Early Childhood Education: A Holistic Education Reform Approach

The demand for education to be improved to better suit the requirements of the community it serves, has long been on the agenda from both sides of the political playing field, in the United States of America.  Although there is a long history of politically motivated policies, programs and frameworks put into place in an attempt to improve teaching standards and educational outcomes, the controversial movie “Waiting For Superman” released in 2010 really highlighted the continued need to improve teaching practices in our education systems. Although this particular documentary focused on the United States of America school system and teachers across elementary and secondary schools, this is not an issue that is isolated to this country; it is in fact a global concern. Focusing though specifically on the history of the United States education systems; and in particular the field of early childhood education, the need for highly qualified and effective teachers continues to arise, despite ongoing education reforms, curriculum change, leadership vision, community expectations and most importantly the individualism of each student. It is the issue of teacher quality in early childhood education, which this paper will primarily concentrate on, with the supporting issue of extension services in early childhood also being addressed.

For much of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, governmental committees and research has indicated that there is a continual, yet unmet, need for our schools to employ highly qualified and highly effective teachers (United States Department of Education, 2010; United States Congress, 1998; U.S. Congress, 1956). Unfortunately there is no one standard definition of what a highly qualified and highly effective teacher looks like. Nor do we have a clear definition of what highly effective really means in terms of student learning outcomes. In the field of early childhood education, an effective teacher could be described as one that is passionate, a life long learner, a risk taker, pragmatic and authentic (Colker, 2008); these are all characteristics which are difficult to assess and standardize amongst our teacher education programs and within the schools themselves once the teachers are practicing. If we cannot standardize what we expect from our teachers for them to be regarded as being effective and high quality, then how can we standardize what we expect from our students?

Literature in the wider education community in the last century has indicated a movement away from rote learning and traditional teaching practices, commonly referred to as drill and kill, has begun and instead there is a growing drive towards exploratory and inquiry learning and teaching approaches (Bourne, 1999; Joni & Rester-Zodrow, 1997; Rinke, Gimbel, & Haskell, 2013; Rothstein, 2004; So & Kong, 2007), such as those seen in play-based curriculum. What is evident is that the literature in early childhood education promotes a holistic approach, moving beyond academics and focusing more on addressing the needs of the child as a whole (NAEYC, 2009; Vakil, Freeman, & Swim, 2003), with learning and teaching through a play-based inquiry model now being seen as the professional standard expectation in this field (Cheng, 2012; Thomas, Warren, & de Vries, 2011; van Oers, 2003). Although there is an abundance of literature supporting play-based curriculum for teaching and learning there is very little to advocate using play as a method of assessment, especially in the early elementary classrooms where there seems to be a parting of ways of these recognized best practices due to the pressures of high stake testing.

Lee and Ginsberg (2009) noted that educators appear to have a narrow view of assessment “as a paper and pencil test” and to expand further on this the National Association for Education of Young Children and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2010) advocate in their joint position statement that teachers “need to use multiple assessment approaches to find out what each child understands and may misunderstand”. Recent literature confirms that play-based curriculum as a method of teaching and assessing in early childhood classrooms is indeed an endangered practice in the context of elementary schools (Nicholopoulou, Barbosa de Sá, Ilgaz & Brockmeyer, 2009, p.42; Baumer & Radsliff, 2009, p.11) and Nicholopoulou et al. (2009) suggest that this is because play has been treated as “simply a natural childhood activity that needs no support or guidance from teachers” (p.43). The literature points to teachers feeling the pressures of high stakes testing and the need to demonstrate that they are teaching the narrowly defined skills outlined in curriculum standards. They therefore teach using methods equivalent to test materials (Baumer & Radsliff, 2009; National Association of Education for Young Children and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2010), which in turn perpetuates the attitude that time spent playing is frivolous, chaotic and does not address academic pressures (Newman, Brody & Beauchamp, 1996; Ethridge, 2005; Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, 2007).

