive greater impetus and support due to the many benefits it offers the children with regard to their future prospects of academic success. Preschool curriculum enables children to effectively and appropriately learn languages and the necessary social and cognitive skills that facilitate their future achievements. For children belonging to immigrant families, preschool environment provides the opportunity to learn the English language (Kagan, 1995).
With the increasing attention from government agencies and programs, preschool programs have now begun to be presented with Federal funds so that early preschool education has gained immense popularity (Kagan & Garcia, 1995).
The focus on pre-kindergarten programs has intensified due to a number of factors. Statistics have projected that, more than fifty percent mothers of young children below the age of six, are employed and go out of the house to work (Elicker and Mathur 1997; House Committee on Education and the Workforce 2001), resulting in the increase in demand for secure and dependable preschool environments for the young children.
In the present scenario, approximately sixty percent of the total children below the age of five are now reported to be under the supervision of care takers besides parents (Editorial Projects in Education, 2002), and more than one million children who are about the age of four years are reported to be under the patronage of the public schools (National Center for Early Development Learning, 2002).
Research in the field of kindergarten has proved that the performances of children attending quality preschool programs are substantially better than those who did not attend preschool or did attend programs of low-quality (Peisner-Feinberg, et. al., 1999). The children attending quality preschool programs fared better in the cognitive ability such as mathematics and language use abilities, as also in their social skillfulness that included their communications with other children (Peisner-Feinberg, et. al., 1999). Marshall et. al. (2001) also confirms similar results of elevated cognitive skills and language proficiency in children who attended quality preschool program.
More recent and comprehensive research by Bowman, Donovan, and Burns (2000) on the way young children learn and excel has established that very young children possess “unexpected competencies” (p.4) “which appear to be universal” (p.4). The authors establish that “stimulation from the environment changes the very physiology of the brain” (p.4), thereby stressing the need for all adults to recognize the importance of quality preschool education to enhance the necessary skill of young children so that they are benefited by the early learning programs and curriculum of the preschool programs.
These research findings emphasize the importance of preschool environment and learning for children as opposed to their home surroundings. However, concerns over the ever-evolving curriculum for very young preschool children and the methods employed to teach them have resulted in debate between the proponents of constructivists and instructivists. Both of which seek to employ strategies that best meet the educational needs of students. The more recent academic curriculum is designed to facilitate the procurement and proficiency of the primary skills in reading and arithmetic (Jacobson, 1996).
Approach: Instructivist vs. Constructivist
From the instructivist point of view, the little learner is considered to be dependant upon the instruction of the teacher or adult for the process of acquiring the essential skills and education (Katz, 1996). The constructivists oppose this perspective and assert that children are not passive absorbers of knowledge but active in the process of construction of knowledge and are considered to be highly capable (OECD, 2000).
The constructivist approach condemns the use of instructional methods and techniques of prescriptive education during the early preschool years of learning (OECD, 2000). The primary difference between the two approaches is that the constructivist approach to education is informal and primarily child-centered and child-initiated, while the instructivist approach is formal, teacher-initiated and teacher centered (OECD, 2000).
The constructivist approach involves the technique of instruction that progresses development by the use of play-based methods, the constructivist approach employs the didactic or traditional approach, which include the learning of primary skills by the child (OECD, 2000). Instructivist approach uses the task-based method to instruct the information and in many cases include some exercises to achieve proficiency, for instance mathematics. On the other hand, constructivist methods lay additional emphasis on the ability to interpret information from the knowledge available thereby creating an analytical bent of mind (Katz, 1993).
The constructivist theory is prone to misinterpretation and criticism since it asserts that children have the capacity and capability to ‘construct’ knowledge by themselves (Katz, 1999). The progressive nature of the constructivist curriculum is condemned often due to the overemphasis on fun and plays and often considered wasteful by the instructivists (Katz, 1999). Similar criticism is directed towards the instructional approach used in preschool programs which could prove to be painful and sometimes damaging to some children due to the tender age and the time and practice necessary to master the faculties of mathematics and language (Katz, 1999).
