According to the research, it depends on the educational practices of the preschool.
For many decades, educators, policy makers, and researchers relied on two seminal studies initiated in the 1960’s and 1970’s demonstrating the long-term, remarkably positive benefits of preschool. The Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Early Intervention Project both followed participants for decades and compared them to a control group. Those who had access to these early childhood educational programs saw modest boosts in reading scores, but the most significant benefits appeared later in life.
Researchers in both studies discovered that participants had higher educational attainment, engagement in employment, and incomes. They participated in criminal activity at lower rates, and they even had better social-emotional skills and physical health. The researchers behind the Perry Preschool Project found that the children of participants also benefited in the same way that their parents did. These incredible findings caused educators, school districts, and policy makers to invest in the promise of preschool to offer people happy, stable, and fulfilling lives.
Earlier this year, a new study shook the very foundations of this promise. Researchers from Vanderbilt University conducted a high-quality, randomized control study with a large study population. They examined a state-run preschool program in Tennessee for low-income families and followed the participants through sixth grade. Initially, the participants had higher kindergarten readiness than the control group. However, to the surprise of many, researchers found significant negative long term effects of attending the preschool program. They had worse academic outcomes and were referred for behavioral infractions at school at higher rates.
There has already been a lot of hand-wringing about this study. Is everything that we thought about preschool wrong? Is preschool actually bad for children?
Of course preschool can be a good or bad experience. Why would we ever assume differently? The study did not conclusively point to reasons for the negative outcomes, and I believe the education community will spend years delving into this question. The children from the Tennessee study were better served staying home. This should alarm all early childhood educators and prompt deep introspection.
What Went Wrong?
One author of the study, Dale Farran, shared some insights in a recent NPR article, and what she said resonated with my experience as an early childhood educator. Having spent time in the preschool programs participating in the study, Farran noted the intense focus on whole-group academic lessons. She observed lots of teachers talking while children sat on the rug. In my experience, this practice emanates not from personal choices of individual teachers but from external pressure to advance test scores.
Since the preschools operated out of large public schools designed for older children, the classes spent a huge percentage of their time in transitions. When I taught preschool in a similar setup, we spent chunks of our day on field trips to the bathroom, walking to and navigating the large lunchroom, weaving through the bus line, and trekking to specialists. The time adds up, and it requires children to walk quietly, hands by their side, which we can all acknowledge is not the natural state of most four-year-olds. Invariably, children who cannot sit crisscross applesauce for large chunks of time or march silently around the school start resenting these mandates and feeling that school might not be the place for them.
Farran pointed to the program’s exclusive focus on children from low-income families. She states, “One of the biases that I hadn’t examined in myself is the idea that poor children need a different sort of preparation from children of higher-income families.” Teaching at a Title 1 elementary school, I often encountered a well-intentioned but problematic idea that went something like this: the achievement/opportunity gap between children from affluent and economically disadvantaged families means that we should push academics and limit free play and recess. Truth be told, children from affluent families expand their vocabularies and learn pre-reading skills through enriching experiences, not cramming for kindergarten readiness. Learning happens at the tips of fingertips, through balancing the crowning block on a tower, or by inventing a game with a friend. All young children need open-ended play and sunshine.
I do want to quickly note that I do not desire a full pendulum swing from an intense focus on academic preparation to exclusively unstructured play. Dr. Montessori demonstrated how the absorbent minds of young children can hungrily soak up even advanced concepts if they are presented in accessible ways. When a child has enriching experiences with early literacy, they emerge into reading. When a child has exposure to early numeracy, they gain a conceptual understanding of mathematics. When children complete puzzle maps, they have context for learning about people, ecosystems, and events around the globe. Perhaps we can strive for playful learning, establishing enriching environments that children explore independently. This requires intentionality, understanding of child development, and a profound trust in the child.
Overall, if you are a parent or caregiver of a young child wondering if preschool is your best option, I would encourage you to carefully evaluate a program before enrolling. Ensure that they offer a nurturing environment promoting playful learning. Next week's blog will include a list of questions you can ask programs to help determine if they meet this criteria.