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Volume 11 Number 1
©The Author(s) 2009

Put “Academic Content” in Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Teacher Education:
A Response to Hyson et al.

Elaine Surbeck

I congratulate authors Hyson, Tomlinson, and Morris on a revealing study, and I urge them to continue to dig deeper into research in early childhood education (ECE) program quality. There is much to learn as we seek to improve education in early childhood programs. The results of this survey do not surprise me; they confirm concerns that have grown during recent years regarding the quality and content of teacher preparation programs and the pipeline (or lack of one) of doctoral-level leadership in ECE. Serendipitously, this article could not have been published at a more opportune time, just prior to the release of President Obama’s “Zero to Five Plan.” Although still embargoed at this writing, the plan provides for critical and substantial fiscal support for the education of young children (and support for their families), a demand for improvement in the quality of teacher preparation in early education, and increased teacher accountability to improve learning outcomes for children under age 5. It recognizes that the single most important factor in determining a child’s achievement is the teacher. The plan also includes the creation of a Presidential Early Learning Council designed to “increase collaboration and program coordination across federal, state, and local levels” (“Strengthening families,” n.d.). 

As the results of this study demonstrate, presidential support comes just in the nick of time; without increased vision and support at the highest national level, it appeared that early education was on the path to extinction in the name of being “a related field.” Clearly, programs of teacher preparation in early childhood education have struggled with a lack of resources in nearly every area. As this and other articles attest, the numbers of potential teachers and teacher educators, particularly among minority candidates, have waned; the types of support (e.g., professional status, additional time for professional development, time and opportunity to conduct action and other types of research) are often lost in the name of managing teacher education programs with inadequate numbers of faculty. Financial backing for program maintenance and improvement has been low in many of our two- and four/five-year institutions. In addition, it is my belief that a broad, general focus on the many competing demands inherent in early education and care has contributed to a loss of a systematic focus on critically important content for prospective teachers and children alike.

Given the new opportunities and the accountability ahead of us, we have a great deal of work to do. We are hampered by having too few teacher educators well prepared in research and who have sufficient depth of knowledge regarding key content-domain early educational practice. To this challenge, I want to elaborate on a few thoughts and recommendations. First and foremost, I believe that we must return to a clear emphasis on academic content in early childhood—both in our teacher preparation programs and in what we advocate that teachers do in their interactions with young children. Such emphasis can prepare children for success using methods that honor children’s developmental trajectories and cultural contexts. Second, we need to find more focused and strategic ways to work together, building on successful, research-based models already in place. I offer these thoughts on the basis of my own experiences, acknowledging that others may disagree or have far better ideas.

Educational Content in Teacher Preparation: Inquiry

As the recent Wingspread report (NAEYC & SRCD, 2008) attests, a crucial component in improving the quality of what teachers do in classrooms is the teachers’ understanding of research-based practice. An inquiry-based approach demands that teacher educators understand and use teacher research themselves, that they engage students in reading research and in becoming inquiry based in their planning and interactions with children during their preparation. The best way to engender understanding of the importance of inquiry is to engage teacher candidates in it, beginning at a very elemental level and increasing the complexity of understanding over time. Our students don’t learn this sitting passively in our courses, and further, I think we do not always consider our students capable of action research. Action research, lesson study, and case study—all easily used in college coursework—demand reflection and analysis, and they can be accomplished through guided and collaborative practice. It should be required that during their practicum or student teaching experience, prospective teachers collect data, analyze results, and communicate to others what was learned about how children learn, what they learned, and what was learned by the teacher in order to determine next steps. This approach to improving capacity to understand and implement inquiry should be “content” that all ECE teacher educators teach and guide as prospective preschool and primary teachers matriculate through their programs, whether in pursuit of an A.A., B.A., or higher degree. As indicated in this survey, an inquiry-based mindset of teachers is not a priority in many programs. This finding indicates that too few of our programs consistently and systematically demand analytical practice, basic content for an evidence-based approach to teaching.

It is also clear that if ECE teacher educators want to be taken seriously in their institutions, they must demonstrate the value of teacher research in their field. With the recent publication of a strong rationale for teacher research (Rust, 2009) and the Wingspread report (NAEYC & SRCD, 2008), steps are already being taken to support improvement in teacher research. For example, NAEYC has established an Office of Applied Research at NAEYC Headquarters and has linked resources to assist in providing better understanding of research-based practice. The National Association for Early Childhood Teacher Educators (NAECTE) has an active “researchnet” to promote and support teacher research, and SRCD has joined with NAEYC in stressing the importance of research on children. What is still needed is some large-scale mechanism to move us forward. It is my fervent hope that as a profession we will have the will to enact the action steps suggested in the Wingspread recommendations, making the best possible use of the current national support.

Educational Content in Teacher Preparation: Academic Content Understanding

The second area I want to mention is not as directly addressed in the article. It has to do with the quality of content in current ECE programs. Quality of programs is a complicated area to assess. The authors rightfully note that there is a move toward performance-based or results-based criteria in higher education, and that standards are foundational to program quality. While the five NAEYC standards cited are certainly each important, I believe we need to reexamine the priorities across and within each standard, particularly standard 3 (using assessment responsibly) and standard 4 (teaching to promote children’s learning). It may not be the degree per se, as the authors note, but program coherence and the specific content within the standards areas that make the difference in the quality of the performance of program graduates. In terms of helping children learn content, what is taught prospective teachers in the domains of emergent math, science, and language and literacy are critical.

