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Global collaboration for early childhood development

©UNICEF/ HQ06-1348/Claudio Versiani
BRAZIL: Girls and boys play in a daycare centre in Bairro da Paz, a slum area on the outskirts of Salvador, capital of the eastern state of Bahia.

NEW YORK, New York, 10 July 2008 – Among the global early childhood community, the focus on establishing and implementing standards for learning and development is growing. These statements may be referred to as benchmarks, guidelines or standards. But they all articulate what nations hope their children will know and be able to do during their early years.  When linked to standards for teachers and programmes – and used to support teachers, monitor children’s progress or improve curricula – learning and development standards foster a fully integrated approach to early education and development.
Together with the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Child Study Center, Yale University, UNICEF is assisting a diverse group of developing countries as they establish early childhood guidelines, based on each country’s ideals and requirements.

Sharon Lynn Kagan, Columbia University’s Teachers College Associate Dean for Policy, and Pia Rebello Britto, Yale University’s Child Study Center Associate Research Scientist, created the concepts for this work. They have been deeply involved in implementing an effort that began in 2003, when six pilot countries were chosen as testing grounds for the standards approach. Brazil, Ghana, Jordan, Paraguay, the Philippines and South Africa each have unique values and needs, but all sought to create guidelines for what their young children should know and do.

The approach has generated great interest and success, and more than 40 countries have established early learning and development standards or are developing them. Countries are using standards to reform teacher training, develop curricula for children, plan evaluations, and implement new approaches to parenting education and national monitoring.

Support for this approach can be traced to a trend that originated in business and industry: the concern over measurable results and outcomes. Previously, Kagan says, popular thinking centred on what programmes were doing, rather than what children were actually accomplishing. ”The standards approach represents a big switch in thinking from the old way to a new way,” she states, “and this is the new way.”

Like any new idea, the standards approach has been a subject of debate, as regions and countries discuss whether they want to set expectations for their children. “Some countries think it’s wonderful,” Kagan says, “Some countries are sceptical because they feel that standards will indeed homogenize what we do in education or fail to recognize individual differences.” She notes, however, that “far and away, [the approach] has been enthusiastically received, with people in governments around the world feeling that they are making a difference for young children and their families.”

Both Kagan and Britto stress that the creation of standards should be viewed as an approach not a programme. “It is an approach that’s highly individually tailored, to ensure that programmes are infused with the science of early childhood and cultural values,” Britto says. They have worked closely with academics, government representatives, providers and non-governmental organizations to create a multisectoral framework. As the project evolved, their role shifted from primarily providing technical assistance towards fostering capacity building.

A key aspect of the approach, according to Britto, is being rooted in a country’s values, as well as informed by science. “This is really why having partnerships with academics and academic institutions, both internationally and at a country level, is important,” she says. In turn, the academics involved benefit from the rich database of early childhood development (ECD) material generated from the project. “It’s a nice back and forth,” Britto continues. “Science helps the project, and its outcome is helping us rethink a broader conceptualization of holistic ECD. These partners bring to the work the science of early childhood, but it’s still rooted in local values.”

Britto stresses, however, that respecting local values does not assume acceptance when they are not conducive to children’s welfare. “It’s really about looking at them, and saying, ‘How does this support development and promote children’s rights?’” Within this framework, Kagan says the project has been a rich experience, with countries sharing their documents and resources. “In addition to countries developing their own standards according to their own traditions and values, they are learning about the importance of ECD and also learning about each other. It’s quite a cross-fertilization of learning for all of us.” With this in mind, a Web-based application is planned that will enable global access to the resources gathered from various countries’ experiences.


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