In a study, Gardner (1942) evaluated two nursery schools with two distinct approaches in their methods of instruction with one following the more formal instructivist approach and the other employing the more informal constructivist approach. Gardner (1942) concluded that the constructivist approach proved to be more beneficial and yielded better results. Several other opponents of the instructional preschool curriculum assert that the formal instructivist approach in preschool programs last only for a year or at the most two years and that children availing of the constructivist programs yield better results in schools in the future as well. (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997; Marcon, 1992, 1995).
Research on the Quality of Preschool Programs
Research has highlighted the benefits of having quality preschool programs for children, not only benefits for the children but for the entire society. A study by the RAND Corporation shows that we would have many advantages to having quality preschool education for all, that it would outweigh the upfront cost. The report states that according to economists, for every dollar being spent on improving the quality of preschool programs for children, there would be savings of $2.62 to the schools of California and additionally the Criminal Justice System of California (Karoly, RAND Economist, online).
Besides, the tax revenue to the state as well as the local governments would show a marked increase. The report affirms the ability of Proposition 82 to offer premium preschool education to each and every four year old in the state of California and to elevate the standards of preschool teachers by providing ample teacher training (Karoly, RAND Economist, online).
The study conducted by the RAND corporation highlights that the early child educational programs and curriculum in California’s publicly funded schools are not competent enough to ascertain optimal cognitive development in children. Researchers reported that the students of California public schools were lag behind in their assessment tests of arithmetic and language proficiency. The research and studies were conducted upon the request of the lawmakers of California to enable them to reform the existing preschool educational programs in California. The study highlighted that there is “an educational achievement gap in California” (Karoly, RAND economist, online).
There is however, a divide in the consensus regarding the quality of preschool education in the state of California. According to the CDE (online) the state of California is aware of the current needs and requirements of children attending preschool so that they are prepared and ready for kindergarten. The website states that in accordance with the rising demand and importance of preschool education for children, the California government (California Department of Education, online) tries to address the diverse and immigrant populace, with regard to preschool education.
In the program, ‘California: Preschool for All’, the primary objective of the government is to improve the academic status of the Latino children in the state, considering that they are the fastest growing populace of the state of California (NCLR, 2008). Considering their rapid growth in population, the California state government has stepped up the measures in the field of education (NCLR, 2008).
However, the website does disclose the reports of several researches, which have confirmed the Latino children do not get equal access to education and subsequent achievement. The state of California comprises forty-seven percent children below the age of five years, with not more than thirty-seven percent of them access to preschool programs of any kind (NCLR, 2008).
Previous efforts to increase the percentage of preschool children have yielded substantial results. The public funded preschools of California have been successful in attracting the young children to such schools as a result of which, approximately sixty-two percent of California’s young children are able to go to preschool or the ‘Head Start’ programs before seeking admission to kindergarten schools (CDE, online).
The California Department of Education (CDE, online) actively involves the launch of the preschool initiative, in the state of California, in the development of the preschool programs with help from experts in the field of education (CDE, online). The standards are in the process of development and will be implemented and introduced by way of the preschool programs that are publicly funded in California.
Goals of Preschool Programs
In spite of the debate regarding the ideal instruction technique for preschool children there is a consensus on the primary aim of the preschool programs. While the most basic aim of the preschool programs is the complete development of the “whole child” for whom sensitivity and effectiveness are crucial attributes of the teachers (Villarreal, 1993).
According to the National Education Goals Panel, the first goal for children is to ensure the readiness of children for school and stress upon the early attainment of the cognitive and literary skills. Some preschool programs employ the developmental approach promoted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children which primarily centers at the all round intellectual progress of the child at the social and personal level rather than rigid academic pressure or preparing the children to be ready for schools (Pequenitos en Accion, 1991). Some programs may lay emphasis on the acquiring of the English language for immigrant students, who may not speak English or are not proficient in the language, so that they are not left behind in schools due to comprehension incapability (Williams et. al., 1985).
While the approaches to educational techniques may differ from institution to institution, the almost all the preschool programs aspire to develop their students with the aim of inculcating some of the following common features (Pequenitos, 1991; Villarreal, 1993; Kagan, 1995). Most schools work with the aim of developing the student with a positive self-image. Besides the social competency and psychological development schools create programs to ascertain a certain degree of literary and language abilities in children.