Let me clarify. It is not only about content—teaching is highly complex—I recognize that; but my point is that, perhaps to our disadvantage, ECE has not wanted to claim content-specific knowledge as highly important in the early years. This could be because we don’t perceive ourselves to be good in math and science, but, also, what “good” emergent math and sciences practices look like for very young children has been less well understood than those in language and literacy. However, it seems logical that the graduates’ skills in teaching and their understanding of key concepts are central to outcomes of program quality, regardless of whether the degree is from a two- or four-year institution. I also recognize that it is difficult to link teacher interaction to child achievement, but contrary to a quote in the study, I don’t believe people are “born teachers.” As indicated by Ball and others (Ball, 2008; Boerst, Sleep, Cole, & Ball, 2008), there are skills and content specific to content domains that can and should be understood and practiced prior to and during interaction with children. Technology can assist us in showing impressive examples of best practice in these areas of early education. Academic content, discussed below, is now available and has been translated by an impressive panel of experts for use by practitioners. 

Educational Content for Young Learners

In addition to the field embracing teacher inquiry as a way to learn to value research, the simultaneous use of relevant research reviews offers specific guidance about key content in academic domains of critical import for preschool teachers to know (e.g., National Research Council, National Institute for Early Education Research, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics). In order to translate much of what has been provided in these reports to everyday usefulness, we are also now fortunate to have the recently released document from the Albert Shanker Institute (2009) titled Preschool Curriculum: What’s in It for Children and Teachers. Intended to be used within a context of a well-rounded high-quality prekindergarten curriculum, the document provides key information about the academic disciplines of language, literacy, mathematics, and science, and it aligns the content with effective methods for teaching this content in context of appropriate active learning strategies. The document explains the relevant goals for young children in each of the disciplines, provides effective instructional practices, defines key curricular content, addresses techniques for working with English-language learners, and lists resources. Similar work has been done by Clements and Sarama (2008), who distilled research-based efforts in emergent mathematics curriculum into a play- and interest-based approach to teaching pertinent mathematics content in context. Our field would do well to take these and other research-based documents into the core of teacher preparation in all our programs as a way to jump-start a clear focus on content for preschool children.

Linking across Agencies and Organizations: Professional Development

The promise of the Presidential Early Learning Council to link across local, state, and federal levels offers the field a potential strategy for enhancing the learning of current teacher educators, current teachers, and potential teacher candidates in a rigorous reinvention of high-quality practices in personal practice. In addition to the recommendations of the Wingspread report, there is one national organization that has strong potential to further enhance ECE teacher professional development. One of the most widely recognized professional development activities available in this country is for an individual to voluntarily undertake National Board Certification, which encourages and recognizes accomplished teaching. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) partnered with NAEYC in the past to offer Early Childhood Generalist Standards, and 9,000 early childhood teachers have attained this rigorous certification since 2000. By far, the fewest teachers in this group were preschool teachers.

With the creation of Take One!—a first step in the certification process—lies an opportunity to potentially utilize a highly valuable, peer-reviewed assessment of a teacher’s performance. (Teachers and prospective teachers can videotape themselves teaching a lesson, assess it, and send the video to NBPTS for assessment of teaching proficiency and effectiveness. See http://www.nbpts.org.) Although this process is not inexpensive, it is reportedly one of the best experiences for professional development in actual teaching and can be “banked” toward completion of the national certificate. It may be that in this time of additional funding it would be wise for NAEYC to revisit this organization to investigate the possibilities of an enhanced focus on preschool teaching. In addition to this opportunity, there are at least 9,000 teachers spread across our country working in ECE who have attained this certification—some of whom may want to engage with other preschool or primary teachers in mentoring them as they pursue national certification. Increasingly, colleges and universities (George Mason and Arizona State University, among others) have incorporated the Ten Areas of Core Knowledge for PK-3 Teachers as undergraduate or graduate program standards and engaged in partnerships with the NBPTS to include coursework in master’s courses. These linkages could also prove fruitful for creation of a network of ECE practitioners, colleges and universities, and communities of practice to enhance professional development of PK-3 teachers.

President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan have asked for innovative ideas in education. Now is the time to commit to responding to them, improving our programs and education for children and teachers alike. Thank you for this opportunity to comment.


Albert Shanker Institute. (2009). Preschool curriculum: What’s in it for children and teachers. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from http://www.shankerinstitute.org/Downloads/Early%20Childhood%2012-11-08.pdf

Ball, Deborah Loewenberg. (2008, February). The work of teaching and the challenge for teacher education. Charles W. Hunt Lecture presented at the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education Annual Meeting, New Orleans, LA.

Boerst, Timothy; Sleep, Laurie; Cole, Yaa; & Ball, Deborah Loewenberg. (2008, April). Learning practice through practice: Design considerations of a practice-based course. Paper presented at the National Council for Teachers of Math Research Presession, Salt Lake City, UT.

Clements, Douglas H., & Sarama, Julie. (2008). Experimental evaluation of the effects of a research-based preschool mathematics curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 45(2), 443-494.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) & Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD). (2008). Using research to improve outcomes for young children: A call for action. Final report of the Wingspread Conference, September 18-20, 2007. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23(4), 591-596.

Rust, Frances. (2009). Teacher research and the problem of practice. Teachers College Record, 111(8), 3-4.

Strengthening families and communities.(n.d.). Retrieved February 24, 2009, from http://www.barackobama.com/issues/family/

Author Information

Elaine Surbeck is professor of early childhood education at Arizona State University (ASU). She is a past president of the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators and has served as the associate dean for teacher education at ASU for the past five years. She is a coauthor of two textbooks in early childhood education. She started her career as a kindergarten teacher.

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