At Risk Kids and the Banner of Universal Preschool

Summary: Universal preschool has rightly been on the policy upswing, and while long term benefits look to be worth the cost, pivotal questions remain about curriculum appropriate to three and four year olds and the role of parent training.

In the dental chair one morning recently, my hygienist asks what my afternoon will bring. She is poised to crank on me, asks genuinely enough, but with her tools of trade poised I am aware the answer must be quick and to the point. “Probably I will work on a blog post about universal preschool education,” I say, eyeing the pick in her gloved hand as it descends into my mouth. In this case it is fortunate everyone has an opinion about schools, because while I am unable to carry my end of the conversation she is off on the tale of her young son, proudly, and with recognition of how universal preschool might have impact.

“When he got to first grade he already knew the alphabet and his numbers, and a bit of reading and addition. By the time he entered school he was ahead of many of the kids in his class, which had to slow way down to bring the less prepared up to the rest. Fortunately, the teacher recognized his readiness, and was able to keep him interested.”

And, yes, that is the idea of preschool instruction, which sons and daughters of the educated and relatively well-off seem to absorb in the womb and benefit from stimulus rich environments their parents are able to provide. For a variety of complex and individualized reasons sons and daughters of poverty too often miss out on the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral before school preparation, enter school behind the inaugural expectations, and without intervention are doomed to fall further and further behind their peers.

In addition, while we focus on the deficits in the test scores of such kids, teachers well know the pressures from parents of kids whose readiness is on the high end, and whose progress is slowed by attention given to kids who are less ready, as my hygienist complained amiably enough.

Voila! Universal preschool to the rescue.

Like other enthusiasts, I have picked up the banner. But as I have formed my thoughts and further educated myself in an effort to at least appear knowledgeable, the complexity of the undertaking, its expense, and the many questions laid out like a minefield by researchers make a goodly pause before headlong expenditure seem a sound idea.

Dueling studies, dueling research approaches, and dueling outcomes cloud the issue.

Head Start, early among the compensatory preschool efforts, has been an object of intensive scrutiny. Famously, researchers have been hard pressed to demonstrate any durable academic or socioemotional changes for Head Start students beyond the very short term, and even short term advantages extinguish fairly quickly, according to a couple of George Mason University authors in a 2014 “National Affairs” article.

Other than Head Start, well established pre-K programs in Boston, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have also been studied, among others. The first three claim strong cognitive gains, while Tennessee’s results echo those of Head Start. The George Mason authors allege the research into the three apparently more successful programs suffer from fatal flaws in statistical design, or introduce parent support programs (which incur significantly greater cost) and so are outliers in comparison with the Head Start baseline. The extra cost is an issue, particularly in the context of President Obama’s proposals for universal pre-K, and the political realities of funding, but the inclusion of parenting training could prove to be a cost effective ingredient in its own right.

Long term cost/benefit scrutiny has also been applied to the Head Start data base, and broadened to comprise outcomes other than academic skills. Economist Jens Ludwig from the University of Chicago and psychologist Deborah Phillips of Georgetown University review studies, including their own, that demonstrate long term benefits for Head Start participants such as decline in mortality, decreased trouble with the law, increased time in school, a decline in need for special education, and a greater chance of attending college. Though unmentioned, it would appear a greater likelihood of graduation from high school is also implied by these same findings.

Finally, a new study reported in the Quarterly Journal of Economics looked at school outcomes in states whose schools received large influxes of public money over time in response to court orders. Across surprisingly numerous such instances, graduation rates increased, poverty rates decreased, and at age 40 the once student beneficiaries earned thirteen per cent more than their demographic twins that did not benefit from a similar cash infusion into their schools.

The longitudinal nature of these cash infusions, affecting presumably many if not all grades, and each kid over a period of years, provides some clue what may be happening where gains during preschool are lost quickly by first and second grade. These kids of poverty do not magically ride a preschool carpet that lifts them for the next twelve to sixteen years of school. Not only must they negotiate an increasingly more rigorous chain of developmental passages beyond preschool, they return to the same neighborhoods, the same parents scratching for a living, the same uninspired and/or overworked teachers, the same neglect or abuse. The support network, the small classes, the access to mentoring and tutoring – all must continue unabated along the way in order for any gains to be sustained and the inevitable lacunae in kids’ learning set to be readdressed. Universal preschool is good only for a good start.

Certification of teachers and quality of curriculum are typically cited as crucial variables in the various preschool outcome studies. The George Mason commentators cited earlier question the need for advanced pedagogical skills for teaching three and four year olds, given the relatively elementary learning that occurs at that age. They cite research that finds only a weak link between student skill increase and teacher certification, for example, and point out that many parents without teaching degrees manage just fine to prepare their kids for school entry, minus preschool.

But curricular approaches appropriate to three and four year olds is another story.
Writing in the Atlantic, Erika Christakis, lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center, herself both a certificated teacher and a licensed pre-school director (and, yes, the same Erika Christakis near the center of the recent Yale racial controversy) argues that “we forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work….This is the basis for the beginnings of literacy.”

Moreover, Christakis challenges the bias in many preschool circles to simply extend school “expectations that may 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,” down to younger kids, who lack the developmental readiness – attention and motor skills levels – needed to benefit.

Remember the Head Start and other preschool studies that found any gains wrought by preschool had evaporated within a year or two of regular school? Christakis, in a conceptual leap, suggests that the lack of readiness for developmental tasks appropriate to older kids and “repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy” essentially has squeezed the sap out of preschool kids to the point that by second grade the kids in the Tennessee in the study mentioned earlier actually did worse on standard tests of reading, writing and math.

One wonders if such observations can be extrapolated to the macrocosm of our schools, and charge that our kind of direct instruction tethered so tightly as it has become to skills testing – reading, writing, and math — is in fact the very culprit that suppresses American test scores.

Many teachers have long contended that a commitment to deep and compelling learning is the preferred way to good skill sets as merely a bag of tools obtained along the way.

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