Literature Review of Early Childhood Education Curriculum

Literature Review of Early Childhood Education Curriculum


            Unlike the K-12 educational system where the vast majority of students attend public schools funded by primarily by local municipalities, the funding and means of delivery of Early Childhood Education (ECE) to students is very diverse. Young students attend programs funded by the federal government, state and local governments, private for profit programs, non-profit private programs, and family provider programs often run out of an individual’s home. Due to the diversity in the delivery systems of early education, there is a large amount of diversity in both the type of curriculum and assessments young students in ECE settings encounter. Recently, there has been a push down from the K-12 educational sphere into the ECE world to create more concrete curriculum standards and guidelines for ECE programs to follow if those programs wish to receive any direct funds from local, state, or federal governments or indirect funds via being able to accept students who receive publically funded vouchers to attend ECE programs. Thus, I must also have an understanding of what these standards are and how they are influencing ECE curriculum and assessment practices. The influence of K-12 style curriculum guidelines and assessment practices has created controversy in the ECE field. Covering all of these issues in detail in this paper, would be impossible; for that reason, in this paper I will give a brief overview of each of these issues. First I will start off with a concise overview of five major ECE curriculum philosophies which are Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf, High Scope, and Bankstreet that became popular last century. In addition, I will review some of the literature that looks into the validity of each of these major approaches to curriculum. I will then succinctly discuss ECE curriculum standards and guidelines. Related to standards and ECE curriculum, I will lastly discuss the continual major controversy in the ECE field which is the debate between having ECE curriculums which are play based and child orientated and directed vs. curriculums which are more academically based and teacher directed.

            After covering those issues related to ECE curriculum, I will branch off to discussing current ECE assessment practices. Assessment practices frequently drives curriculum choices and  policy makers often look for assessment information to determine if education initiatives are “working.” It should be noted, that regarding ECE curriculum and assessment, there is paucity in the breadth of peer reviewed studies related to the effectiveness of ECE curriculum, assessment methods, and standards. Consequently, I will supplement this literature review of research from peer reviewed journals related to ECE with books written by major figures in the ECE field as well as publications written by organizations and government agencies that have influence over the ECE field such as The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), Head Start, and the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (MA EEC). 


Section 1: 5 major philosophies of early childhood education curriculum

Reggio Emilia

            Reggio Emilia is an ECE curriculum philosophy started in the Italian town by the same name which values teachers building mutual respectful relationships with the child; teachers base curriculum around children’s interests and become co-learners with the child as they work with children to engage in activities and projects that attempt to answer children’s questions and interests about the world (Hertzog, 2001). The philosophical underpinnings of the Reggio Emilia approach can be traced back to the work of Dewey and Vygotsky (Abdelfattah, 2015). In a Reggio approach children learn to document their observations and learning usually through representing them in art; this documentation of learning is saved and displayed and the children can go back to it as a resource for information and to return to prior projects (Jaruszewicz, 1994). The lack of an artificial time limit regarding what the children are studying goes along with this ability to return back to projects. Children are encouraged to follow their interests and pursue their learning goals as long as they see fit (Hertzog, 2001). Another main tenant of the Reggio curriculum philosophy is cultivating relationships with the community and environment near the school as part of the learning process (Turner & Wilson, 2010).

            Reggio Emilia having been developed in a town in Italy, might not always be implemented uniformly or as intended when early education centers in the United States adopt its principals. A limited amount of research has been conducted to determine the fidelity of its implementation in the United States. A case study conducted at public and private preschools in San Francisco which both claim to have a Reggio Emilia philosophy found mixed results. In the study, a researcher conducted classroom observations and interviews of staff to determine their understanding and fidelity to Reggio Emilia approaches to curriculum. Four preschool teachers in each school were interviewed and the researcher found that only one of the public school teachers understanding of the principals related to the Reggio Emilia approach; all of the private school teachers were found to have a understanding of Reggio Emilia’s approach which observations confirmed affected the fidelity of implementation in the classroom (Abdelfattah, 2015). Others point at structural norms in the United States such as the focus on hierarchy of teachers/administrators and cultural norms focused on individual and capitalism as challenges that may hinder faithful adaptation of the Reggio Emilia approach in preschools in the United States (Firlik, 1995). A study documenting the experiences of 50 preschool teachers in St Louis attempting to implement Reggio Emilia style approaches found difficulties with teachers feeling that they did not have the space or resources to create Reggio Emilia inspired environments and that overall American culture’s quick pace often did not fit well with the long term approach of Reggio curriculum (Fyfe, 1994). Parents theoretically play an important role in a Reggio Emilia classroom. A study looking at the reactions of focus groups of in a Head Start program when the program adopted a Reggio Emilia approach found that parents liked the environmental changes associated with Reggio Emilia, but that parents wanted more information to understand the Reggio Emilia philosophy and that there were concerns that the philosophy would not lead to their child achieving kindergarten readiness (McClow & Gillespie, 1998). In an ideal world, studies would have been conducted related to the Reggio Emilia approach and kindergarten readiness and or long term academic achievement, but those studies do not appear to exist.


