Diane Trister Dodge
Founder and President
Teaching Strategies
Washington, District of Columbia

Toni Bickart
Senior Associate and Editor-in-Chief
Teaching Strategies
Washington, District of Columbia
Putting them all in perspective

Today, more than ever, Head Start staff members know the importance of curriculum, assessment, and outcomes to their work. All three are important, but they do not all deserve equal time and attention. Curriculum and assessment drive our work with young children every day. If we do them well, we achieve positive outcomes for children. Good input means good output. With legislative mandates to report on outcomes for children, however, there is a danger that we will look for quick fixes to achieve the desired results—narrowing the curriculum to focus on the 13 required indicators rather than retaining the focus on all aspects of a child's development, especially the role of social/emotional development. We must also be careful not to confuse the role of ongoing assessment to support learning with assessment for program evaluation, monitoring, and accountability. The first uses information to guide decisions about each child's learning, while the second uses data to improve the program and prepare reports. So let's gain further perspective by examining how a comprehensive curriculum linked to a systematic assessment system leads to positive outcomes for children.

How goals and objectives drive curriculum
Goals and objectives chart our course; they provide the guidance for what children learn. Without them, we wouldn't have a clear direction for planning the daily program of experiences. There is a lot of agreement in our field about what children should learn by the time they head off to kindergarten. Early childhood educators have always recognized the importance of focusing on "the whole child" when working with young children. Because of this focus on the whole child to promote learning and growth, goals and objectives in early childhood curricula should address all areas of development:

  • Social/Emotional development: Helping children feel confident and good about themselves, develop responsibility; learn to relate positively to others.

  • Physical development: Enhancing children's gross and fine motor skills.

  • Cognitive development: Helping children develop thinking skills, including the development of logical and symbolic thinking, problem- solving skills, and approaches to learning.

  • Language development: Helping children develop the ability to communicate through words, both spoken and written, including listening and speaking, reading and writing skills.

Curriculum and assessment
drive our work with young
children every day.
If we do them well,
we achieve positive
outcomes for children.

How did early childhood educators arrive at these goals? First we looked at child development and typical expectations for this age group. Then we reviewed standards from different disciplines (literacy, math, science, social studies, the arts, and technology) and adapted them for children under 5. The Head Start Child Outcomes Framework enables us to measure whether the goals and objectives we've identified address these expectations. Once we've established a clear vision of where we are heading, we then need a roadmap for getting there. This is the role of curriculum.

The curriculum
While there was a time when programs were not required to have a curriculum, that is no longer the case. Now, as part of the triennial monitoring process, Head Start programs are required to demonstrate that their selected curriculum meets the Head Start definition (see section 1304.21 of the Head Start Program Performance Standards). NAEYC's accreditation criteria ask for a written plan based on child development that includes the learning environment and activities for children which reflect the program s philosophy and goals. And a growing number of state-funded Pre-K programs are required to select from several developmentally appropriate curriculum models and to make sure their teachers receive training on the approach. Using the clear definitions of curriculum developed by Head Start and NAEYC, programs have a way to determine if the curriculum they are using or adopting is appropriate. For Head Start programs, this means ensuring that the curriculum they follow includes...

  • The goals for children's development and learning.

  • The experiences through which they will achieve these goals.

  • What staff members and parents do to achieve these goals.

  • The materials needed to support the implementation of the curriculum.

A comprehensive curriculum describes all aspects of the daily program and provides a framework for making decisions it is essentially a road map for getting where we want to go. But in order to get there, we first need a way to learn what each child knows and can do, and a way to measure a child's progress at each step of the way. This is the role of assessment.

Assessment is the process of gathering information about children in order to make decisions. While there are many and varied purposes for assessing children, assessment to support learning is an integral part of implementing a curriculum and the most reliable way to determine whether every child is making progress. Assessment has always been a requirement of the Head Start Program Performance Standards. The section on individualization of the program states (1 304.20(f)(1)):

Grantee and delegate agencies must use the information from the screenings for developmental, sensory, and behavioral concerns, the ongoing observations, medical and dental evaluations and treatments, and insights from the child's parents to help staff and parents deter mine how the program can best respond to each child's individual characteristics, strengths and needs.

A systematic approach to assessment enables staff to...

