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Some of the most popular curricula for preschools are those that take a “whole child” approach to learning—wrapping social-emotional learning, executive function skills, self-regulation goals, and cognition in one package.

But a recent study finds that young children score higher on tests of school readiness when they get supplemental instruction using curricula designed to build their literacy and math skills, compared to receiving instruction exclusively through the broader whole-child approach.

In the world of preschool education, however, such findings are hardly the end of the story.

For example, the creators of a well-known whole-child program, The Creative Curriculum, say that this study measures the impact of an outdated version of its curriculum. Newer versions, they say, address the concerns raised in these findings.

But looming larger than the specifics of this study is the ongoing debate about just what type of instructional approach is appropriate for young children.

Everyone wants children to leave preschool prepared both academically and socially for school—the question is how to get there. Is child-led play a better route to learning than teacher-guided instruction? Are preschool skills being inappropriately narrowed in a quest for higher test scores?

Experts generally agree that preschool programs can offer playful learning that includes an intentional focus on academic content areas such as language, literacy, or math. The challenge is how to do that across thousands of individual preschool classrooms.

Comparing Programs

The recent research, published in the August edition of the Economics of Education Review, compared several literacy-focused programs and a math program to two whole-child programs, Creative Curriculum and HighScope, that are widely used in private and public preschoools. In a 2011 survey, for example, two-thirds of Head Start providers reported using either The Creative Curriculum or HighScope.

The Creative Curriculum organizes classrooms in 11 interest areas, such as blocks, dramatic play, art, sand and water, and outdoors. The focus is on hands-on investigations by children meant to bolster creativity, cognitive and critical-thinking skills. HighScope is a variation of the curriculum used in the famed Perry Preschool research project, which followed a group of preschoolers through adulthood to track their life outcomes. It also focuses on hands-on experimentation and “active participatory learning.”

The data was collected as part of the federally funded Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Initiative Study. That study evaluated 14 early-childhood education curricula.

The improvements in school readiness that came with supplemental instruction to the whole-child approach were modest in literacy and strong in math at the start of the kindergarten year. By the end of kindergarten, however, those gains were no longer statistically significant.

Jade M. Jenkins, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, is the lead author of the research. She said that whole-child curricula studied as part of this research are too general for teachers to implement well.

“It’s not giving them detailed scripts for how to model language, or how to cultivate children’s engagement. They’re supposed to be guided by children’s rapidly changing interests, but it takes a lot of skills to implement a whole-child curriculum—watching, observing, and scaffolding at every conceivable moment.”

The content-specific curriculum also is play-based and appropriate for preschoolers, Jenkins said.

“These curricula are not—I repeat, not—drill and kill worksheets,” she said. “These are developmentally sound, child-centered activities that engage children in learning.”

Making Adjustments

But the version of Creative Curriculum that was evaluated in Jenkins’ report doesn’t represent current practice, said Kai-leé Berke, the chief executive officer of Teaching Strategies, the company that created the program.

The newer version of Creative Curriculum does provide day-to-day guidance for teachers—a change driven by increased knowledge about best preschool practices as well as requests from the field, Berke said.

“We were hearing from the field, ‘We need more help, we need more support. Our teachers don’t know what to do every day,'” Berke said.

Even with the additional guidance, Creative Curriculum remains “proudly” whole-child, she said.

The program promotes a “complete picture of child development that allows you to attend to the cognition and the social-emotional needs while you are teaching other subject areas,” she said. “It’s not narrowly focused on just a handful of areas.”

In an email, Iheoma U. Iruka, the chief innovation research officer for HighScope, said “we don’t believe that there is one way to best educate a child because we know that young learners have diverse needs. However, we feel it’s important to note that this analysis focuses on math and literacy, and not the other skills children develop when they are exposed to a whole-child curriculum.”

Proponents of content-focused curricula, however, say their programs support whole-child development as well.

One of the better-known programs using such curricula is the free public preschool program in Boston, which serves about 2,400 children.

Boston has developed a curriculum that provides step-by-step teaching guides for instructors that is carried through until 2nd grade. Teachers are also provided extensive coaching and professional development.

The classrooms still have “centers” where children can explore their own interests, but the activities are guided, said Jason Sachs, the executive director of early-childhood education for the Boston district.

“It’s a question of who leads the dance. In scope-and-sequence curricula”—programs that provide explicit and sequential guidance—”you do lead the dance a little bit more. But there’s a lot of room for children to explore,” he said.

The ‘Play-Based’ Debate

Last year, Jenkins co-authored a paper for the Brookings Institution that shared an early version of these findings. That paper prompted a response that urged policymakers not to throw out the goals of whole-child education in the quest for academic skill building.

“We keep falling back on the black and white view, but it’s time for a little mix,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, an author of the response essay, in an interview. Hirsh-Pasek, a senior fellow at Temple University, is a longtime researcher on the value of play.

If you “pound” children with reading and math instruction, they’ll do better on tests of those skills, Hirsh-Pasek said. “But I still think we need to think about a broader educational palette or suite of skills if things like PISA scores are going to up.” The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is a test of reading, math, and science that is used to create an international ranking of students’ academic performance.

But Jenkins stressed that learning can take place in the context of preschoolers playing and having fun.

“Anything could be ‘play-based learning,'” she said. “One is just a lot more specific about what you’re doing.”