            The Montessori Method is famous for its diverse variety of self correcting materials which allow children to learn foundational concepts related to math, science, social studies, music, and more through trial and error with little teacher intervention. The materials are presented to the students to use in a structured sequence and children more often than not engage in the materials independently (Lillard, 2013). The Montessori Method also has a focus of the children learning by caring for their classroom environment and participating in family life tasks such as helping prepare and serve food, cleaning the classroom, and taking care of the needs of younger classmates. Unlike many other forms of ECE curriculum, Montessori does not place a large value on pretend imagination play (Stephenson, 2000).

            In 1984 The U.S. Department of Education funded a study conducting a meta-analysis of the outcomes of children who attend Montessori programs. They reviewed 10 different studies 5 of which involved middle class children and 5 of which involved disadvantaged children. (Simons, Simons, & Eric Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1984).  In the meta-analysis of the studies of middle class children who attended Montessori programs vs. more traditional preschool programs, they found no difference on performance of Piagetian Conservation Tasks, The Illionois Test of Phycholinguistic Abilities ; in addition, middle class children in traditional programs performed slightly better on tasks related to reading, spelling, and arithmetic compared to children in Montessori programs. (Simons et al., 1984). Children from disadvantaged backgrounds scored similarly on tests related to cognitive and literacy  in Montessori and more traditional programs; however, In three of the studies of disadvantaged children, children in Montessori programs showed higher scores on measurements of attention span, impulse control, and task persistence (Simons et al., 1984).

            Another study focused more specifically on how attending Montessori preschools correlates to preparedness for primary school. The study used a pre and post test model with 50 children; 25 children attended a Montessori school while the 25 in the control group attended a non-Montessori school. The Metropolitan Readiness Test and PKBS Preschool and Kindergarten Behavior Scale were administered to determine the children academic and social readiness for kindergarten. Both post test scores for the Montessori students showed statistically significant improvements (p<0.05) on both measures of academic and social skills relative to control groups (Kayili & Ari, 2011).

            Montessori style curriculum has the potential to effect non-cognitive aspects of education such a student’s perception of what the point of school and learning is. Studies have been conducted to look at those type of effects; one such study involved students who attended Franciscan Montessori Early School in Portland, Oregon. The study started in 1986 and was an 18 year long longitudinal study which measured the students in a variety of measures related to qualitative assessments of personality traits using open ended questions to determine if the students had personality traits and beliefs consistent with Montessori philosophy such as a belief in lifelong learning and the importance of self direction; they compared the students to a large national sample using similar assessment measures. In addition, they compared the outcomes of Montessori students who only attended Montessori programs in early childhood vs. those students who also went to Montessori programs in Elementary and High School.  (Glenn, 2003). Compared to students who did not attend Montessori programs, the Montessori students were more likely to mention beliefs going along with the ethos that “learning is for learning’s sake, and not a means to an end” and that competition was not as valuable as cooperation. However, the researchers note, that Montessori children are more likely to have families who already support these type of beliefs which may cloud how much effect Montessori education has on students long term beliefs and practice related to education (Glenn, 2003).

            There is a growing belief that the amount of physical activity young children are allowed to engage in early education settings effects their behavior, health, and learning outcomes. Researchers have looked at differences in the amount of physical activity children in Montessori schools engage in vs. traditional preschool settings.  The study looked at Montessori schools in South Carolina as well as traditional preschools that were accredited and licensed through the state government. Students wore devices on their belts called accelerometers that measured physical activity. The children who attended the Montessori preschools were whiter and from higher income families on average than the children attending the state licensed preschools. The researchers found that even when adjusting for race, gender, and parental income, the children in Montessori schools moved around more at a rate that was statistically significant (p≤.05) (Pate et al., 2014)


Waldorf education is a philosophy developed in Germany that believes in educating the head, heart and hands by using natural materials such as rocks, shells, sticks, mud as the primary materials in class and providing young children with plenty of time for both free imaginative play and opportunities to learn by trying to imitate adults all while in a natural home style setting (Barnes, 1991). Movement and imaginary play are significant portions of the curriculum in a Waldorf style school (Edwards, 2002).

