Patricia Carini is one of the co-founders of the Prospect School, a school for children 4 to 14 years of age. Although the school closed in 1991, Early Childhood Today spoke to Ms. Carini about the school's unique philosophy and assessment techniques and the work she continues to do as a member of the wording board of the Prospect Center. The Center offers annual institutes and conferences for teachers, parents, and administrators.
EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: Tell us about your view of assessment as it related to your work at the Prospect School.

Patricia Carini: The Prospect School was founded on the belief that the best people to generate knowledge about children are those closest to them. Our idea was that, through examined practice, we would learn about children by building on parent knowledge and teacher knowledge. So we worked out ways of observing children, ways of collecting their work-artwork, written work, constructions-whatever children made. We also developed ways for teachers to keep narrative records, so we could maximize what we could learn from children's records. Our work at the school taught us that children have tremendous resources within themselves. It confirmed our belief that they are active learners, and that it is up to us, as adults, to recognize and respond to each child's strengths.

ECT: What did the environment look like?

Carini: Materials such as blocks, paints, sand, water fabrics, woodworking tools, clay, and other materials were available for children. This allowed us to see the transformation of children's work over time. Parents contributed work from home. Today, the collection of work we have for each child consists of about 1500 pieces per child. The collections have given us the opportunity to look at what each medium has allowed a child to learn.

ECT: What is the Descriptive Review Process?

Carini: The Descriptive Review Process is a collaborative effort that brings teachers and parents together to share their knowledge of the child. The teacher who knows the child best, or the parent, or both, makes a presentation to other teachers, administrators, and anyone else who knows or is in contact with the child. Everyone pulls their thoughts together to share what they have noticed, and to explore ways to expand the child's interests.

A very useful exercise is to focus on a child and begin to reflect; then, write down what you know. Use these five headings. Do one, let a little time go by, then do another.

  • Physical Presence and Gesture (how a child enters a room, her level of energy, the rhythm of her voice, her body attitude)
  • Disposition and Temperament (a child's general tenor, what the child cares for deeply)
  • Connections With Other People
  • Strong Preferences and Interests (colors, authors, books, and so on)
  • Modes of Thinking and Learning

This is all done in a collaborative fashion. We are not looking to describe behavior, such as: "The child moved six times between the two centers." We are looking to develop a balanced picture of the child using language that is nonjudgmental. Our last question in this process is always: Do we think we respected the child and the family and if we did, how did we reflect it in our program?

ECT: What advice would you give us about assessment?

Carini: It's almost always true that teachers and parents know more than they think they know They should trust themselves. One teacher told me that she and the woman she works with sit down and, using descriptive language, record their observations of one child at a time. They each make a list and then share what they have written: "The child is serious." "The child is loyal." Then they ask themselves questions: What is making me say this? They share thoughts and begin to build a sketch. The process takes you away from the worry and fretting and allows you to look closely at and describe some very interesting and unique people.

Patricia Carini is the author of a new book, Starting Strong (Teachers College Press). With Margaret Himley, she is the editor of From Another Angle: Children's Strengths and School Standards: The Prospect Center's Descriptive Review of the Child (Teachers College Press, 2000; $22.95)