Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

Setting Standards in Early Childhood Education

What should a 4-year-old know and be able to do? Those developing early childhood standards can learn from those who developed standards for grades K–12.

Setting Standards in Early Childhood Education - thumbnail
Standards are a fact of U.S. education for grades K–12, and now a growing number of states are developing standards for early childhood education as well. In early 2002, 15 states had implemented standards for prekindergarten; five states were developing standards; and seven states required their state-financed prekindergartens to satisfy federal Head Start standards (Editorial Projects in Education, 2002). National organizations have either published or are circulating in draft early childhood standards for mathematics and literacy. In addition, the National Association for the Education of Young Children recently joined with the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (2002) to provide recommendations for developing early learning standards.

The Purpose of Standards in Early Childhood Education

The momentum is growing for two reasons. First, standards express shared expectations for schooling, enable educators to focus on what they value, and provide a common language for assessing progress toward those goals. Second, growing evidence suggests that early schooling can have a more significant, beneficial impact on later learning than we once thought. In a recent report, Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers, the National Research Council's Committee on Early Childhood Pedagogy concluded thatthe accumulation of convincing evidence from research [is] that young children are more capable learners than current practices reflect and that good educational experiences in the preschool years can have a positive impact on school learning. (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2000, p. 2)
The National Research Council Committee notes that children who have more experience in domain-specific knowledge (for example, in mathematics or science) acquire complex skills more rapidly.
To make the case that standards have a place in early childhood education is not to suggest that such standards should simply be an extension or watered-down version of current K–12 standards. Not only do young children need to acquire knowledge and skills at levels different from those of their older counterparts, but they also differ more significantly from one another in their development than do older children (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1995). Thus, standards for early childhood should accommodate a wider variance in performance than is the case in K–12. Social and emotional development in young children is also a significant part of their learning and should be reflected in the standards (Blair, 2002; Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, 2002). In other words, identifying useful and important knowledge and skill is as important for prekindergarten as it is for K–12 education, but one should not equate producing standards for early childhood with creating a lock-step education structure.

Learning from K–12 Standards

As states and schools develop standards for early childhood education, they might avoid some difficulties by learning from the K–12 experience. The report from the National Education Standards and Improvement Council (1993) established useful criteria for K–12 standards:Content standards specify “what students should know and be able to do.” They indicate knowledge and skills—the ways of thinking, working, communicating, reasoning and investigation, and the most important and enduring ideas, concepts, issues, dilemmas, and knowledge essential to the discipline that should be taught and learned at school. Performance standards specify “how good is good enough.” They relate to the issues of assessment that gauge the degree to which content standards have been attained. . . . They are the indices of quality that specify how adept or competent a student demonstration must be. (p. iii)
The mixing of content with performance standards was one of a number of problems that led researchers at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) to conduct a study systematically identifying and describing standards and benchmarks in the early 1990s (Marzano & Kendall, 1995). Our latest edition of the database (Kendall & Marzano, 2000) provides a listing of standards and benchmarks that include content descriptions synthesized from 112 significant subject-area documents across 14 content areas. McREL continues to develop and update the standards database online (www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks).
Recently, in partnership with the National Institute for Early Education Research, we began studying preschool standards promulgated by states, education agencies, and other countries. Thus far, we have reviewed the standards documents for 21 states, Head Start, Department of Defense Education Activity, and the National Association for Music Education, among others.
We have also reviewed standards from foreign countries, including Great Britain, France, Japan, Sweden, and Russia. Although specified areas are not always distinguished within each document, the content areas addressed in these standards have generally included mathematics, science, literacy, social studies, social/emotional health, physical education and health, and thinking and reasoning. Our ultimate purpose is to describe the knowledge and skills that these organizations commonly identify as important for early childhood education. During our study, however, we noticed problems similar to those that appeared during the early stages of K–12 standards development. We found that those who write ineffective standards now, as then, mix content with performance standards, combine expectations for students with general curriculum guidelines without distinctions, and use vague language.