Little research has been done looking at the outcomes of children in Waldorf Preschool programs relative to other curriculum philosophies. As Waldorf style education expanded from Germany to the rest of the world, a study was conducted using surveys to determine if the teaching practices and philosophies at the schools were consistent with Waldorf education. The study surveyed staff in 520 Waldorf schools in 31 different countries. They found that 74 percent of staff felt that their implementation of Waldorf ideas were faithful,  67 percent reported good staff morale at the school, and 63 percent felt that the schools were run democratically (Ogletree, 1998)

Another study conducted by Ogletree in Germany and England attempted to determine whether there were differences in creativity skills as measured by Torrence Test of Creative Thinking Ability between Waldorf and non-Waldorf students. Waldorf schools were matched with traditional schools with similar socioeconomic characteristics and locations. The study found that Waldorf students scored significantly better on the (.01 level) on the measure of creativity vs. their peers at public schools. (Ogletree, 1991). However, there is a possibility that there is selection bias in the types of children who attend Waldorf School and the students and or their families may already have a propensity towards creative thinking.



High Scope

            The High Scope curriculum came into prominence because it was the curriculum used in the Perry Preschool Project which was part of a landmark longitudinal study that demonstrated the long term benefits of high quality ECE for at risk young children (Schweinhart, 2003).  High Scope has a focus of allowing children to make their own decisions regarding what they should focus their learning on, but differs from other emergent curriculum philosophies in  one key respect. The focus of High Scope is the plan, do, review process where children create a plan of what they would like to do in the classroom, enact that plan, and then gather back together with the classroom group to review what they did and what they learned (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1999). While The Perry Preschool Project demonstrated that High Scope can be part of a school with strong long term outcomes, the other factors related to Perry Preschool such as the training and education level of the staff and other resources of the Perry Preschool Project are atypical of most schools that have a High Scope philosophy. Unfortunately, most research related to High Scope is focused on the results of the landmark Perry Preschool Project.

            There are a few exceptions to the Perry Preschool focus. In New Jersey’s Pittsgrove Township School District a High Scope approach was adopted in the publically funded preschool program. Kindergarten teachers were surveyed by the perceived kindergarten readiness level of their students. Students who attended the High Scope program were considered the experimental group while students who did not attend the program were considered the control. The teachers surveyed did not rate the High Scope students any differently than those that did not attend the High Scope program (Thomas, 2010). The results of this study can by questioned in a myriad of ways. Firstly, how the teachers defined kindergarten readiness is clearly subjective. In addition, there is not enough information about the experiences of the children who did not attend the publicly funded High Scope inspired program. They may have attended private preschools of varying quality and or not gone to preschool at all.          

Bank Street

            The Bank Street Curriculum Approach is sometimes referred to as The Developmental Interaction Approach. This approach was built on progressive and humanist values at Bank Street College. In this approach teachers work with children to meet and understand children’s developmental needs on an individual basis, an awareness of the child’s interest, building off those interests to create curriculum, and direct engagement with the environment and material world (Nager & Shapiro, 2000).

            In 1974, Bank Street College worked with Stamford Connecticut Public School district to evaluate the Bank Street approach which was being used at one of their schools (Ryle School) (Connecticut Univ, 1975). They measured both student academic achievement as measured by regular standardized testing program conducted by Stamford Public Schools comparing the scores of classes before they implemented Bank Street at the school and the scores of students who had been educated with the Bank Street approach. Prior to the Bank Street approach Ryle School students scored on average a year behind their peers across the state on the standardized assessment measure. The students who took the standardized assessments after being educated with the Bank Street approach until third grade did not show any significant difference compared to the prior classes who did not receive Bank Street style education (Connecticut Univ, 1975).

Curriculum Guidelines:

            It is important to note that most of the major curriculum philosophies in ECE described earlier in this paper had at least partially emergent philosophy where the curriculum was based around children’s interests. Basing curriculum primarily on a child’s interests could possibly lead to children not learning skills or knowledge that society considers important for future academic and life success. Moreover, it further adds to the overall lack of cohesion in the ECE field compared to K-12 education. Curriculum guidelines have been created by state governments, federal governments, for profit organizations, and non-profit ECE professional organizations in attempt to both create some cohesion in ECE curriculum and practice and in some cases to align ECE practice with academic standards in K-12. In the following paragraphs, I will give overviews of what those curriculum standards look like with a focus on the curriculum standards related to Massachusetts as that is the area where I plan to do all of my research.

