The Role of Curriculum Models in Early Childhood Education
Stacie G. Goffin
August 2000

Types of Early Childhood Curriculum Models

The term curriculum model refers to a conceptual framework and organizational structure for decision making about educational priorities, administrative policies, instructional methods, and evaluation criteria. Although they vary in their underlying premises, curriculum models provide well-defined frameworks to guide program implementation and evaluation.

A wide range of early childhood curriculum models exists, but little is known about the number of early childhood curriculum models presently in use or the number of early childhood programs that use them. Early childhood curriculum models most often are used in center-based settings providing half-day and full-day programs. They are used in public schools, Head Start, and community-based programs. Consistent with their origin, curriculum models are most often used in programs serving low-income children.

Among the best known and most widely used early childhood curriculum models are the Creative Curriculum, the Developmental Interaction Approach (sometimes called the Bank Street approach), the High/Scope Curriculum, and the Montessori method. Descriptions of these and other early childhood curriculum models, many of which extend into the kindergarten and primary grades, can be found in Epstein, Schweinhart, and McAdoo, (1996), Goffin and Wilson (2001), and Roopnarine and Johnson (2000).

Theories of child development have served as the principal foundation for curriculum model development. Variations among curriculum models reflect differences in values concerning what is more or less important for young children to learn, as well as in the process by which children are believed to learn and develop. These variations inform the role of teachers, the curriculum’s focus, the classroom structure, and the ways in which children participate in learning.

Early childhood curriculum models also vary in terms of the freedom granted to teachers to interpret implementation of the model’s framework. Some curriculum models are highly structured and provide detailed scripts for teacher behaviors. Others emphasize guiding principles and expect teachers to determine how best to implement these principles. Curriculum models, regardless of their goals and the degree of flexibility in their implementation, however, are designed to promote uniformity across early childhood programs through the use of a prepared curriculum, consistent instructional techniques, and predictable child outcomes.

Some question whether what is known as Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP), as described by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), should be classified as a curriculum model. But DAP does not meet all the criteria of a curriculum model. It was created not as a fully developed curriculum but as a tool to help practitioners and policy makers distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate teaching practices with young children, regardless of the curriculum approach under review.

This same question has been raised regarding the Reggio Emilia approach, an innovative early childhood program from Reggio Emilia, Italy, that has captured the imagination of early childhood educators around the world. Proponents of the Reggio Emilia approach resist the U.S. tendency to define the approach as a curriculum model because they believe the designation is contrary to the program’s dynamic and emergent quality. Contrary to the structure imposed by curriculum models, educators in Reggio Emilia are engaged in continual renewal and readjustment informed by reflection, experimentation, and practice.

Comparative Evaluations of Curriculum Models

Empirical comparisons of early childhood curriculum models have been dominated by two questions: (1) To what extent are the programs experienced by children really different from each other? and (2) Are some programs better than others in producing desired outcomes?

Comparative evaluations now suggest that early childhood curriculum models do affect child outcomes. Differences in child outcomes among models tend to reflect the intent of the curriculum model being evaluated. Further, findings are accumulating that suggest potential negative consequences associated with highly structured, academic preschool programs (Marcon, 1999; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997; Goffin & Wilson, 2001).

The focus of contemporary evaluations has shifted, however, from comparisons of specific early childhood curriculum models to the differential impact of early intervention programs defined as either academically or developmentally oriented. Yet there also is recognition of the limitations of curricular reform. As a result, contemporary early intervention programs are increasingly likely to extend beyond use of curriculum models to include preventive health, parent education, and family support components.

A Quandary for the Field

Driven by public demands for positive child outcomes, the sense of urgency surrounding school reform, and the prevalence of poor-quality child care, early childhood curriculum models are being promoted as a way of ensuring that public dollars are wisely spent and that children enter school ready to learn. Consistent implementation of curriculum models has the potential to raise the standards of care and education experienced by young children. In light of uneven expectations for teachers’ professional preparation and variability across the states in child care licensing standards, early childhood curriculum models can improve programmatic quality through the consistent implementation of well-articulated curriculum frameworks, thereby lifting the floor of program quality in early childhood education.

Some experts, however, believe that by their design, curriculum models lower expectations for early childhood educators and diminish the professional responsibilities of early childhood teachers. To achieve consistency across sites, curriculum models operate by using predictable representations of teaching and learning, relying on fixed interpretations of the nature of children and teachers, and minimizing variation across sites. Teachers function less as reflective practitioners and more as technicians who implement others’ educational ideas. The increasing use of curriculum models, therefore, challenges the early childhood profession to examine its image of teachers and deliberate how best to improve children’s daily experiences in early childhood settings (Goffin & Wilson, 2001).

For More Information

Epstein, A. S., Schweinhart, L. J., & McAdoo, L. (1996). Models of early childhood education. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press. ED 395 707.

Goffin, S. G., & Wilson, C. (2001). Curriculum models and early childhood education: Appraising the relationship (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Marcon, R A. (1999). Differential impact of preschool models on development and early learning of inner-city children: A three-cohort study. Developmental Psychology, 35(2), 358-375. EJ 582 451.

Powell, D. R. (1987). Comparing preschool curricula and practices: The state of research. In S. L. Kagan & E. F. Zigler (Eds.), Early schooling: The national debate (pp. 190-211). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Roopnarine, J. L., & Johnson, J. E. (2000). Approaches to early childhood education (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). The High/Scope preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 12(2), 117-143. EJ 554 350.

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This project has been funded at least in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under contract number ED-99-CO-0020. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.