What Influences Teacher Practice In Early Childhood Education? (Literature Review and 2 Interviews)
Early Childhood Education (ECE) is a fragmented field where early educators may work at for profit centers, non profits, Head Start, home day cares, programs run out of local public schools, and more. Due to the diversity of the delivery of ECE, often there are large variations in teacher practice; this is especially true because levels of teacher training can range from those who have a high school diploma or equivalent to those who have advanced degrees in ECE or a related field. In my research this semester, I sought to determine what influences teachers practice in the field. More specifically, I sought to look at the role of college course work in ECE and the educational philosophies learned in those courses, the role of guidelines created by The National Association For The Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and the role of Massachusetts new Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) which are intended to improve practice and create more uniformity in the ECE field across the state. In the following paragraphs, I will give a very brief overview of many of the most well known ECE philosophies early educators learn about in college courses, a look at NAEYC guidelines, and the recommendations of the QRIS system and state guidelines.
Across the world, the most well known ECE philosophy is likely Montessori. The Montessori educational philosophy was developed by Maria Montessori in Rome at the turn of the 20th century; the Montessori method is characterized by the use of unique self correcting materials which Montessori developed herself with her collaborators. These self correcting materials allow children to learn foundational skills and knowledge through exploration of the materials with little to no direct instruction from teachers (Lillard, 2013). Unlike most programs which group children by age, it is common to find children in the same classroom with a wide age range at Montessori programs. This is because part of the Montessori philosophy revolves around the children learning how to take care of themselves, other people, and their environment in a home like setting (Stephenson, 2000). In most programs for young children, pretend play or dramatic play where young children engage in with other children and take on roles like mommy and daddy or fire fighter or super hero is a staple of the curriculum; however, this type of pretend play is not as valued as part of Montessori curriculum where children can usually be found engaging in their own self selected projects in an individual work space (Lillard, 2013).
Similar to Montessori, the High Scope philosophy values children being able to make their own choices about what they want to learn and what activities they would like to engage in. In a High Scope classroom, different interest areas such as block building or art area are set in the classroom. What separates High Scope from most other philosophies is the “ plan, do, and review” process. In a High Scope inspired classroom, children meet in a large group and each child makes a plan for what activity they would want to do, they then engage in that activity, and finally they meet up again and the children discuss with their classmates what they engaged in (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1999). To give a brief example of how this might work, a child may start off by saying they want to build a castle out of blocks for a royal family, then go to block area where they build said castle and play with royal figure dolls, and then during the review meeting discuss with the entire class group how they created the castle and what they did with the royal figure dolls. The High Scope curriculum philosophy is also noteworthy in that it was used during the landmark Perry Preschool Project which was an ECE program involved in a 40 year longitudinal study that demonstrated the long term benefits in life outcomes for the participants and taxpayer money is saved from high quality early childhood programs (Schweinhart, 2003).
The Reggio Emilia philosophy also emphasizes children interest. In a Reggio Emilia inspired classroom, children engage in long term projects based on their interests where their teachers act as co-learners or guides in the process instead of the typical academic dynamic where teachers directly instruct children on what they should be learning (Hertzog, 2001). Reggio Emilia inspired programs also look to the environment of the school and the community as another teacher and pay particular attention to crafting indoor and outdoor spaces that use natural materials (Turner & Wilson, 2010). The children’s learning and work is also documented throughout the classroom and they are encouraged to reflect on and discuss their past work with teachers, parents, and members in the community (Jaruszewicz, 1994).
While not as well known as some of the other prominent ECE philosophies, Waldorf Style education still has many followers across the globe. The Waldorf view of education is that it should involve the mind, body, and soul and interaction with natural materials is given high priority. In a true Waldorf classroom, you would not find any plastic materials or electronics for the children to use (Barnes, 1991). Unlike Montessori, imaginary and dramatic play are encouraged and make a key part of the learning process (Edwards, 2002).
All of these aforementioned philosophies of early childhood education have a child centered approach. This aligns with many people’s notions of early childhood development. However, as policy makers have become more interested in the potential for early childhood education, there has been more of an effort to tie ECE to measures of kindergarten readiness and creating alignments with K-12 education standards. Massachusetts in 2003 created a series of curriculum guidelines with specific goals in the areas of literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, physical, and social emotional development for young children in the state (Council, 2003). Even with these guidelines, there was no real mechanism for the government to enforce the guidelines because they had no regulatory authority aside from licensing which focused on child safety and wellbeing not specific curriculum goals. Thus, after receiving Race To The Top Funds, Massachusetts devised a new system called The Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) designed to incentivize early education centers to follow state recommendations. The system would give early education centers a score and the higher the score they received the higher rate of tuition they would receive for the children who attended the program using a government voucher (Sege, 2012). Under QRIS, early education centers had to prove they were following government guidelines and had the option of using curriculum and assessment programs which the government deemed to be quality. One of the programs which has become the most commonly used in the state is Teaching Strategies Gold (TSG). TSG is an assessment system which rates children on scales of 1-8 in a variety of developmental measures such as literacy, math, social emotional development and physical development. Wherever children are rated on the scale after observations, the TSG online system gives teachers ideas for activities and curriculum that fit where the child is on the developmental scale (Heroman, Burts, Berke, Bickart, & Tabors, 2010).