The pressure of high stakes testing is indeed the foremost reason for educators not to continue best practices within early childhood education in the early elementary years, and therefore to alleviate this problem a major mind shift on behalf of the policy makers and legislative creators would be required. Instead these power players would need to provide professional trust to our educators so that they could facilitate learning for our students in a more inquiry based personalized manner, and be able to assess not only the traditional academic benchmarks, but also more importantly the social and personal growth as a member of society. This ideal is not unattainable, as the current status quo in Finnish education systems attests. In the Finnish system validation of standards occurs within the framework of demonstrating professional trust and a high degree of respect for teachers, allowing them to fulfill their intention of teaching whilst working in collaboration with the local communities to develop an autonomous and shared responsibility in educating their children (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2011).

Recent research (Barnett, 2008; Currie, 2001; Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2001) has provided us with the evidence that high quality early childhood programs, which take this more holistic approach, with highly effective teachers as the centerpiece for success, have long-term positive effects on raising the bar and closing the achievement gap for the identified disadvantaged groups in our communities. If we couple this by providing continued allied health services into the early years of elementary to provide a true holistic view of caring for the whole child’s wellbeing, and not just academic then we can continue to close the achievement gap for our disadvantaged groups. Two examples of how this ideal of providing holistic services in early education services is already being implemented are the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) in Camden, New Jersey and the Early Years Centres found in Queensland, Australia. Both are located in low socio-economic populations where the community members are disadvantaged and achievement gaps are wide.

In Camden, it is the ethos of the ECDC that all children can learn and that it is the centers’ responsibility to provide each child with experiences, lessons, interventions, and the support they need to make learning happen. This is particularly illustrated by inclusion of the parent center, which provides in-services, workshops, parenting classes, computer classes, Spanish classes, parent volunteers and serves as a resource center. There is also a parental support system available to all parents of Camden City promoting parental involvement in the educational system. In addition to this, the ECDC provides intervention specialists ranging from nurses, hearing and special specialists, to occupational and physical therapists. Such a holistic approach, it is anecdotally noted yet not formally documented is beginning to improve the community as a whole (M. Macrina, personal communication, 13 September 2011).

Similarly, the Early Years Centers throughout Queensland, Australia are seen as hubs where families with young children can access kindergarten support and educational development programs (such as programs for music, art and dance), specialist health services (which include drop in clinics and home visits), as well as access to socialization and culturally appropriate programs (Department of Education, 2013). Although targeted specifically to address vulnerable and disadvantaged families, the services are open to all families to ensure that there is no stigma attached to the use of the service. An evaluation completed earlier this year which examined the services available since 2008 found evidence that developmental, social and behavioral outcomes for children have been improved; parenting skills and families have been strengthened; and outcomes for vulnerable families have been enhanced (Department of Education, 2013).

In summary, there are clearly two issues that are crucial if we are to succeed in true education reform to close the achievement gap, as they have long-term effects on individual’s lives in the future, even if we do not immediately see it in our day-to-day practices. The first one of ensuring that we have high quality and highly effective teachers in our classrooms, and the second one of taking a communal approach to providing services to families of young children to benefit the wellbeing of the whole child. High quality and highly effective teachers, united with extended allied health and community services in early childhood education in the early elementary years will undoubtedly make a vast advancement to closing the achievement gap for our disadvantaged groups.

If schools and educators work with the wider community to provide services that served the whole child, such as the one described in the Early Years Learning Centers in Queensland, Australia; then this will narrow the gap not only for minority groups but will have long term benefits to the whole society. Research has shown  that highly effective teachers and high quality early childhood programs which take a more holistic approach to caring for the young child, result in a long term reduction in the number of school drop outs, reduces overall crime and increase health benefits to students as they grown to become functioning adults in our society (Barnett, 2008; Reynolds et al., 2001).

It is not an unrealistic expectation for our society to require our political leaders and policy makers to be fearless and relinquish the power and control over education accountability and to hand it back to the members of society themselves. This is after all a community issue, due to the reality that the purpose of education is to equip tomorrow’s citizens today with life long skills and competencies to be successful in an unknown and uncertain future. There is a famous old African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child and the education of our children is a communal concern, not just that of educators or politicians, but rather a whole community matter. We need to work together to ensure a better outcome for all our citizens, today and in the future.




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