by Karen R. Effrem, MD
A recent article by Erika Christakis in The Atlantic titled “The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids” again highlights the problems with making kindergarten and preschool overly academic and how the huge expansion in preschool is actually harming academic achievement and doing little if anything to close the achievement gap. The accountability movement of strict standards and testing moving down to the earlier grades that includes Common Core has exacerbated these problems.
The author, who is a preschool teacher, notes the seismic shift in preschool and kindergarten goals:
Until recently, school-readiness skills weren’t high on anyone’s agenda, nor was the idea that the youngest learners might be disqualified from moving on to a subsequent stage. But now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.
She goes on to discuss the latest research showing the academic harm of preschool, citing the Tennessee study of that state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program (VPK) done by Vanderbilt researcher Dale Farran, various phases of which we have discussed here many times as well as at The Federalist:
A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills.
Christakis believes based on this study that “children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.”
Farran admitted in a 2016 Brookings Institution white paper that despite 50 years of research, the early childhood research base is still too small to support: 1) “the proposition that expanding pre-K will improve later achievement for children from low-income families”; 2) “the presumption that solid research exists to guide the content and structure of pre-K programs”; or 3) evidence “about which skills and dispositions are most important to effect in pre-K and what instructional practices would affect them.”
The Tennessee study is just one example of numerous studies confirming the academic and emotional harm that can come from preschool, especially ones that become overly academic. Research from as far back as the 1950s and 60s also confirms this. The 1975 book “Better Late than Early” by Raymond and Dorothy Moore contends that early schooling (kindergarten, much less preschool) has many detrimental effects on children including in relation to reading disabilities and grade retention. They posit, based on research in numerous disciplines, that children have an “Integrated Maturity Level” of 8 to 10 years of age based on brain development, hearing, vision, perception, physical growth, and emotional maturity. Given the considerable research that has come out since then showing the failure of preschool to improve academic achievement (discussed here) and the evidence of academic and emotional harm, it appears that their contentions are not far off the mark.
Christakis rightly states that pre-K should be play-based with lots of conversation and open-ended questions instead of direct instruction and worksheets. This is the approach that the country of Finland uses. That nation does not begin formal reading instruction until the age of seven and out-performs many nations in international comparisons of reading, including the United States.
She also contends that these approaches constitute “high quality” preschool, but the evidence does not seem to bear her out:
Either the parameters she cites are not measured in the research or there are other factors contributing to a child’s long-term academic achievement that have nothing to do with preschool. Much research has shown that two-parent families and religious involvement erases the achievement gap. This is something that more than $2 trillion dollars and 50 years of oppressive, unconstitutional federal interference have never come close to achieving. There is a plethora of other research showing that living in an intact family greatly reduces the likelihood of many other problems such as gun usage (a large majority of mass shooters are from fatherless homes), juvenile delinquency, smoking, drug use, and teen pregnancy.
The two-parent family part of this equation can be promoted by removing the marriage penalty in programs like Obamacare (which should be eliminated altogether), ending the penalty for paternal involvement in welfare, and reducing no-fault divorce. The religious involvement part can be achieved by returning to release time to allow students to participate in religious services with their families, extra-curricular clubs, or considering adding elective study of the Bible in schools, which according to the secular organization Phi Delta Kappa has 61 percent support among public school parents and teachers.
Christakis is very correct that preschool is crushing kids, but it is due to many factors besides just quality issues. Unfortunately, pre-K has become necessary because of two-parent working families and the government-induced epidemic of single-parent families. Until these larger problems can be solved, we should make preschool far more play-based and let our kids be kids.