Today’s post is a bit of a departure for me, since it has absolutely nothing to do with infant feeding, or infancy, for that matter. And this is a good thing, because to be perfectly honest it gets rather dull writing about babies. Babies are kind of boring. Preschoolers are much more interesting. Also more whiny, but that’s fodder for another post.
The reason I’m writing about preschool today is that I’ve joined an incredible group of research and science-driven parenting bloggers. It’s nice to feel I’m part of a group, rather than my usual position as the parenting world’s social media pariah – and I also appreciate that by joining this group, who will be doing a monthly blog carnival with rotating topics, I will be forced out of my comfort zone and inspired to write about a variety of parenting-related issues.
This month’s topic is Preschool. This is a subject which I don’t think much about; ironic, as my children are both in preschool. You’d think I would have at least done some thinking about what type of educational environment would be best for them, but when the time came to decide on a school, I didn’t feel I had much choice. There were very few schools in my area which were not church-based; being Jewish (totally secular, but still self-identifying) I wasn’t sure how I felt about my children learning about God in a way that didn’t feel kosher to me. Thus, we chose the one Jewish (secular, but self-identifying) preschool within a 30-minute radius and called it a day.
We were lucky, because that school turned out to have a warm, outdoor-focused, play-based curriculum. In other words, there really is no curriculum. The kids run around outside. screaming like banshees, riding trikes around the play yard sans helmets (oy), planting lemon trees, and creating Thomas the Train out of old boxes and paint. When holidays arise, they usually approach them by crafting some sort of makeshift art project (i.e., the “Star Wars”-themed Passover seat cushion my 4-year-old proudly brought home last month). It’s a haphazard, seemingly directionless environment, and I adore it (so much so that I’m willing to drive 20 miles to and from school every day, in LA traffic, with gas prices being what they are).
However, a few months ago, I started getting a wee bit nervous when I entered my son’s preschool classroom and discovered him doing a “Letter Book” with one of the teachers. That day’s letter was “C”; I was hoping they’d have him think of all the words that started with “C”, or talk about the different sounds “C” can make.
Instead, the teacher had him glue a “C” she cut out from construction paper onto the book. That was the extent of the project.
Now, my son, like many 4-year-olds, can write the entire alphabet, and is starting to sound out words on the page when we’re reading together. He recently created a pair of paper “shoes” for his sister using nothing but tape, construction paper, and our (regular, non-“kiddie”) scissors, so there was no reason he couldn’t have at least cut the darn “C” out himself. So this project seemed a bit…well, for lack of a better word, pointless.
I started panicking a little. What were other preschools doing? (I didn’t know, but I knew you had to sign up for them before you even conceived.) Had I picked a school for my son out of laziness? (Yes.) I knew play-based curriculums were all the rage, but this wasn’t the sort of free-form artwork I’d envisioned. And maybe I’d picked the wrong environment for my intellectual, perfectionist child – my daughter was thriving at the same school, loving the social interaction and singing and craziness of it all. My son, though – he flourished with structure. He loved instruction and learning. Maybe this was the wrong school for him?
But through the panic, the uber-rational devil on my shoulder kept whispering “does it really matter? It’s preschool.”
Of course, I started looking into the research (a few years too late, but whatever) and found myself even more confused. The overall benefits of preschool have been all over the news lately, as Obama has announced a new plan to bring universal preschool to our nation’s 4-year-olds in “low and modest-income families”. The opposition has argued that this will be a waste of money and resources; a spokeswoman from the Heritage Foundation countered that “the administration should be working to trim duplicative and ineffective programs, and leaving the provision of early childhood education and care to private providers and, most importantly, parents.”
Taking away the politics for a minute, let’s consider the research being used to back up Obama’s assertions that funding universal preschool will make an impact on society, and what this research means for parents. The National Institute for Early Education and Research (NIEER) put out a position paper trying to explain the research, and it does seem clear that there is a small but significant benefit in early education, in both cognitive and social development, that lasted well into the school years – this effect was seen in a number of studies and meta-anaylses, across different populations and socio-economic groups.
