Review of Kaufman, Kaufman, and Nelson’s Learning Together: The Law, Politics, Economics, Pedagogy, and Neuroscience of Early Childhood Education

by Jessica Francis
Topic: Early Childhood

The early years prior to formal primary schooling are characterized by a wide range of experiences for children. As a result, it is not surprising that there are strong opinions both for and against the schooling that is provided for children at this age. Kaufman, Kaufman, and Nelson’s Learning Together: The Law, Politics, Economics, Pedagogy, and Neuroscience of Early Childhood Education provides a strong argument for investing in early childhood programs, emphasizing the educational, social, and economic benefits for children and the US as a whole. The authors stress the importance of providing high-quality programs, which they contend are characterized by a socially constructive approach to learning that develops children’s capacity to construct knowledge by building relationships. While a common misconception is that a socially constructive approach to early childhood education is bold and progressive, the authors make the case that it is actually supported through US educational policy, framers of the US constitution, and the foundations of American educational law.

The book is broken up into three sections. The first section outlines the political, pedagogical, legal, and economic case for investing in early childhood education. Several contentious points are brought to light as the history and philosophy of American education is put forth, such as the notion that America fails to provide adequate and equitable access to early childhood education and the huge racial and socioeconomic disparities that exist in terms of access. Despite the combined federal and local funding sources that are used for early childhood programs, an additional $24 billion would be needed to provide high-quality early childhood programs for every 4-year-old nationwide. Combined with dollars that are already being spent on early childhood, this would represent less than 10% of public funds spent on education. They also touch on alternative initiatives (i.e. standardized testing and school choice) to reform American education and show how early childhood bridges these other highly debated reforms by allocating public funds for both public and private providers.

The second section looks at the effectiveness of various pedagogical approaches and references numerous research studies to show the benefits of a social constructivist approach. Research that supports this type of classroom approach shows positive effects on children’s self-regulation and executive functioning skills, and these skills have been shown to produce even greater academic achievement effects later on. The Reggio Emilio and Tools of the Mind curriculums are offered as social constructivist curriculums. The section goes on to discuss how the latest neuroscience research also supports this approach, which shows how the brain is affected by early experiences.

The final section of the book gives strategies for increasing access and creating social constructivist classrooms. The authors review the use of litigation as one strategy, as well as the use of various public investments such as RTT and state sources. They conclude by sharing stories from social constructivist early child settings, which provide clear examples of what is necessary for a worthwhile investment.

Overall, this book is quite useful for providing a broad understanding of the history and philosophy of early childhood education, and an in-depth rationale for increasing our investment in EC programs. I would recommend it to anyone who is questioning the reasoning behind early childhood education. I would also recommend it to anyone interested in reviewing a substantial body of research on the effectiveness of high quality EC. Through its review of research on early childhood coupled with information on several court cases surrounding an adequate and efficient education, this book is a valuable resource for gaining an evidence-based understanding of the benefits of early childhood education.

While the final section on strategies for increasing access to early childhood programs and creating socially constructive classrooms is a useful read, it is more informative than practical. For instance, it says that we need to put more dollars into early childhood programs, but it does not give strategies for where that extra money can come from. If we need to add $24 billion to give every 4-year-old access to a high quality early education program, where can we pull this money from that will not severely hurt another initiative? The authors make an effort to advocate early childhood in place of standardized testing and school choice, but it is unlikely that perspectives on these two reforms will simply disappear with the introduction of universal access to early childhood programs.

Lastly, the authors present a thorough review of research that documents the benefits of the social constructivist approach. Thus, they recommend Reggio Emilio and Tools of the Mind as social constructivist curriculums. While social constructivism has indeed proven to be beneficial for children, it converges with constructivism in many areas and constructivist-based curriculums have also proven to result in large benefits. For instance, the High/Scope curriculum is widely used in the US and the authors touch on its impacts in detail in their review of the Perry preschool study. However, the two approaches are so polarized throughout the book even though they are similar in so many ways and both have shown positive impacts on children.

The authors will be expanding upon the information they put forth in Learning Together: The Law, Politics, Economics, Pedagogy, and Neuroscience of Early Childhood Education in a new book titled ‘The Pre-K Home Companion’, which is due to be released in June 2016. This latter book is targeted specifically toward families who seek to answer the question, “which Early Childhood program is best for my family?” It’s a useful read for a different audience and will also be reviewed on the NIEER website at the time it is released.

-Jessica Francis, NIEER Research Fellow

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