            In 2003, the Massachusetts Board of Education, created an Early Childhood Advisory Council in order to create guidelines for preschool learning experiences. Surprisingly, these guidelines are still in use today and are available to download on the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care’s website.  These guidelines acknowledge that children learn by doing and that play is an integral part of early learning experiences; however, the guidelines don’t shy away from connecting early learning experiences to specific academic skills. The guidelines are structured by listing a variety of learning guidelines in different developmental areas like language, literacy, math, science, technology, social sciences, movement, dance, and the arts. Within each learning guidelines, are suggested learning experience ideas for teachers to implement in order to meet those guidelines. It is important to note, that while these guidelines touch on a myriad of learning areas, the introduction to the guidelines mentions that early language skills are the best predictors of future academic success (Council, 2003). This shift to the primary importance of language skills and future academic success is an example of the shifts in the thinking of what is most important in ECE curriculum which leads to some of the curriculum controversies that will be discussed later in this literature review.

            Unlike more strongly enforced curriculum standards, one might find in a K-12 setting, the ECE early learning experience guidelines, are merely that, guidelines. In 2012, the state’s role in ECE began to change. Massachusetts won money from the federal government’s Race To The Top Early Learning Challenge which required the state to create Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) for the state’s ECE systems which involved using more scientifically based curriculum standards and assessment systems (Sege, 2012).

One of the curriculum and assessment systems that have been widely adopted in Massachusetts due to its meeting QRIS guidelines is The Creative Curriculum developed by a company called Teaching Strategies Gold. The Creative Curriculum is an environmentally based curriculum; teachers are to set up interests areas in the classroom (blocks, dramatic play, toys and games, art, library, discovery, sand and water, music and movement, cooking, computers, and outdoors) which children can freely explore while the teacher works to facilitate children’s learning of concepts in all of those areas (Dodge, Colker, Bickart, & Heroman, 2008).   The teachers’ scaffolding of learning in this system should corresponded with developmental continuums found in the Creative Curriculum books and website which are sequential milestones that children will meet as the move up the developmental continuum in all the aforementioned interest areas (p. 42).  

The state of Massachusetts does not have jurisdiction over all ECE programs in the state. Head Start programs are funded by the federal government and consequently have their own sets of learning standards. Head Start standards are comprised of 11 domains ( physical development and health, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, language development, literacy knowledge and skills, mathematical knowledge and skills, science knowledge and skills, creative arts expression, logic and reasoning skills, social studies knowledge and skills, and English Language Development for students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) ). In each domain area, there are smaller domain elements, with then hundreds of examples of specific lessons and activities that coincide with the smaller domain elements all in an effort to help guide teachers regarding what should be included in their ECE classroom’s curriculum (Start, 2010)

Other ECE centers do not receive any federal or state money. In these cases, these centers are able to come up with their own curriculum guidelines. That being said, many for profit and non-profit ECE centers choose to seek accreditation from NAEYC as it considered a sign of high quality center in the field. The focus of NAEYC curriculum is alignment of curriculum with a child’s developmental milestones. Thus, NAEYC’s guidelines for appropriate ECE curriculum and practice involve a teacher having a deep understanding of child development and then subsequently creating curriculum that meets the needs of each individual child in numerous developmental areas. NAEYC’s publication details what to look for in each stage of development along with corresponding examples of appropriate and inappropriate practices when a child is in that developmental stage (Copple, Bredekamp, & National Association for the Education of Young Children., 2009).

Academic/teacher directed curriculum vs. play based/child centered curriculum

            Starting during the Reagan administrations in the 1980s, there was an increased emphasis on increasing cognitive and academic development in ECE programs most notably the federally funded Head Start. Since then, there has often been an increased focus on academic skills especially literacy when policy makers are designing ECE guidelines. This focus has even permeated into the culture at large as many companies have created products that allegedly increase IQ and the academic performance of young children (Zigler, Gilliam, & Barnett, 2011) This focus on academic achievement at a young age may be related societal changes where parents feel pressure to make sure their children can academically compete in a globalized world (Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, & Eyer, 2004). Some argue that other outside influences are taking away children’s ability to engage in traditional free play such as new technology and test based accountability programs in the early grades leading to free play and outdoor play being taken out of the curriculum in favor of more academically orientated activities designed to help children improve their future test scores (Carlsson-Paige, 2008). Those in favor of play based curriculum often argue that children can learn the academic and other skills they need to succeed through free play and dramatic play (Bodrova, 2008). It is not likely this controversy will end any time soon as the nature of ECE curriculum as well as the goals of ECE programs are currently being debated at every level of government

Section 2: early childhood assessment

            Assessment in ECE is closely tied to curriculum. Thus, it is not surprising that many of the major organizations that help shape curriculum standards also have their hands in methods of assessment. Below are three major assessment systems in the field. 

