New Pre-K Curriculum Will Provide High Returns on the Dollar

May 14, 2008 — By age 5, children growing up in poverty or social disadvantage often lack the knowledge and skills critical to school success. Florida officials estimate that one-third of children enter kindergarten already behind academically.

Increasing numbers of pre-kindergarten programs have been funded to meet the educational needs of these children, but large-scale studies suggest that classroom quality is highly variable, even with experienced, credentialed teachers. The needs are even more pronounced in pre-K mathematics and science education. Few early childhood teachers have taken more than one college math course, and few curricula have been developed for math and science education at this level. Not surprisingly, teacher expectations for student learning in these subjects are low.

To address this need, University of Virginia associate professor of education Mable Kinzie and Curry School of Education Dean Robert Pianta have been awarded a $1.77 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to produce and evaluate a yearlong curriculum in pre-K mathematics and science. Kinzie and her team, working through the existing MyTeachingPartner initiative developed by U.Va.'s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, will design a child- and teacher-friendly curriculum that directly links experiences children can have in the natural world with complementary math and science concepts and skills.

The potential for this curriculum is substantial, said Kinzie. "Recommendations for universal preschool in the United States suggest the need for many more qualified teachers and a range of high quality curricula," she explained.

In 2002, researchers estimated that only 27,000 pre-K teachers were practicing, while 200,000 teachers would be needed if programs were offered to all 4-year-olds nationally.

"The costs of providing an increasing number of teachers with high-quality curricula and support will be well-repaid," she said. "For every dollar spent on pre-kindergarten programs, estimates of return on investment range from 7-to-1 to 15-to-1 over the student's lifespan, with savings on education, health, welfare and justice programs, more stable marriages and 25 percent higher income."

Pianta is a member of the National Research Council's Committee on Early Childhood Mathematics, whose work has established the potential for young children to learn mathematics and science and the inadequacy of both current curriculum offerings and teacher preparation.