Aside from the government and known curriculum philosophies, another factor that guides many early education programs is The National Association For The Education of Young Children (NAEYC). NAEYC is a voluntary accreditation agency which many in the field consider the gold standard. NAEYC curriculum focus relates to the concept of developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) (Copple, Bredekamp, & National Association for the Education of Young Children., 2009). They continually revise their books and guidelines related to DAP based on available research.. Early education centers that go through a lengthy process to prove they follow these guidelines receive NAEYC accreditation.
In my interviews, I asked about all of these factors; curriculum philosophies, state guidelines, QRIS, and how NAEYC affects classroom practice. Both teachers I interviewed had a variety of opinions about all these topics. In the future, I hope to conduct more interviews to see if their thoughts are aberrations or held widely throughout the ECE field in the Boston area.
For my research, I interviewed two early childhood educators about their experiences in the field and what influences their day to day practice practices in the curriculum. Both early educators are relatively new in to the field; the first was a Caucasian female age twenty three (pseudonym Mary) who had an Associate’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from an institution in Boston and a twenty four (pseudonym Daisy) Caucasian female who has a Bachelor’s in Early Childhood Education from an institution in Boston. I am talking a grounded theory approach where my I am collecting data, coding the data, and then generating theories about the experiences of early educators. In the following paragraphs, I’ll give a give a description of my interview transcripts, describe my coding and analysis process, interpret the data, and finally reflect on the entire process.
Mary and I had worked together previously and had been chatting for about twenty minutes before starting the interview about our personal and professional lives. This made the transition to the “official” interview difficult as even at the start of the interview there was some joking. For instance, during her first response Mary pauses and says “ Wait, is your class going to hear this? God , I hate how my voice sounds on tape; Can I talk with a British accent or something? (laughter) Oooh ooh, (laughter) how about a Russian spy voice? (laughter).” Her first few responses related to her general experiences in early education included some jokey banter., but her tone and style of responding to questions changed when I asked less general questions about her experiences in early education and more specific ones related to how college classes, NAEYC/State guidelines and standards, mentor teachers, and other factors influenced her practice. Her switching of tone midway through the interview is something that I discuss further later when discussing codes and meaning making.
When discussing her college experiences and mentors and how they affect her practice as a teacher today, Mary gave details in her responses, but also often lamented that she had trouble remembering certain things she wanted to remember and talk about. The following quotation is typical of her responses. “Reading For Children class teaching what sounds are the easiest for kids to learn and what sounds will be like the tougher one like in K. strategies to do that. I used the mirrors to have them make certain sounds or bubbles or uh letter boards um to use in the classroom knowing which reading level the child is on like abc in the different booklets. Ugh so many classes. Uhg I can’t even think of the classes. so many classes. I can’t even think right now. It’s like a big blur but I know like I learned stuff I use if that makes sense. “ Often in these moments, I would respond by saying something reassuring like “that makes sense” or “its ok you don’t have to remember everything just like whatever pops into your head.”
The second interview with Daisy at times had similar conversational flow where aspects of our previous relationship intertwined themselves into the interview and interjected a light hearted tone. The following exchange is an example of that:
Teddy : How would you say any coworkers or teacher mentors have affected your practice in the field in terms of what you do in the classroom?
Daisy ( laughs) So I’ve been lucky to see great example of people and not sooo great examples of people (laughs) some of them you know (laughs)
Teddy Not naming names (laughs), could you talk about some things you have learned from those bad examples?
Daisy. From those examples I’ve learned what I want to do and what I don’t want to do with myself. And I know what I should be doing so seeing the bad examples has helped me know what I shouldn’t be like. I want to be more involved with the learning with my kids rather than letting them sit around letting them do what they want and get hurt and not learn anything (laughs) “
In both interview, they lasted a little less than fifteen minutes with the first half of the interview where I asked broader questions about their experiences working in the field creating longer responses than those when I asked more direct questions about a topic like NAEYC or QRIS guidelines.
When I began coding and looking for themes, some of the initial categories were analysis of the tone of voice and length of responses in the interview. This is partially due to the fact that when I first started analyzing the data, I was listening to the interview through headphones while reading the transcripts. While doing this, the switches of tone really stood out at me. Thus, next to each response, I tried to write done a few words that best described the tone of the response in each interview. The words I wrote down included, confident, unconfident, happy, lighthearted, joking, nervous, confused, sarcastic, serious, and annoyed. This process is entirely subjected and my interpretation of the tone of used in the responses was most likely influenced by my memory of the interview and my previous relationship with the interview subjects. If I had more time and the interviewees consent, I would have had others listen to the interview in order to see if their descriptions of the tone were similar to my own.  After looking down at the words I wrote and reflecting on them, I came up with some broad categories of “positive tone” to represent the happy, lighthearted and confident responses and “negative tone” to represent unconfident, nervous, confused, and annoyed responses. Since, in many instances my questions led the interviewees to discuss specific topics, I knew there was a good chance that many topics would have been discussed in some way by both interviewees. I made a very basic two sided charted with these two broad categories then re-listened and reread the interviews. I then noted in each column what topic was being discussed in association with each tone for each interviewee. After that, I circled any time there was a topic that was discussed in a similar tone of voice by both Mary and Daisy. I also put a star next to a topic where the same person had a both positive and negative tone while discussing it in different instances. Finally, I underlined any topic where there was divergence where both interviewees talked about it but in different tones.
