The National Research Council of the National Academies has been charged by Congress with ensuring that the best scientific understanding illuminates key challenges facing the nation and informs policy choices. Few challenges are more crucial than fostering the healthy development of America's children and their capacity to learn and achieve success in school. Child development, learning, and education have been high priorities of the National Academies in the past two decades. An explosion— and convergence—of knowledge from the cognitive, behavioral, social, and neurosciences has brought into much sharper focus the picture of how human development unfolds and the factors that determine whether children are equipped to learn and to flourish. With the nation's attention focused on the need to improve children's educational achievement, science has much to offer in making gains toward that end.
Compelling new scientific evidence reveals that a child's earliest experiences have a major role in shaping the likelihood of getting off to a good start in life and school, for these are the years when the essential structures for growth and learning are put in place. These findings have important implications for the content of child care and early education programs and highlight the public interest in assuring the quality of those programs.
Similarly, decades of research on the science of learning has shown that deep understanding requires both a rich foundation of factual knowledge and command of the subject 's conceptual frameworks—whether it be chess, mathematics, or jet engine mechanics. This research has impor-
tant implications for educational practice—what and how teachers teach— and for policy, for example, state education standards.
This booklet includes executive summaries of five reports that, taken together, provide policy makers, educators, and parents with important tools for progress. It is intended for federal administrators, members of Congress, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, and others who want to use the best available science to develop policies to promote child development and education. Conducted under the auspices of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council—the Academies' operating arm—and the Institute of Medicine, these studies exemplify the contributions of science in charting new directions for policies and programs.
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development integrates the latest scientific evidence about children's extraordinary capacities for physical, emotional, and social growth and learning in the earliest years of their lives. Well before they walk through a classroom door, these early experiences matter because they can provide opportunities or obstacles that affect early learning and subsequent academic success. Yet far too little attention is given to these crucial years.
Today as never before, the nation needs to apply advancing knowledge to help children and families negotiate the changing demands and opportunities as we enter the 21st century. Dramatic transformations have occurred in the social and economic circumstances of families with young children. The number of working parents has increased significantly, leading to a pressing demand for quality child care and greater difficulty in balancing work and family responsibilities for families at all income levels. Despite these and other changes, our nation's responses to the needs of young children and their families were largely formulated decades ago with only incremental revisions since then.
From Neurons to Neighborhoods presents conclusions and recommendations drawn from a rich and extensive knowledge base and grounded in four core themes:
All children are born wired for feelings and ready to learn.
Early environments matter and nurturing relationships are essential.
Society is changing and the needs of young children are not being addressed.
Interactions among early childhood science, policy, and practice demand dramatic rethinking.
From Neurons to Neighborhoods, which has received considerable attention in the media, offers an authoritative guide to what science-based
policies would mean for our society's youngest members. For example, research highlights the need for early childhood programs that balance their focus on literacy and numeracy skills with comparable attention to the emotional, regulatory, and social development of all children, including those with special needs. Investments in child care should ensure that all early care and education settings are safe, stimulating, and compatible with the values and priorities of their families. Nurturing and sustained relationships between preschoolers and qualified caregivers are essential, and the time for greater skills, compensation, and benefits for child care professionals is long overdue. This comprehensive study calls for a federal-state-local task force to review public investments in child care and early education and develop a blueprint for a high quality, locally responsive system for the new decade.
Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers explores what it will take to provide early education and care for children that would develop their impressive learning potential. The report integrates recent research findings on how young children learn and the impact of early learning on later development and school achievement. Reinforcing many of the findings in From Neurons to Neighborhoods, it highlights the importance of warm emotional relationships with adults in fostering a child's cognitive as well as social development. It includes findings about the interplay of biology and environment, and variations in learning preparedness among children from different social and economic groups. The report probes a number of key issues:
The importance of a responsive teacher-child relationship in a child 's cognitive, social, and emotional development.
The substantial variation among children in developmental pathways, temperament, and environmental and cultural influences.
The learning needs of disadvantaged children and children with disabilities.
Evidence regarding the features of preschool programs, curricula, and teaching style that produce positive outcomes for children.
Preparation and continuing development of teachers.
Eager to Learn issues a range of recommendations to parents, educators, and policy makers. It calls for a substantial investment in a high-quality system of child care and preschool on the basis of the convergence of scientific and practical considerations. And it calls for systematic and widespread public education to increase public understanding of the importance of stimulating early learning experiences in the lives of young children.
Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children is a ground-breaking study of the process of learning to read, factors that predict success and failure in reading, and instructional strategies for overcoming potential stumbling blocks on the path to literacy. A companion book, Starting Out Right—A Guide to Promoting Children's Reading Success, describes the skills that young children (from birth to age 8) need to accumulate and provides illustrative examples of activities that will help them develop those skills. This popular and invaluable resource for parents, caregivers, and teachers includes practical guidelines, advice on resources, program descriptions, and strategies for everyday life—all based on the underlying concepts presented in Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children and supported by scientific research.