Separating Content and Performance Standards

Prekindergarten standards commonly combine content and performance standards. Consider the following standard for mathematics:The student will put two sets of objects together to create a new set.
We cannot tell from this description what the student should know or be able to do. Perhaps the student is demonstrating an understanding of what a set of objects is, or perhaps he or she is demonstrating that a set of objects has a property or characteristic different from the individual subsets that formed it. The activity describes a performance, but the standard does not specify the content—the knowledge or skill that the student is demonstrating in the activity.
Standards that separate content and performance provide a clearer picture of expectations. For example,The student knows the main events or characters of a recited story.
An evaluation can pair this standard with demonstrations—activities, such as asking the student to recall events of a story or to draw the main character—that make clear at what level the student should be able to demonstrate the skill or knowledge. Because young children vary widely in developmental levels, it is very important to specify the content focus so that teachers can assess individual performances in relation to it. Obviously, such an approach cannot work when standards combine content and performance at the outset.

Distinguishing Student Expectations from Curriculum Goals

Another common problem that we found in K–12 standards documents during the early 1990s was a lack of distinction between the goals of the curriculum and the expectations for students. Such problems appear again in a number of the current standards for early childhood. For example,Students will be exposed to a variety of art, music, literature, and drama. For example, the teacher will read a variety of literature to the children, such as poetry, nonfiction, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and quality fiction.
This statement does not describe student knowledge or skill or even demonstrate something learned. It describes opportunities for learning that teachers should make available. The focus of the standard is not about what students learn, but simply that students should engage in active learning.
To form clear goals for students, one should separate standards from general goals for the curriculum. When both types of expectations—for the student and for the curriculum—appear in a standards document as if they serve the same audience and address the same purpose, confusion results.

Using Clear Language

The most common problem we found in recent or draft standards documents for early childhood, and a problem that still persists in a number of K–12 standards documents, is the use of vague language. Unless the language of standards is clear and precise, standards cannot be used to communicate what we expect from students. It is best to avoid imprecise language, such as begins to or develops. Such language cannot communicate what we should expect to observe when the student is in the beginning or developing stage. For example,Begin to develop an understanding of space.
This statement could mean that students should become familiar with Euclidean geometry or the Kuiper asteroid belt. Of course, neither is likely the case, but the example demonstrates how little such language communicates. In an apparent attempt to allow for a wide range of developmental abilities, the authors have sacrificed clarity. A better statement might beStudents understand the common language used to describe position and location (for example, beside, inside, underneath, above).

Contributions from Early Childhood Standards to K–12

In addition to the problems we discovered during our review, we found three areas in which having prekindergarten standards could improve K–12 standards. Thoughtfully developed standards for prekindergarten could clarify the content and skills that are developmentally appropriate for kindergarten and 1st grade students, integrate social and emotional learning skills, and make adjustments for students' developmental differences.

Kindergarten and 1st Grade Content and Skills

When the standards movement unfolded, most states categorized the K–12 content by grade groupings rather than by individual grades. The burden of articulating standards for individual grade levels often fell to school districts. Over the past few years, however, an increasing number of states have revised their standards to describe student knowledge and skills separately for each grade, in part because they will have to test students at each grade, 3–8, in accordance with the No Child Left Behind legislation.
But the articulation of standards at the earliest grades has always been problematic. When districts or states specify grade-by-grade content for grades 5 through 8, they typically consider the content in benchmarks for grades K–4 and 9–12, too. Because no clear standards had been established for prekindergarten, states and districts had little guidance in determining appropriate content at the kindergarten level. Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children observed that “many of the standards pushed down into kindergarten in recent years have been inappropriate” (cited in Aizenman, 2002). When a general consensus emerges regarding appropriate content for early childhood, developers of K–12 standards should use this information to review standards for kindergarten and 1st grade.