After completing that process, I decided to reorganize the data to create a kind of hierarchy of topics and the tones used while talking about them. I looked at each major topic discussed, and rated it double positive (for being discussed in positive tones by both interviewees), single positive (if it was discussed positively by one interviewee and not at all by the other), mixed bag (if it was discussed in different tones by both), single negative (if it was discussed in negative tone by one interviewee), and double negative (if both interviewees discussed it in a negative tone. There was one item in this process which was mentioned twice positively and once negatively which I gave its own special square in-between mixed bag and positive. (see picture)
After doing this, I tried to combine some of the topics discussed into overarching themes and then see if I can associate those overarching themes into positive and negative tones. For I created one theme of “children” included the subtopics of mentions of children, kids, babies, or toddlers. I created another theme of curriculum standards and guidelines included the subtopics NAEYC, QRIS, and Common Core. I create another theme of “Adult” which included the subtopics of discussion of coworkers, professors, and parents.
Using the positive and negative chart I created earlier, I felt like there was a quantitative nature to my analysis emerging. Thus, I created a little math equation for each of my main 3 themes. Whenever, a topic underneath the broader theme was mentioned as a double positive portion of the chart, I gave it a value of 2. Whenever it was mentioned in the single positive, I gave it a value of 1. Whenever it was mentioned in mixed bag, I gave it a value of 0. Whenever it was a single negative it a value of -1 and double negative received a value of -2.
The “children” category ended with a +3, the standards and guidelines category with a -5, and the “adults” category -2. Thus, my meaning making led me to the quantitative conclusion that early educators have positive associations about working with children in the field, negative associations about working with adults like coworkers and parents, and very negative associations about standards and guidelines.
Part of the reason I came up with these categories is my own experiences talking to people in the ECE field. Often times, I have heard people discuss positive and negative aspects of the job in these broad categories of dealing with the kids, adults like parents and coworkers, and dealing with the paperwork related to state/NAEYC guidelines. In this respect, my own experiences and bias shaped how I viewed and categorized my data. Most likely my prior experiences clouds how I categorized and interpreted the data. That being said, I had no intention of using this type of coding or analysis when I started this project. Listening to the audio of the interviews while reading my transcripts and looking for themes really shaped my thinking about the themes and categories related to the interviews. If I were to just read the transcripts without any audio, I most likely would have gone down a completely different path in the process and eventual conclusions of how I came to make meaning of my data. In addition, time constraints limited my ability to create different forms of coding for my data.
Even with the limitations and potential bias in my coding techniques, my overarching conclusion is similar to much of the research of why teachers get into and or leave the field of early education. Most research points to people getting into this field because they enjoy working with children which my data supports. Aside from low pay, two of the reasons research and my anecdotal knowledge point to for reasons early educators leave the field is frustration caused by parents of the children, coworkers, and the paperwork and limitations created by standards from various sources.
I did not intend to research to focus on how people felt about different aspects of ECE. I was going in focused on the idea of trying to determine what influences a teacher’s classroom practice. I could possibly look at my data in a new way in the future and code for this. However, my interviews have caused me to think of new research possibilities. One of the biggest problems in the ECE field is high turnover and people leaving the field. I think it could be interesting to conduct interviews with people who have left the field of early education to try to determine what are the factors that caused them to leave, what could have made them stay, and if there is anything which would make them consider getting back into the field.
Barnes, H. (1991). Learning that grows with the learner: an introduction to waldorf education. Educational Leadership, 49(2), 52-54.
Copple, C., Bredekamp, S., & National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Council, E. C. A. (2003). Guidelines for preschool learning experiences. Malden, MA: Massachusetts Department of Education Retrieved from http://www.eec.state.ma.us/docs1/curriculum/20030401_preschool_early_learning_guidelines.pdf.
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Heroman, C., Burts, D., Berke, K.-l., Bickart, T., & Tabors, P. (2010). Teaching stratagies gold: objectives for development & learning, birth through third grade. Washington DC: Teaching Strategies Inc.
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Lillard, A. S. (2013). Playful learning and montessori education. American Journal of Play, 5(2), 157-186.
Schweinhart, L. J. (2003). Benefits, costs, and explanation of the high/scope perry preschool program Retrieved from http://ezproxyles.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=ED475597&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1999). The Advantages of High/Scope: Helping Children Lead Successful Lives. Educational Leadership, 57(1), 76,78.
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