With literacy problems plaguing as many as four in ten children in America, the teaching of reading has for decades evoked heated debate and fierce battles over curricula, frustrating parents, educators, and policy makers alike. In contrast to the narrow solutions that defined the old battle lines, these reports show skilled reading to be a complex and multifaceted process. Good readers master three main accomplishments:
They understand the system of sound/spelling connections used in English to identify printed words.
They are able to use previous knowledge, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies to obtain meaning from print.
They read fluently enough to understand what they read and to enjoy reading.
Good instruction focuses on all three kinds of accomplishment in an integrated way that enables young readers to develop increasing proficiency in all of them.
Research consistently demonstrates that the more children know about language before they arrive at school, the better equipped they are to succeed in reading. The foundation for skilled reading is provided by responsive parents and caregivers who read to infants and toddlers, talk and listen to them, help them understand stories and how things work, and develop their awareness of how words sound and how they look on a page and their motivation to read. Equally important is high quality reading instruction in the first years of schooling. Preventing reading difficulties or addressing them early has a far higher likelihood of success than trying to reverse deeply entrenched reading problems.
While there is still a good deal to be learned about the specifics of effective reading instruction in the primary grades, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children provides the core principles on which suc-
cessful programs need to build, and Starting Out Right provides practical examples of the types of activities that will bring those principles to life.
How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (Expanded Edition) integrates research from the variety of fields that contributes to our understanding of human learning and relates it to educational practice in schools. From research on cognition, brain development, learning, and teaching, the report knits together a rich knowledge base that significantly advances understanding of what it means to know—from the neural processes that occur during learning to the influence of culture on what individuals see and absorb. It suggests principles of learning with clear implications for what we teach, how we teach, and how we assess student learning. The findings in the report call into question concepts and practices commonly used in our schools, and illustrate how approaches based on what is now known can result in in-depth learning.
the amazing learning potential of infants;
how learning actually changes the physical structure of the brain;
how existing knowledge affects what people notice and how they learn; and
what the thought processes of experts tell us about how to teach.
The expanded edition looks further at the agenda the nation must tackle to employ the best research in classroom practice. Incorporating learning principles into teaching materials, teacher education, education policy (such as standards for content and accountability), and public understanding—all are keys to success. How People Learn offers recommendations for a sustained effort to consolidate knowledge on teaching and learning, and aligning the efforts of teachers, educators, parents, and policy makers.
Improving Student Learning: A Strategic Plan for Education Research and Its Utilization speaks to the urgent need to strengthen public education and, in particular, to improve the educational achievement of youngsters growing up in conditions of social and economic disadvantage. The nation's continued vitality as a democracy and productivity in the global economy hinge on the knowledge and skills of the majority of its people. While many students perform at high levels, there are millions who will be ill-equipped to meet the intellectual demands of modern life and work. The pronounced failure of many big-city schools that serve poor children is of particular concern.
Education in the United States consumes more than 7 percent of GDP. Improving Student Learning: A Strategic Plan for Education Research and its Utilization calls for an ambitious and intensive 15-year program of research and implementation that has the potential to leverage substantial improvements in student performance. The goal of the Strategic Education Research Program (SERP) is to change the landscape fundamentally, to achieve permanent improvements in education by institutionalizing strategies, incentives, and enduring relationships between educators and the research community so that the use of salient research in educational settings becomes smooth, practiced, and effective.
The plan addresses four key questions:
How can advances in research on human cognition, development, and learning be incorporated into educational practice?
How can student engagement in the learning process and motivation to achieve in school be increased?
How can schools and school districts be transformed into organizations that have the capacity to continuously improve their practices?
How can the use of research knowledge be increased in schools and school districts?
Each of these four questions would provide the basis for a network of expert and committed researchers, state and local practitioners, and policy makers. The networks would be devoted to synthesizing what we know in each of the four areas, extending our understanding through the conduct of new research, and developing the mechanisms for effective use of research knowledge in the classroom. This proposal for a bold initiative to harness the power of science to public drive for school reform will be the focus of a planning and coalition-building campaign for the year 2001 by the National Research Council, with support from the Department of Education, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation.
The reports highlighted here are a sampling of the kinds of information available from the National Academies. A list of recent related publications appears at the end of this booklet. The Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Education can provide copies of the full volumes summarized here as well as discuss any of the findings or recommendations they present.
To request additional information, please contact Paula Melville, Administrative Associate, at 202-334-2300. For a list of the Division 's key
staff, please see page 103. Information on other reports and current and planned projects of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Education is available at www.nationalacademies.org/dbasse . Reports of the National Academies are available at www.nap.edu .