Social and Emotional Learning

Many districts and some states attempted to incorporate such lifelong learning skills as communication, problem solving, and working with others into the K–12 curriculum. They have had varying levels of success. Although those who wrote the K–12 standards valued students' improved emotional and social health as a lifelong learning outcome, the standards they produced were often vague, leaving goals undefined and subject to distortion and misinterpretation (Ravitch, 1995). When a student's failure to meet such goals could also threaten graduation or promotion, the swift demise of such a set of standards was inevitable. Parents might strongly desire that their children possess such attributes as self-control, honesty, and politeness (Public Agenda, 2002), but making those characteristics the subject of high-stakes assessment and decision making is risky for schools (Philips, 2001).
Early childhood standards, by contrast, often succeed in describing important milestones in social and emotional growth with standards that specify certain student knowledge or skills. For example:Understands the concept of taking turns.Understands that other people have rights.Negotiates roles and tasks when working with peers.
Such statements should have a cognitive component and reflect a high degree of community support. This approach is a workable alternative to simply abandoning standards of behavior because of the difficulties they present (Torney-Purta, 1994).
Research on early childhood supports this emphasis on social and emotional learning (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). In fact, in their joint statement on standards for early childhood education, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education assert thatYoung children's development is strongly interconnected, with positive outcomes in one area relying on development in other domains. Therefore, early learning standards must address a wide range of domains—including cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and language development, motivation and approaches to learning, as well as discipline-specific domains, including the arts, literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies.

Students' Developmental Differences

Those who seek to make K–12 standards more flexible might examine the approach and latitude of the early childhood curriculum. By taking into account the varying stages of development among preschoolers, early childhood educators can exploit the flexibility permitted by a standards-based system. Because a standards-based system establishes the content for learning, the focus for classrooms no longer needs to be on age or grade but on actual performance on a standard. Multi-age elementary school classrooms, which resemble preschool classrooms in the way they accommodate students at a wide range of developmental levels, achieve results equal to or better than those of single-grade classrooms (Lauer, 2000).

Standards for Standards

If we have poor standards in early childhood education, educators will not be able to communicate to colleagues and parents about the current research and thinking on what is best for children. If we build programs on such weak standards, we will not give all children every opportunity to excel in a standards-based system.

Aizenman, N. C. (2002, February 27). Many kindergartners unready, report says increasing rigors require more skills. Washington Post, p. B1.

Blair, C. (2002). School readiness: Integrating cognition and emotion in a neurobiological conceptualization of children's functioning at school entry. American Psychologist, 57(2), 111–127.

Bowman, B. T., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S. (Eds.). (2000). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Bredekamp, S., & Rosegrant, T. (Eds.). (1995). Reaching potentials: Transforming early childhood curriculum and assessment (Vol. 2). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Editorial Projects in Education. (2002). Quality counts 2002: Building blocks for success. Education Week, 2(17). Available:www.edweek.org/sreports/qc02

Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. (2002). Set for success: Building a strong foundation for school readiness based on the social-emotional development of young children. Kansas City, MO: Author.

Kendall, J. S., & Marzano, R. J. (2000). Content knowledge: A compendium of standards and benchmarks for K–12 education (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Lauer, P. A. (2000). Instructional practices and implementation issues in multiage classrooms. (Technical Report). Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (1995). The McREL database: A tool for constructing local standards. Educational Leadership, 52(6), 42–47.

National Association for the Education of Young Children, & National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. (2002). Early learning standards: Creating the conditions for success [Online]. Available:http://www.naeyc.org/resources/position_statements/earlylearn.pdf

National Education Standards and Improvement Council. (1993). Promises to keep: Creating high standards for American students. Washington, DC: National Goals Panel.

Philips, S. E. (2001). Legal issues in standard setting for K–12 programs. In G. Cizek (Ed.), Setting performance standards: Concepts, methods, and perspectives (pp. 411–426). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Public Agenda. (2002). A lot easier said than done: Parents talk about raising children in today's America [Online]. Available: http://www.publicagenda.org/specials/parents/parents.htm

Ravitch, D. (1995). National standards in American education: A citizens' guide. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Torney-Purta, J. (1994). The monitoring of affective outcomes. In A. Tuijnman & T. Postlethwaite (Eds.), Monitoring the standards of education: Papers in honor of John P. Keeves (pp. 151–169). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 103033.jpg
The First Years of School
Go To Publication