Still, one must ask: How much of this advantage had to do with the children merely being surrounded by their peers? Was it the educational component of the curriculum, or simply having an adult who paid attention to them and attended to their needs? What were these kids’ home lives like? If it was more an effect conferred by social interaction, are parents doing kids a disservice by homeschooling preschoolers? (This would be relevant to the Heritage Foundation’s argument, because it might mean that a parent can give all the attention, education and creative play s/he can muster and it wouldn’t be as beneficial as sending a kid to a multi-age daycare).
The NIEER report does attempt to address some of these quandaries. For example, there has been substantial research on whether preschool has more of a positive effect on disadvantaged children:
Generally, studies in the United States and abroad (where universal programs have a longer history) find that preschool education has larger benefits for disadvantaged children, but that high-quality programs still have substantive benefits for other children (Barnett, 2008; Burger, 2010).
They discuss a twin study which “finds positive impacts from attending preschool at age 4 across most of the socio-economic spectrum with effects declining gradually as socio-economic status increases” and another study from 1983 (almost as old as I am) that found “positive effects on achievement continued into the school years with very large effects for boys, in particular, found in the second and third grade (Larsen & Robinson, 1989.” even in higher socio-economic groups. But I still wonder – higher income is not synonymous with healthy home life. I’m not sure any of these studies really address whether the kids involved had parents around who were giving them the type of interaction, attention and play that they needed; that would again matter for those who choose to homeschool, or who didn’t qualify for public programs and yet didn’t have access to good preschools. Could parents make up for any shortcomings in their children’s early education?
The NIEER report also makes the point that the type of program matters. They cite the HighScope Preschool Curriculum Study, which randomly assigned 68 kids to one of three types of preschools:
Both the HighScope and Nursery School approaches emphasized child-initiated activities in which young children pursued their own interests with staff support. The Direct Instruction approach, in contrast, focused on academics and required young children to respond to rapid-fire questions posed by teachers. (Source: http://www.highscope.org/Content.asp?ContentId=241)
They followed these kids through adulthood, and found significant differences in outcome. There wasn’t much difference in terms of IQ between the groups, but in terms of social development, the “direct instruction” kids fared the worst . And these results were… well, odd. For instance, the HighScope kids were more likely to be living with their spouses. (Crap- I should’ve asked about Fearless Husband’s preschool curriculum before we made it legal.) The Direct Instruction group were more likely to be involved in delinquent activity by the age of 15.
So what the heck does this all mean?
Obviously, my concerns, sitting here in my suburban Starbucks and obsessing over the quality of my childrens’ preschool curriculum have little to do with the concerns of the Obama administration or those criticizing the push for higher-quality public preschool. But I think all of us could use a dose of reality – these studies do not seem to show a definitive answer to what is going to help kids the most, in terms of both academic and social success. What does seem clear is that kids are helped to a small, but significant, degree when they are given some higher-quality early education. Child-led curriculums seem to fare better than having kids sit in chairs and firing questions at them (surprise) and having social interaction is a positive thing. Do with it as you will.
As for me? I’m sticking to my down-home preschool. The kids are nice, the teachers are warm, and my kids seem to like it. I can work on the alphabet at home; what my son really needs is to learn to be free, to get dirty, take risks on the slide, and run around playing Power Rangers with other boys. He will enter elementary school thinking that school is a fun place where you can spend half the day wandering outside finding “treasures” of broken barrettes and rogue shoelaces in the sandbox. He might be in for a cruel awakening, but I’ll deal with that when the time comes.
Check out the other posts from the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting Bloggers (all much more coherent than mine, I’m sure):
The Early Education Racket (Melinda Wenner Moyer)
Preschool Should Be Less School and More Play? (Momma Data)
Preschool at Home? Let the Children Play! (School of Smock)
Mixed-Age Preschool: Benefits and Challenges (Science of Mom)
Picking a Preschool (Momma, PhD)
On parenting (and teaching) in the name of science (Jeanne Garbarino)
Universal Prekindergarten: Evidence from the Field (Six Forty Nine)
What Can We Learn from a Single Preschool Study? (Red Wine and Apple Sauce)