  • Learn about each child.

  • Plan learning opportunities for each child and the group.

  • Record the progress of each child.

  • Evaluate and improve the program.

  • Report on children's progress.

As you can see, curriculum and assessment go hand in hand. Without assessment, we wouldn't be able to gauge if we are moving in the right direction; we wouldn't be able to identify if the progress a child is making is leading to achieving the objectives of the curriculum.

How curriculum and assessment are linked Through the process of assessment, teachers obtain useful information about children's knowledge, skills, and progress by observing, documenting, analyzing, and evaluating children's work over time. This information then guides teaching. Thus, curriculum and assessment are linked in a continuous cycle.

Tip: Many teachers have found it helpful to post the goals and objectives of their curriculum in the classrooms as a reminder of what they are looking for when they observe children. The more familiar they are with the objectives, the more purposefully they can observe children.
Teachers who understand and know how to implement their program's chosen curriculum and how to use ongoing assessment to make decisions about instruction are more likely to achieve positive outcomes for children.

Collecting facts
The first step in assessing children to support learning is collecting facts. As teachers observe children during class room activities, they document what they observe so they can review this information at a later time. In addition, teachers collect children's work samples and maintain a portfolio for each child.

When the assessment system is based on or uses another system compatible with the goals and objectives of their curriculum, teachers have a framework to guide their observations as children go about daily activities. Keeping the curriculum objectives in mind enables teachers to observe children with a purpose. For example, if a teacher observes a child lining up teddy bears from smallest to largest, she can relate that behavior to particular cognitive objectives: "Arranges objects in a series." When a child makes a sign for a block structure, the teacher can relate it to other objectives: "Understand the purpose of writing," and "writes letters and words."

By collecting samples of children's work, teachers can document progress over time. For example, comparing a child's attempts to write her name throughout the course of the year is an excellent way of documenting writing development. Drawings, paintings, collages, and constructions show a child's small motor development, understanding of new concepts, and the increasing ability to represent his ideas in concrete form. Portfolios are also a wonderful way to share information with families and to help children reflect on their work and recognize their own skills and progress.

Analyzing and evaluating the facts
By systematically analyzing and evaluating observation notes as well as portfolio samples, teachers gain a picture of where each child is in relation to the curriculum goals and objectives. They ask them selves, "What does all this documentation mean?" How they answer the question enables teachers to figure out what the next steps for learning are related to the curriculum objectives.

Let's think about what this might look like for a child. Here are two sample observation notes the teacher made on Jonetta.

l/27:J. pretended to wash dishes and said, "First I'm gonna wash the plates, then I'm gonna wash the glasses, then I'm gonna wash the forks and spoons."

2/3: J. said, "Watch me, Rosa, throw the beanbag under your leg like this."

Reviewing these observation notes, Jonetta's teacher might look first at the language-related objectives of the curriculum and identify which ones are relevant to the observations. While these observations reveal clues to Jonetta 's language development, they also show evidence of cognitive development (awareness of sequence, one-to-one correspondence, and awareness of position in space), social/emotional development (playing with a friend), and large motor development (throwing and catching).

Planning for each child and the group
The wealth of information teachers have on each child is only meaningful if it is used to make decisions about teaching. The information that's been gathered should be used to help teachers plan for children individually and for the group as a whole. Knowing how to help children make progress on the goals and objectives is the next task.

Let's look at an objective, "demonstrates understanding of print concepts," and see how the planning process might work. Because children don't develop this understanding all at once, rather they follow a series of developmental steps to reach that objective, we'll explore what those steps leading to the objective might look like.

Step 1. Knows that print carries the message.

A child at this level might point to a printed label on a shelf and say, "Cars go here." Or a child at this level might look at the name the teacher has written on another child's drawing and say, "Whose is that?"

Step 2. Shows general knowledge of how print works.

A child at this level might run her finger over text from left to right and from the top of the page to the bottom as she pretends to read.

Step 3. Knows each spoken word can he written down and read.

A child at this level might look at a book about pancakes and ask, "Which word says pancakes?"

Knowing where a child is in relation to each objective enables teachers to think about the changes they can make to the environment to support learning, what they can do during large-group and small-group times, and how to build on children's interests to extend learning.
 Linking curriculum and assessment
 The ongoing cycle

    Planning for assessment
    • Become familiar with the goals and objectives of your curriculum.