Almost all preschools aspire to develop among students the critical analytical skills, which stem from the ability to think autonomously. Emphasis is laid on the development of general knowledge of the students along with the enhancement of cognitive skills. Innovation is highly encouraged among the students as also an interest in nature and arts. Students are inculcated with the primary values such as respect for individuals, cultural and racial or linguistic diversity and to respect the fundamental rights of others. The development of motor skills also forms an important part of preschool programs (Pequenitos, 1991; Villarreal, 1993; Kagan, 1995).
Preschool education essentially began in the United States for infants to be educated “outside the home” (Beatty, 1995) and has witnessed development, in the form of many private nursery schools. The government has also stepped up efforts to establish public preschools essentially for the poor children by way of the ‘Head Start’ program.
However, very few children are able to avail of the California state program for preschool children and California “is falling behind”, in its programs to ensure that “all children have access to preschool and enter kindergarten ready to learn” (NIEER, 2005).
It has also been proved that the state of California has seen a marked reduction in the average funding in the educational programs for children (NIEER, 2005).
The need for Preschool education in California
In order to ensure “readiness” of children for kindergarten schools (Nurss, 1987) it is vital that they master “literacy and numeracy” skills (Jacobson, 1996). It is also crucial that they have the necessary skills to attend kindergarten schools including social, perceptual, motor, and language skills.
It has been proved that children, who have not been adequately trained in preschool education, often lag behind in Kindergarten programs (National Adult Literacy Survey, 2003). Research also establishes that children who have not learned their alphabet before entering kindergarten, continue to lag behind even by the end of the first grade (NCES, 2002).
Reasons why California Children are Unprepared
While there are several factors which are responsible for children not being adequately trained for kindergarten, poverty, lack of government focus and inability of funds available for preschool education have been noted by researchers (NCES, 2004; Educational Testing Service, 1992).
Importance of preschool education for Admission to Kindergarten Schools
Research, has proved that “every child enters school ready to learn” in order to achieve academic success (Children’s Defense Fund 2001, online). Pre-school education is considered to be vital for the social and psychological development of (Peisner-Feinberg, et. al., 1999). Preschool education equips the children with the necessary social and behavioral skills, motor skills and cognitive and language skills (Nurss, 1987). Preschool curriculum enables children from immigrant families, the opportunity to learn the English language (Kagan, 1995).
The ‘California: Preschool for All’, program is believed to improve the academic status of the Latino children in the state (NCLR, 2008). Previous government efforts to increase the percentage of preschool children have been successful in attracting the young children to such schools (CDE, online).
Need for improving the quality of California preschool education
However, there are several reports that reflect the need to update the quality of the preschool education in the state of California. According to an online news article, it has been established by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) that California does not fare very well with regard to funds and good quality standard preschool education programs as compared to the other states. (California Chronicle (2006) online).
We can see that there may be considerable debate regarding the instructivist and constructivist approaches to early education in preschools, but the primary aim and goals of both the approaches are similar. The development of the student at all levels is the basic aim and most schools develop programs and instructional methods to enable and facilitates the all round development of children. Preschools generally focus on specific programs for the development of the necessary skills and as such must consider the beat aspect of both the approaches so that an ideal program is designed with the help of which children can avail optimal results, which will stay with them even in the later years of their academic lives.
It is apparent that the quality of preschool education in California needs to be raised. The state of California can benefit immensely by providing high-quality preschool programs to the young children, who are the future of any country, state or society.
According to reports, Proposition 82 has the capacity to fund all quality preschool programs for children (NIEER, 2005). Keeping in mind the rapid growth in population of Latino children, measures in the field of education need to be stepped up (NCLR, 2008).
It is now crucial that the government take substantial measures to improve the number of preschools in California and takes active measures in improving the quality of preschool education in the state of California. There is an urgent need for the government to take steps to introduce more programs to ensure that “no child” is “left behind” in accessing preschool education in California.
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