Improving Preschool Education: Clear and Specific Standards

by Alice Wiggins
April 20th, 2009

Explicitly defining what very young children should know and be able to do is a very touchy issue. An Australian education group recently suggested that preschoolers should be made aware of different jobs and careers. Sounds reasonable but the idea from Principals Australia was roundly lampooned in the local media as “career counseling” for toddlers.  The belief the preschool should be all free play and socialization still runs very deep.  However, the National Research Council report called Eager to Learn: Educating our Preschoolers notes these opportunities for learning:

Good teachers acknowledge and encourage children’s efforts, model and demonstrate, create challenges and support children in extending their capabilities, and provide specific directions or instruction. All of these teaching strategies can be used in the context of play and structured activities. Effective teachers also organize the classroom environment and plan ways to pursue educational goals for each child as opportunities arise in child-initiated activities and in activities planned and initiated by the teacher.

This week, I’ll describe five specific ideas to improve preschool education in the U.S.  The first is the establishment of clear and specific early childhood learning standards. There are several practical benefits to explicitly specifying what children should know and be able to do. Research clearly documents the positive benefits of a preschool education guided by standards for all children, regardless of socioeconomic level and family background.

It also safeguards all children against the likelihood of lower expectations and watered-down curricula.  Early childhood education is not immune from the accountability pressures that now characterize K-12 education in the U.S. Clear and explicit early childhood standards make sense not just as a mere accountability measure, but as an early intervention to address the achievement gap. With a significant investment in preschool education anticipated under the Obama administration, specific standards are a way to ensure that early childhood care and education programs are actually delivering on their promise–to ensure children arrive in elementary school ready to learn. Nowhere is this more important than for low-SES children.

Standards come in two basic flavors: specific and squishy. Or if you prefer, content and process. This is true in K-12 standards, and it’s also true of preschool standards. A typical state standard might state that preschoolers should be able to “apply knowledge of whole numbers.” Fine, but what does that look like? The Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence clearly states that preschoolers should be able to recite the number sequence from one to ten; demonstrate one-to-one correspondence with concrete objects (laying out a plate for every member of the family at mealtime, for example); construct a collection of objects so that it has the same number of objects as another group; count groups of objects with up to 6 objects per group; given an oral number, create a group with the correct number of objects, up to 6.  Before a child comes to kindergarten he or she should also be able to name and write numerals up to six, arrange and write them in order, and be able to tell which is greater or less.

By knowing more specifically what the goals and skills are, teachers can plan activities to meet those goals (think about the difficulty in planning activities to meet squishy goals). Additionally, teachers are better able to assess where children are with a skill or goal if it is specifically defined. How can I assess whether a child can apply knowledge of whole numbers? I can easily assess if children can count to six, write numbers, or arrange them in order.


  1. Thanks for spending so much time on pre-k this week.

    I appreciated this statement: “By knowing more specifically what the goals and skills are, teachers can plan activities to meet those goals (think about the difficulty in planning activities to meet squishy goals). Additionally, teachers are better able to assess where children are with a skill or goal if it is specifically defined.”

    I have worked as a pre-k teacher for 12 years. In that time I have seen preschool change from an active learning environment where teachers are trusted to educate children but, where the child was honored so much that letters were forbidden from being posted on the walls — to a system that is so bent on creating a master race of uber-children that every child must be ready for school before entering kindergarten.

    In that time the only reason I have moved my practice is because the assessments have changed. I completely believe that there should be high standards for children they only problem is that these standards can not be reliably tested in a preschooler. When we turn the corner of thinking that assessments are the only way to hold professionals accountable we are back at teacher’s anecdotal records that are in many ways “squishy”.

    Here are some more squishy goals that can’t be quantified: sharing, caring, persistence, imagination, and love. All goals in most every preschool classroom. Every thing that can be counted is not necessarily golden, and everything that is golden can’t necessarily be counted.

    Comment by J.M. Holland — April 23, 2009 @ 10:18 pm

  2. J.M.
    Couldn’t have said it better. The definition of kindergarten readiness is often misinterpreted as end of preschool performance. Kindergarten readiness is just that…readiness to learn. Keep doing what you’re doing. I’d love to visit your class one day.

    Comment by Alice Wiggins — April 24, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  3. Hi Alice,
    I was one of the teachers who field tested the Core Knowledge Sequence with Linda Bevelacqua, and while I agree with your post, I also agree with the person above. I have been teaching pre-k for 20 years now, and have participated in working on state standards for pre-k (and younger children). The problem is not in having clear standards, it is in local administration trying to put curriculum in place to force each child to meet all standards in the same way at the same time. While I am a strong proponent of careful planning to meet standards, it is not developmentaly appropriate to expect that every child will be ready for the same approach at the same time in the pre-k year. Thus, being trusted to individualise instruction, and giving children time in their day to approach, question and practice new skills in a non threatenning way has always yielded the best results for me. While this may make it harder to get quantifiable data, for the child, it moves him along with minimum confusion, frustration and his self esteem intact. I have trained teachers for the state of Maryland for 10 years, and have found the state approach in this case to be the best balance. Local anxiety and control is the problem.

    Comment by Catherine Howanstine — April 28, 2009 @ 6:07 am

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