I am not an advocate for early childhood education.
Since the launch of Head Start in 1965, Americans have waffled between enthusiasm for early childhood education and skepticism of it.
Currently, early education is enjoying an upswing. At least 30 states offer some sort of early education. In California, transitional kindergarten for young children who don't meet the birthday cutoff for kindergarten shows our state's commitment (for now) to early education.
Well-known economists, researchers, and politicians have hailed early childhood education as an investment against high-school dropouts, unemployment and incarceration. Others see early education as an academic boost, especially for children growing up in poverty. I don't disagree with these perspectives. I believe that early education can have many individual and societal benefits.
However, in the words of my doctoral adviser who has worked with and for young children for more than 40 years, I am not an advocate for early childhood education -- I am an advocate for children.
For me, it's not about how we can best teach letters and numbers. It's about how we can best help young children develop into happy, healthy, participatory members of society. Early childhood education is one strategy for doing this, but programs for young children take vastly different approaches to early education. Many of the "common sense" components of what grown-ups think is effective for early education are common but can make little sense, given what we know about how children develop.
At Fresno State, early education isn't about smaller desks, fatter pencils, and colorful worksheets. It isn't a simpler and cuter version of what older children typically experience in the upper grades. Our early childhood education programs are based on an entirely different approach that fits the developmental needs of young children. They are guided by developmental principles that emphasize children's active engagement, social and emotional competence, and cultural and linguistic diversity. The goal is for these principles to aid us in designing programs that help early educators develop practices that help children be happy, healthy and participatory.
First, Fresno State has the only early childhood education teacher credential and master's programs in the state of California that are nationally recognized and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the world's largest advocacy group for young children. NAEYC accreditation means that our programs are held to rigorous standards to ensure our graduates have a working understanding of how children develop, how to design active and engaging experiences for young children, how to promote social and emotional competence, and how to respect diversity in children.
Second, the Joyce M. Huggins Early Education Center at Fresno State provides services for young children based on an approach that emphasizes child play and exploration, child-initiated projects, the arts and diversity. In the Huggins Center, children joyfully build outdoor canals, create and share stories, experiment with tunnels and ramps and observe and care for baby chicks. Children are encouraged to try ideas out; they are allowed to be independent, but they learn to collaborate with others and to value diverse friends and cultures. They are happy, healthy and participatory.
The other day I heard a story about one of the Huggins Center children who proudly boasted, "I can speak Spanish: uno, dos, taco!" This child is part of a new Spanish dual-immersion program that takes valuing diversity to the next level. Some of the children come from dual-language backgrounds while others don't, but they all interact using Spanish for most of the day. This could be potentially scary for grown-ups, but the children enthusiastically take on the challenge.
Third, Fresno State is working to build partnerships within the community to meet schools' needs while staying true to our focus on children.
We have a Transitional Kindergarten Certificate Program, created with input from the Fresno County Office of Education. The TK program provides courses focused on development-related issues for credentialed teachers. The goal is to help teachers meet the charge of the Kindergarten Readiness Act for "age and developmentally appropriate" instruction.
The Early Childhood Education program also is working in partnership with Central Unified School District. Fresno State's DISCOVERe Tablet Program is helping faculty redesign courses that incorporate technology resources that align with Central Unified's own tablet initiative.
Technology can never replace the critical learning from social interactions with grown-ups and peers. But technology is here to stay. Our teachers will learn how to use technology as a tool to enhance children's active engagement while still applying child development principles.
At Fresno State we focus on children. We see our work as helping to develop early childhood professionals who focus on children. I'm thankful to be at Fresno State -- it's a place where I can be an advocate for children every day.