What Does High-Quality Early Childhood Education Look Like?

Some children arrive in kindergarten classrooms and they don’t recognize their own names above the coat hook. They struggle to hold a pair of scissors. They’re not sure how to flip the pages of a book.

The sad truth is these children, born into poverty and deprived of a high-quality early education in their first years, most likely will never catch up to their peers. And that’s because, even as the value of early childhood education is better understood and increasingly noticed by lawmakers like President Obama and others, it’s still more likely that the lowest-income children in this country today will get the lowest-quality early childhood education.

Nobody understands this better than Professor Julie Bullard, a 2011 Professor of the Year, and director of the Early Childhood Education program at the University of Montana-Western, with more than 30 years experience in the field. Bullard, an NEA member, teaches teachers how to do it right—how to change the lives of the youngest Americans by providing them with the kind of high-quality early education that can compensate for their birth into deep poverty and disadvantage.

“People have realized that some students start out behind when they start kindergarten, and they don’t ever really catch up,” she said. “But a lot of research shows that making a difference in the early years has real potential to save money and enhance the lives of children.”

And it only would get worse, if U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan has his way. His proposed budget would cut $1.1 billion and 200,000 from Head Start, the federally funded program for at-risk children, ages 0 to 5. Over the next decade that means more than 2 million poor children would lose out on this first, critical stepping stone to success, according to NEA’s analysis.

Ryan’s budget “translates directly into lost opportunities and lost outcomes for our students,” a White House policy advisor said. And, it doesn’t make economic sense either. Investments in high-quality early education pay off in the long term by reducing spending in areas of social services and health care, and increasing the ability of graduates to earn more.

What does high-quality early education look like? Bullard, who is also the author of “Creating Environments for Learning: Birth to Age Eight,” knows it when she sees it—and so can you. Classrooms should be stocked with developmentally appropriate materials, and children should be able to move around the classroom, engaging in hands-on “center activities. Adults should interact meaningfully with those children, helping them deepen the knowledge that they’re gaining through play.

Julie Bullard

Nobody, at least not Bullard and her students, want to see 4-year-olds bent over Scantron sheets. But there should be appropriate assessments, which should “feel like more playing” to those students, she said. And the results should guide curriculum, which should be aligned with standards and guidelines around effective early childhood education.  There also should be really meaningful, reciprocal relationships with families.

“This isn’t just telling parents what happened that day, but understanding a family’s culture and values and beliefs and using that information to develop curriculum and relationships,” she said.

This is still a field that’s evolving, she noted. As brain imaging has become more sophisticated, educators are learning more about how children’s brains work and develop. “In the past, there always has been an emphasis on warm, responsive care and opportunities to play. That’s still true—but we’re also learning more about children’s capabilities in content areas, like what kinds of math skills young children possess and how we can build them.”

As director of UMW’s early childhood programs, Bullard is able to take this kind of research and put it directly into the hands of future teachers. But the most important lesson she imparts to those teachers, she said, is this: “You have a huge, huge influence.”

“You’re setting the foundation for all future learning, not just in the cognitive realm, but socially and emotionally. You can make a huge, huge difference for that child, either positively or negatively.”

Because Bullard herself has been making a positive difference for years, she won the Professor of the Year award for Montana in 2011. The awards are given jointly by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Other NEA winners in 2011 include David Lawstuen, dairy science professor at Northeast Iowa Community College; Stuart Sumida, biology professor at California State University, San Bernardino; and Pam Whitfield, who teaches women’s perspectives, equine science, and English at Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota.