Does Preschool “Crush” Children?

Erika Christakis’ article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly “The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids” has generated a lot of attention in the blogosphere. Slate’s Laura Moser asks “what’s the alternative” in her response in Slate this week.

Both articles are well worth reading. Christakis’ argument, that pre-school that is too focused on curriculum and “table tasks” is bad for kids is probably true, but just like the velocity of an object is only interesting when you consider the frame of reference of the observer (Einstein, “Special Relativity”, 1905) Moser points out that 75% of families have all adults working and don’t have much option but to use childcare of some kind or another.

Low-income families face an even tougher problem. According to Kids Count, a national effort of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, about 2/3 of families with children under 18 are headed by a single-parent. Since 1996, the federal welfare system has effectively required parents to work in order to receive benefits.  Washington provides childcare to about 50,000 – 70,000 kids as part of this system. If we’re going to require parents to work, we have to provide safe, reliable, and effective childcare in order to make that possible.

Most of Christakis’ concern is about “average” programs. The Tennessee program reported on heavily this Fall seems like (from a West Coast frame) to be an example of this – not well funded, low teacher education requirements, and no system for assessing the quality of the actual program delivery.

We neglect vital teacher-child interactions at our peril. Although the infusion of academics into preschool has been justified as a way to close the achievement gap between poor and well-off children, Robert Pianta, one of the country’s leading child-policy experts, cautions that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that our early-learning system is suited to that task. He estimates that the average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” compared with the 30 to 50 percent that studies suggest would be possible with higher-quality programs. Contrasting the dismal results of Tennessee’s preschool system with the more promising results in places such as Boston, which promotes active, child-centered learning (and, spends more than twice the national average on preschool), lends further credence to the idea that preschool quality really does matter.

Single parents don’t have much choice other than to use childcare. It’s pretty hard to assess the quality of a particular childcare setting unless you’ve seen a lot of them, something that typically isn’t true for new moms. So, Washington provides a rating system that tries to tease out the difference between soul-crushing academic drill and kill, indifferent daycare with a blaring TV and little stimulation, dangerously inattentive care settings, and the kind of care that actually improves outcomes for kids.

In trying to point out what distinguishes programs that do get the kind of results that make a difference for kids Christakis says “According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

The best programs, far from “crushing kids,” are seeing huge impacts on the kindergarten readiness of low-income children, gains that are persisting through their entire elementary school career. The kindergarten readiness assessment we use (WaKIDs) gets at the social-emotion and physical developmental readiness of our littlest learners in addition to their cognitive development. This helps keep programs on track to do balanced development of the child, and not to focus needlessly on academics.

Washington’s rating system for pre-school tries to tease out the elements that Christakis and other researchers find helpful – the quality of interaction between the teacher and the child. This turns out to be hard, but an increasingly well-understood effort. Our program is called “Early Achievers” and it provides ratings of programs based on a wide set of attributes that contribute to a high quality program.

If we are going to have a society that requires parents to work (and it seems like we are) then I think Moser’s question is more relevant – “compared to what?” We can create preschool programs that are fun and stimulating, without the soul-killing drill and kill of direct instruction. By doing it well we can have more impact on the opportunity gap than we can with any other investment.