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Tying Early Childhood Education More Closely to Schooling: Promise, Perils and Practical Problems

by Robert Halpern - 2013

Background: Over the past decade or so, the idea of joining early childhood education (ECE) and schooling has gained currency in the educational reform arena. Numerous education reform proposals and plans include ECE as a component. Scores of school districts around the country have added preschool classrooms to at least some of their elementary schools. National organizations representing governors, chief state school officers, school boards, and principals have all called for public school systems to include and integrate ECE into plans for school improvement.

Purpose/Objective: One specific framework for bringing ECE and schooling closer together is “prek-3rd.” The broad goal of prek-3rd is to encapsulate formal learning experiences in the 3–8 years age period and create a distinct, coherent whole out of them. In this article, I use prek-3rd as a vehicle for exploring the implications of more closely linking ECE and schooling, focusing especially on philosophical and practical issues raised by this objective. I will examine the reasoning of proponents and raise questions about their assumptions.

Research Design: Analytic essay.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The example of prek-3rd suggests that there are many positive aspects to the idea of bringing ECE and early schooling closer together. These include an extended time frame for holding on to a developmental orientation; a complex view of the child, and sensitivity to individual differences; the longitudinal perspective on learning and mastery; the balance in attention to teaching and learning; and the broadened time frame for considering the transition to school. Yet, at least in the American context, it is not such a good idea to bring ECE and schooling closer together. Initiatives like prek-3rd will provide one more opening for downward pressures on early childhood providers. The schools (as a whole) have a history of failing to respect the integrity of other institutions that join them in efforts to better meet children’s needs. Thus far, all that has been accomplished by tying ECE more closely to schools making ECE less early-childhood-like. The needs of schools are just too powerful and end up overwhelming the identity of institutional partners. Ultimately, the risk in binding ECE and schooling more closely together derives from a set of related cultural problems. The first can best be described as losing the present to the future—the very problem with school readiness as the central goal of ECE. The second problem is a misunderstanding of the processes at the heart of child development. Children are not raw human capital to be carefully developed through schooling to meet the demands of a globalized labor force. Americans urgently have to rethink how they wish to account for children, the virtues that are important to nurture, and the role of adult institutions in the process. There is a clear risk in extending the line that already connects schooling to global competitiveness down into early childhood, asking ECE to address not only the achievement gap but the global achievement gap as well.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 1, 2013, p. 1-28
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16744, Date Accessed: 1/23/2021 3:38:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Robert Halpern
    Erikson Institute
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT HALPERN is a professor at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. His recent research and writing have focused on the attributes of good learning experiences during the high school years. His books include The Means to Grow Up: Reinventing Apprenticeship as a Developmental Support in Adolescence (Routledge) and Making Play Work: The Promise of After-School Programs for Low-Income Children (Teachers College Press).
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