Early Childhood Education



Early childhood stakeholders use the term standards to define a range of issues within the field, such as licensing standards, accreditation standards, standards of best practices, standards of quality, curriculum standards, performance standards, and proficiency standards. Moreover, the nation in which one is examining the issue of “standards” alters their definition, their history of development, their use by practitioners, and their effects on the lives of young children.

The term standards has particular significance within the context and the history of early childhood education (ECED) in the United States. Unlike many nations throughout the world, the United States does not have a national curriculum at any level of education. Local governments typically decide upon the educational policies, practices, and curricula of their communities. However, recent reform initiatives, such as the federal government’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 2002, commonly referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), have shifted the power over decisions about curriculum, assessment, and student proficiency from the local community to the federal and state governments. Yet, many early childhood education services in the United States exist outside of the confines of public education policy, particularly programs serving children ages birth to five. This intertwining structure of early education services and education reform complicates a definition of standards and the standards-based accountability (SBA) systems in early childhood education.


Defining Standards

Three types or forms of standards are typically utilized in U.S. early childhood education. Content standards refer to the knowledge and skills that students are to attain at particular points within their early childhood career. Performance standards define what assessment measures are to be used to determine whether the child is acquiring the content standards. Proficiency standards indicate how well the student must perform on that assessment measure to be deemed proficient in acquiring the content standard.

Dissecting the range of content, performance, and proficiency standards that exists in the field of ECED depends upon where the program is physically located, its funding agency, and the range of children it serves. For example, President George W. Bush’s Good Start, Grow Smart initiative requires state agencies that receive federal dollars through programs such as the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) to develop a set of voluntary early learning guidelines or content standards for literacy, language, and math activities for children ages three to five. These early learning guidelines are to align with their state’s K-12 content, performance, and proficiency standards (Office of the White House, 2002). State agencies currently decide how to implement these early learning standards and, in most instances, they affect only those programs that receive federal and/or state monies.



Understanding where these standards come from is as important as defining what they mean. Standards in early childhood education emerged from and in response to the trajectory of K-12 education reform.

While the idea of pursuing national curricula has existed in the United States since the Eisenhower Administration, the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) publication of A Nation at Risk (1984) spurred the first of three waves of reform that led to the current state of standards-based accountability reform in the United States. The importance of the NCEE’s document is that it claimed that the United State’s system of education was a systemic failure. To solve this problem, the commission recommended the implementation of rigorous academic standards and increased student performance requirements for such things as high school graduation and college admission.

While the Reagan Administration (1981-1989) reduced federal funding, support, and involvement in national education policy issues, the nation’s governors, primarily in the South, through organizations such as the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB) took up education reform and pursued initiatives that went beyond the recommendations of the NCEE. They promoted a second wave of reform that substituted less academic governance over local school districts, with increased accountability for student performance.

This rise in academic requirements and accountability measures that resulted from these two waves of reform intensified the educational demands of young children. In the latter half of the 1980s, school districts increased their use of readiness tests to determine whether students were prepared to enter kindergarten or first grade and districts escalated their curricular expectations for the early grades (e.g., Meisels, 1989). This emphasis on accountability and formal academic instruction in the early years led NAEYC to develop and eventually publish its guidelines for what it labels developmentally appropriate practices for young children (Bredekamp, 1987).

Even though publications from NAEYC and other research-based organizational responses (e.g., American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education, 1999) helped delineate the appropriate curricular and assessment expectations for young children, policy makers continued to position ECED as an educational tool to “ready” students for academic learning in K-12 schooling. For instance, President H. W. Bush (1989-1993) with the support of the NGA promoted national education goals, which included the call for voluntary national standards and assessments. While President Bush’s National Education Goals Panel’s (NEGP’s) America 2000 legislation failed, President Clinton incorporated these goals into his administration’s Goals 2000 legislation. For both of these policies, the first goal was for all students by the year 2000 to start school ready to learn.

The Goals 2000 legislation and the reauthorization of the federal government’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1994 titled the Improving American School Act (IASA), reframed readiness through the context of standard-based accountability reform, the third wave of reform. Polices at the federal and state levels that followed this legislation led to the development of content, performance, and proficiency standards in various subject areas. Originally, this wave of reform promoted the implementation of “world-class” content standards and the use of performance-based assessments, which asks students to perform an activity or a task to demonstrate their understanding of the question. Controversy over cost and the reliability of the administration of performance-based assessments led to their demise. Multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and short-answer standardized tests replaced them. Similarly, the federal government began to examine the idea of including “opportunity to learn” standards with the Goals 2000 legislation, which would set basic requirements for providing resources, funding, and training to insure that all students receive equal access to the conditions and resources for learning (Lewis, 1995). However, controversy over funding and the reach of the federal government into local issues defeated such proposals.


Current “Standards” Requirements in the Various States

In spite of continuing controversies, standards-based reforms at the state and local level now shape curricular and performance expectations of young children as early as age three. Moreover, the NCLB Act of 2002 escalated this demand for SBA reform in America’s K-12 school systems. For instance, NCLB requires that by 2006 each state have content, performance, and proficiency standards for each grade level for grades 3-8 in reading and math. Moreover, states must have academic standards in science that cover grade spans 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12, and by 2007-2008, the state must administer annual assessments in science at least once in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12 to assess student proficiency levels. Failure to achieve NCLB’s demands for improved annual yearly performance in reading, math, and science for all students in grades 3-8 will result in a series of sanctions for the school, the district, and the state while invoking a series of choice options for the students.

In addition to NCLB, some state departments of education (e.g., Texas and Florida) or local school districts (e.g., Chicago) use these standardized assessments to determine whether students meet that agency’s proficiency standards. Third- grade students who fail to meet these states’ or districts’ proficiency standards can be retained. Such a result is referred to as a high-stakes consequence.

Thus, as this demand for annual yearly progress advances for students in K-12 education, schools, districts, and state departments of education will pay further attention to what types of learning experiences students are having before they enter the third grade.

For children ages 3-5, the type of standards that exists is dependent upon the specific program and its funding agency. For instance, beginning with their 2004-2005 biennium budget requests for federal funds through the CCDF block grant, state agencies had to include a plan for establishing voluntary early learning guidelines or content standards in literacy, language, pre-reading and numeracy skills for children ages 3 to 5 that align with the state’s K-12 standards. Currently, forty-three states have these early learning guidelines for preschool and prekindergarten programs in place. Additionally, in 2003, the Good Start Grow Smart initiative required agencies that operate Head Start programs to implement the Head Start Outcomes Framework, which includes 100 indicators of what children in Head Start should know and be able to do when they leave the program to enter kindergarten. Head Start also developed its controversial National Reporting System, which uses an assessment tool to measure students’ literacy and math skills.


Future of Standards in ECED

As standards-based reforms become a permanent fixture of early childhood education, organizations (e.g., the National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC] and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialist in State Departments of Education, 2002; National Institute for Early Education Research) and early childhood researchers (e.g., Kagan and Scott-Little, 2004) have outlined guidelines for and raised issues about developing early learning standards for young children.

These organizations and researchers hope that by developing early learning standards stakeholders will make a sincere effort to develop a continuous system of ECED for the child from birth through elementary school. Unfortunately, implementing SBA reform in the current structure of ECED in the United States has the potential to split early childhood programs into two distinct systems: publicly funded systems that must adhere to state and federal SBA reforms and a private system that must only meet licensure regulations.

A primary concern of these organizations and researchers is that current policies, such as the Bush administration’s Good Start, Grow Smart initiative, fail to address all areas of a child’s development—cognitive, language, physical, social, and emotional. Fostering a child’s emotional, regulatory, and social development skills is important in assisting that child to develop into a curious, confident, and persistent student in the classroom (Bowman et al., 2000).

Furthermore, standards fail to address such issues as the funding disparity that exists between early childhood programs and the fostering of professional development so that all children have high-quality early learning experiences. Research makes clear that such experiences provide an immediate and lasting effect on a child’s academic and life experiences.

Finally, the history of SBA reform raises the question over the use of assessment measures to evaluate students and programs. Currently K-12 SBA reforms use student performance data to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs, teacher qualifications, and student learning. If ECED follows this trend, many fear SBA reform will resurrect the concerns that arose in the 1980s over appropriate curriculum, readiness tests, and approaches to curriculum, and stakeholders will fail to use these assessments to foster child and program development (Kagan and Scott-Little, 2004).

The challenge for the field of early childhood education is to find a means to work with diverse stakeholders to ensure that these policies create a system that actually promotes continuous improvement for children birth through grade 3. Such a system that enables all students to reach the defined proficiency standards, assesses progress toward those benchmarks, and uses results to improve the performance of all members of the system, can only be developed if policy makers proceed with caution (Baker, 2002). See also Curriculum, Emotional Development; Standardized Tests and Early Childhood Education.

Further Readings: American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education. (1999). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association; Baker, E. L. (2002). The struggle to reform education: Exploring the limits of policy metaphors. CSE Technical Report 576. Los Angeles: University of California, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing; Bowman, B. T., M. S. Donovan, and M. S. Burns (2000). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Bredekamp, S., ed. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children birth through age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Kagan, S. L., C. Scott-Little (2004). Early learning standards: Changing the parlance and practice of early childhood education. Phi Delta Kappan 85, 388-396; Lewis, A. C. (1995). An overview of the standards movement. Phi Delta Kappan 76, 744-751; Meisels, S. J. (1989). High stakes testing in kindergarten. Educational Leadership 46,16-22; National Association for the Education of Young Children, and National Association of Early Childhood Specialist in State Departments of Education (2002). Early learning standards: Creating conditions for success. Available online at http://naecs.crc.uiuc.edu/position/creating_conditions.pdf; Accessed March 20, 2004; National Commission on Excellence in Education (1984). A Nation at Risk: The Full Account. Cambridge, MA: USA Research; Office of the Whitehouse (2002). Good start, grow smart: The Bush Administration’s early childhood initiative. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/earlychildhood/sect1.html.

Christopher Brown