Teaching strategies gold (TSG) assessment 

The Teaching Strategies Gold’s Creative Curriculum emphasizes the importance of taking many anecdotal observations in a variety of settings as a basis for assessment (Jablon, Dombro, & Dichtelmiller, 2007). These observations are then used to place a child on a developmental continuum. These continuums involve placing a child on a scale from 1 to 8 in each specific developmental area with each point on the scale corresponding to different milestones in that area; for instance, in the standard demonstrated knowledge of the alphabet, level 4 corresponds to being able to name 10 letters usually the letters in one’s own name and level 8 corresponds with being able to identify all upper and lower case letters (Heroman, Burts, Berke, Bickart, & Tabors, 2010).

There has been some limited research looking at the validity of the TSG system which has mostly been conducted by the same group of researchers funded by the owners of TSG. The main study they use to point to TSG validity of the assessment system attempted to determine the inter-rater reliability of the system by comparing the ratings master trainers who were experts using the system to every day teachers; they used a sample of students from across the country and sought to mirror the racial demographics of the students who are assessed using TSG as a whole. They found extremely high inter-rater reliability in each assessment measure they looked with all scores being above a .9 reliability between master teachers and teachers using the system across the country. (Lambert, Kim, & Burts, 2014) Below were some of their findings:

}  “Social-Emotional (fall = .947, winter = .951, spring = .958), Physical (fall = .909, winter = .920, spring = .933), Language (fall = .957, winter = .960, spring = .965), Cognitive (fall = .961, winter = .965, spring = .972), Literacy (fall = .952, winter = .956, spring = .964), and Mathematics (fall = .937, winter = .940, spring = .951).”

These findings on the surface seem extremely positive regarding the validity of TSG. However, upon further scrutiny, the findings are not as impressive as they initially seem and may have more to do with the limitations of the TSG rating scale system. The system seeks to work as an assessment tool for children between the ages of one to five. As a child grows and develops, they most likely improve on the rating scale for each item measured unless they have a developmental disability. For instance, one of the measurements under literacy is how many letters can a child identity. The scale goes from not being able to identify any letters, being able to identity a few letters such as the ones in their own name, being able to identify most letters, and being able to identity all upper and lower case letters (Heroman et al., 2010). With these broad measurements, most children at certain ages would fall under similar places on the rating scale. For example, a four your old who has been in an early education program most likely can name many letters of the alphabet correctly but not all of them. Thus, it would be no big surprise that both expert evaluators of children and a typical preschool teacher would come to similar conclusions on most of these measures since typically developing children would most likely be bunched together at the same rating in most of these broad measurements of learning and development. . TSG gold needs more research into how effective it is as a tool for both assessment and curriculum in ECE centers if it wants to continue its claims of being a proven effective assessment and curriculum program.


NAEYC assessment

            NAEYC gives the centers it accredits leeway in the types of assessment that they choose to use as long as the assessments follow into certain parameters. NAEYC’s primary goal is to make sure that whatever assessment method are being used by a program that they are used correctly and only to measure what they are intended to measure. Moreover, the goals of assessments should be to identify children’s developmental needs and to use the assessment as a guidepost to create curriculum to meet those needs (Accreditation, 2011).

Ages and stages questionnaire

            Another popular assessment system in ECE settings are Ages and Stages Questionnaires. These are questionnaires developed by Brookes Publishing which are often promoted by state governments including Massachusetts as a reliable means of assessing young children. In this case, teachers are not assessing the children directly. Parents complete the assessment survey responding to questions about children in a variety of developmental areas. The questionnaires vary by age and after the parents complete them, teachers take the parents data and score the questionnaire. Often these questionnaires are given before a child starts an ECE program or kindergarten or after they have completed a program ("Ages and Stages Questionnaires," 2015).


Section 3 Conclusions

            While ECE is getting more attention and debates continue to rage regarding what quality early childhood education should look like, the truth is there is little quality research base for anyone to make any strong conclusions. Many of the philosophies and guidelines releated to ECE are based on the theories and of philosophy of people like Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Maria Montesorri. While basing curriculum philophy and or ECE guidelines and standards on these iconic names in the field seems sound, we know little about what actually happens in the classroom and what are the outcomes for children who attend programs with a Reggio Emilia philosophy or use Teaching Stratagies Gold for Curriculum and assessment, or follow NAEYC Guidelines or who impliment an wide array of other ECE programs. Moreover, most are not even in agreement on what outcomes are most important for our children.  In the future the ECE field must commit itself to conducting a variety of qualatative and quantatative research determine how different types of program philosophies and guidelines effect children’s development.



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