    • Set up a systematic way to observe, document, and organize your notes.

    • Set up a portfolio for each child.

  1. Collecting facts
    Observe and document children's learning
    • Observe children with curriculum objectives in mind.

    • Document what you see and hear.

    • Collect and date samples of children's work over time for portfolios.

  2. Analyzing and evaluating facts
    Analyze facts
    • Sort observation notes by developmental area for each child.

    • Label each note and work sample with the number of each objective that applies to the observation.

      Evaluate children's progress
    • Review observation notes and portfolio items.

    • Identify each child's progress in meeting the curriculum objectives.

    • Enter information on an individual record that tracks each child's progress.

  3. Planning for each child and the group
    Plan for each child
    • Summarize each child's progress on a reporting form.

    • Meet with families to share information and jointly plan next steps.

    • Implement your plan and continue to observe the child's progress.

    Plan for the group
    • Reflect on the progress of your group.

    • Decide which objectives to focus on for the whole group and for selected children.

    • Plan strategies to support children's learning, including whole group and small group activities.

    • Implement your plan and continue to observe children's progress.

  4. Reporting on children's progress
    • Generate reports as needed.

    • Identify aspects of the program that need strengthening and develop a program improvement plan.

Let's look at another example. Based on documentation records, Ben's teacher knows that he notices print in the environment and is aware that print carries the message. To help him get to the next step, "shows general knowledge of how print works," his teacher might...
Teachers should look for creative, meaningful ways to use the information they've gathered on each child to help them plan both for individual children and for the group as a whole. They can identify which children would benefit from more focused instruction and practice on certain skills. And they can evaluate the classroom centers or interest areas to see if they've been designed to foster these skills and what improvements could he made.

If the majority of children, for instance, need to develop their ability to "hear and discriminate the sounds of language," a teacher might plan the following additions to the program:

  • Stock the library area with tapes of poems and chants that contain a lot of repetition and rhyming words for children to listen to on their own.

  • Lead a small group of children in singing some finger plays and simple songs.

  • During routines, play games such as, "If your name begins with the same sound as table, toes, turnips, tickle, you may select a book."

  • Teach children to clap to the rhythm of the music.

Reporting on children's progress
Good assessment information serves many purposes. It guides teaching individual children and the group as a whole. It provides important information for program evaluation. And for Head Start programs, it is the primary data used to generate outcomes reports.

The goals and objectives that teachers have been using to guide their assessment system must be linked to the categories in which reports are required. For Head Start programs, this means the domains, elements, and indicators mandated by Congress. Fortunately, there are a number of software programs designed to help programs aggregate this information into easy to use and under stand charts and reports.

Wrapping things up
Early childhood programs are account able for ensuring that children are making progress. The Head Start Child Outcomes Framework and the required indicators gives us measurable, realistic targets. To achieve them, programs must choose a curriculum with goals and objectives that are compatible with these requirements and that address all aspects of a child's development. A systematic approach to assessment that helps teachers learn about each child, plan experiences that support every child's development and learning, and ensure that all children are making progress is essential. Teachers who understand and know how to implement their program's chosen curriculum and how to use ongoing assessment to make decisions about instruction are more likely to achieve positive outcomes for children. Curriculum, assessment, and outcomes—they are all important, but we need to keep them in perspective to help every child succeed. C&F

Diane Trister Dodge is the founder and president of Teaching Strategies Inc., a company that promotes the quality of early childhood programs hy designing comprehensive curriculum, assessment, and training materials. She is the lead author of The Creative Curriculum for Preschool and a former education coordinator for programs in Mississippi and Washington, D.C.

Toni Bickart, senior associate and editor-in-chief at Teaching Strategies, is a contributing author to
The Creative Curriculum. Together Dodge and Bickare have Written nso hooks for parents, Reading Right from the Start and Preschool for Parents.

The Teaching Strategies Web site offers information and articles that can he downloaded on the topics of curriculum, assessment, and outcomes (www. TeachingStrategies com). To leans more about an on-line assessment system that is linked to The Creative Curriculum, log onto www. and explore.

Children and Families Vol.XVII No.I Winter 2003(pg 28-32)