This article appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of the Erikson on Children newsletter, under the headline “A balancing act.” More from this issue

Illinois school districts are adopting the Common Core State Standards. But what does this mean for pre-kindergarten to third-grade classrooms?

Image: Forum presenters

Forum speakers Charles Payne, Cybele Raver, Chris Maxwell, and Stephen Zrike, Jr.

Some 90 researchers and teachers grappled with this and other questions at the February forum High-Quality PreK–3rd in the Age of Common Core.

The forum was hosted by Erikson’s New Schools Project and Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy.

“Education reforms are increasingly emphasizing the need for rigorous academic programs,” says Chris Maxwell, director of the New Schools Project and conference organizer. “Far less attention has been paid to the appropriate meaning of rigor in early childhood classrooms or to the importance of supporting and promoting children’s social and emotional development.”

The Common Core State Standards are intended to improve children’s academic performance and readiness for college and career by setting new standards for English/language arts and mathematics. Forty-five states, including Illinois, and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, with Chicago Public Schools phasing them in beginning in the 2012–13 school year, according to Jennifer Cheatham, a presenter at the forum and chief instruction officer of the Chicago Public Schools.
Watch Cheatham’s presentation on YouTube »

Forum presentations

All the forum presenters agreed that academic performance needs to improve and that achievement gaps beginning in the early years need to be closed. However, Erikson professional development facilitator Sarah E. Dennis finds that principals and teachers often struggle to understand how academic rigor can be appropriately and meaningfully included in pre-kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. She suggests that they implement the “spirit of Common Core,” which in English/language arts encourages students’ deeper understanding of literature, critical thinking, expression of ideas, and learning from others.

During their presentations, Jie-Qi Chen, professor and principal investigator of Erikson’s Early Mathematics Education Project, and Gillian McNamee,
professor and director of Teacher Education at Erikson, both emphasized that standards and curricula should be used to support teaching and learning but not in a way that disregards children’s developmental needs. They reminded participants that the new standards in and of themselves will not provide a silver bullet to transform the quality of teaching and learning.
Watch McNamee’s presentation on YouTube »

Charles Payne, Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, asserted in his comments that recent reforms in education have led schools to become too narrowly focused on academic achievement, while neglecting the social-emotional domain. Children at the social margins, including low-income children and children of color, are most affected by this shift. They often require a more explicit and stronger focus on the development of the social relationships and skills needed to take full advantage of learning opportunities in the classroom.
Watch Payne’s comments on YouTube »

Image: Forum attendees

Research by Cybele Raver, director of the Institute of Human Development and Social Change and the Children’s Self-Regulation Lab at New York University, confirmed this point. During her keynote address, Raver shared her research showing that social-emotional support benefits children’s academic performance.
Watch Raver’s presentation on YouTube »

For the study, Raver and her team selected Head Start programs throughout Chicago in which most parents were working but still faced a range of poverty-related stressors. Classrooms were randomly assigned either to the intervention group, which promoted children’s social-emotional development with the assistance of a mental health professional, or to a control group, in which each classroom was provided with a teacher’s aide.

The study found that the intervention classrooms — with their greater social-emotional supports — showed significantly reduced children’s behavior problems. Additionally, there was significant improvement in children’s executive function, which includes inhibiting impulses, maintaining attention, regulating emotions, and having a good working memory. It also found that children in the treatment group performed considerably better on language, letter naming, and early math tasks, demonstrating that children in classrooms where teachers intentionally foster self-regulatory skills were better able to take advantage of instruction and learning opportunities.

Raver pointed out that while her research showed notable gains in children’s academic learning, other research has demonstrated that children did not consistently maintain these types of gains over time. Children who went on to high-quality kindergarten and primary-grade classrooms maintained their gains, while children who went to lower quality schools did not.

Implications for policy and practice

The forum presentations suggested several next steps for both district and school policies and teacher practice in pre-kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, including:

  1. Redefining rigor. All students benefit from being asked to think, solve problems, and express ideas in an environment that is appropriately challenging and supportive. The key to elevating the quality of pre-kindergarten through third-grade classes through appropriate rigor is to provide rich content, active learning experiences, materials, time, and intentional teacher guidance. Together, they inspire young children’s curiosity, engage their intellect, and respond to their unique developmental characteristics.
  2. Explicitly focusing on social-emotional development. Research presented at the forum calls for schools and districts to be more intentional in the support of students’ social-emotional development. If children receive these interventions early, later achievement gaps may be prevented. However, to be successful, interventions must be sustained over time.
  3. Ensuring an aligned, high-quality environment from pre-kindergarten through third grade. Students benefit when schools intentionally focus on building students’ learning from one year to the next. This calls for an alignment of standards, curriculum, assessments, teaching methods, and professional development across the early grades, pre-kindergarten through third grade. This consistent and seamless pathway of learning can lead to increased gains in academic achievement.


Watch the forum presentations

Forum video and other info »