The Catch-22 of Obama’s Preschool Plan

There's no reason to believe President Obama's laudable proposal won't inflict a high-stakes testing climate on young kids who aren't ready for it.

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Early childhood advocates were elated by Obama’s State of the Union proposal to vastly expand our infrastructure of early childhood programs. Economists like Nobel laureate James Heckman have long argued that early childhood education is the best financial investment a society can make. Gaps in ability that predict future life outcomes tend to open wide at an early age, so the call to level the playing field for young kids is both welcome and overdue.

(MORE: Video: The State of the Union Address in 3 Minutes)

The cornerstone of Obama’s proposal is a plan to make preschool education available for all four-year-olds at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. Pre-K funds would be distributed to local school districts and much of the programming would likely be placed in existing elementary schools. States would have access to federal dollars if they met “quality benchmarks,” including state-level learning and assessment standards. This sounds reasonable enough.

But the devil is in the details, and in this case, those details may not be developmentally appropriate for young children. If you need a cautionary tale of what goes wrong when politicians and school boards ride roughshod over the developmental needs of children, you need look no further than the dramatic changes to Kindergarten over the last decade.

There are many good arguments for situating preschools within our existing K-12 public school infrastructure. Low pay has always been a barrier to preschool quality so it makes sense to professionalize the preschool work force with the same credentialing requirements, professional development opportunities, and salaries as other public school teachers. Many states have already adopted this model, with 28% of four-year-olds currently enrolled in a public preschool, so scaling up makes more sense than continuing our piecemeal approach.

Unfortunately, however, we’ve seen what state mandates look like and the results are a problem. Cash-strapped states jumped on the ‘accountability’ bandwagon, with its promise of an educational free lunch. But it turned out that testing students was not the same thing as actually educating them, and a curriculum focused narrowly on isolated skills has created a generation that knows very little about how the world works and is increasingly ill equipped for the basic requirements of citizenry.

(MORE: What Your Toddlers Teacher Will Never Say to Your Face)

Those skills have been pressed on the earliest pupils—Kindergarteners. Kindergarten classrooms today have been scrubbed of many of the essential ingredients including freedom for dramatic play, creativity, and conversation. Gone are blocks and dress-up corners and dedicated play time. Artwork has been replaced with word walls promising a “print-rich” environment that few five year-olds can, in reality, actually understand. Drill and kill worksheets are the norm. Many kids can’t handle the pressure: suspensions in the early years have increased dramatically since the 1970s, even trickling down to preschools where children are expected to be “ready” for a kindergarten curriculum that would have been more appropriate to a 1st or second grade classroom 20 years ago. Parents who can afford it are now extending preschool by a year to alleviate some of this stress. We’re now seeing six-year-olds entering kindergarten, which can create even wider gaps in a classroom and the appearance of failure for the less advanced children.

If states continue of this wrong-headed path, there’s no reason to believe President Obama’s laudable proposal won’t inflict the same high-stakes testing climate on even younger kids. That would be a disaster because a disproportionate emphasis on academic skills in the preschool years violates everything we know scientifically about healthy child development: that three- and four-year-olds learn best when learning is embedded in social relationships, real life experience, and unhurried exploration. In short, young children, like all other mammals, learn through play.

Many policymakers assume there’s a tradeoff between academic and non-academic goals, but a black-and-white distinction is highly misleading. Consider the complex interplay of physical, emotional, social and cognitive skills at work when a child learns to write her name. The child needs to have the motor control to hold a crayon — which might be absent if she hasn’t had a a chance to develop her pencil grasp through years of play with small manipulative toys. She needs to understand that the printed word carries meaning, and then be able to recognize individual letters and eventually connect them to sounds–a connection that comes more easily to kids who’ve had years of exposure to rhyming games and songs. Even more important, she needs to possess the motivation and self-regulation to sit still long enough to write her name. And she needs to see the inherent value of writing names, as a means of self-expression or to acknowledge and know her peers. Without such curiosity, perseverance and a desire to learn, the discrete skills don’t take a child very far.

It’s clear this complex interplay represents a higher form of “intelligence” than quizzing a child on his rote letter regurgitation. (Most toddlers can identify the McDonald’s logo, after all.) But if it’s difficult enough to measure high-level outcomes using the narrow parameters found in so many Kindergarten assessments, imagine what we would be looking at using similar standards to assess four-year-olds. We’ve already stolen childhood from Kindergartners.  Let’s not make the same mistake with our four-year-olds.  It’s called pre-school for a very good reason.

27 comments
KyleFagan
KyleFagan

" and a curriculum focused narrowly on isolated skills has created a generation that knows very little about how the world works and is increasingly ill equipped for the basic requirements of citizenry."

(Citation needed... )

1974jamie
1974jamie

@TIMEIdeas don't complain you all elected this person !!! I have other choice words. But since we are no longer free I have to be careful.

nichebray@delhitel.net
nichebray@delhitel.net

I've been screaming this for 30 years since the day 12 parents sat me down to tell me I wasn't preparing their kids for kindergarten because I wasn't teaching them how to write the alphabet.  As a teacher of "LD" students later, I found that many of my students were misnamed - it should have been called "educational violation."  They became so confused by sound/symbols being forced on them at an age when they were developmentally not ready, they never learned those relationships, embedded their errors through elementary struggles, and ultimately had IEP's for reading.  SOMEONE - PEOPLE need(s) respecting developmental age needs to take charge of our educational policies.  We are wasting our resources.  Please keep saying what you've said re: education.  The birth of educational violation began many presidents ago - let's not jump on Obama.  Let's make him hear us and trust that he'll listen, as he has before. Pre-school is great, if it's at a brook, under the faucet, in the mud, at the end of a balloon string, and midst a pile of blocks, trucks, dress ups, goop...with story time and a teacher who watches their faces during that special time.  

blackgirlinmain
blackgirlinmain

@paolarizomd Nope, that plan is not a winner at all.

LukevanderBeeke
LukevanderBeeke

@TIMEIdeas @erikachristakis public education has been shown to destroy creativity & imagination. Great for producing drones though.

nycdoenuts
nycdoenuts

@TIMEIdeas @ErikaChristakis it's also called kindergarten for a good reason (German for children's playground).

bethsonneborn
bethsonneborn

@TIMEIdeas @erikachristakis Agree, learning through play or structured play is essential. Should be avail to all w/o tests.

bettydick
bettydick

I hope that everyone takes some time to look at how the expansion of Pre-K in New Jersey has led to making kindergarten a far better experience for children.  New Jersey overhauled its kindergarten standards, after Pre-K for 3's and 4's rolled out -- and the public school officials realized how young children learn. I would hope that everyone would look to NJ and its example -- which shows how early childhood practice can change the K-12 system, than to wring our hands over expansion of ealry childhood through education funding. Adding early childhood education can have quite the opposite impact to the one suggested in this article

Betty Holcomb Policy Director Center for Children's Initiatives NYC

MrBarnerWCMS
MrBarnerWCMS

@mcleod Your post about preschool is spot on. My preschooler can add and subtract. I want him to scribble and play nice with his friends.

JohnAlport
JohnAlport

Read the most informative article about the age at which students start school around the world and how it correlates with learning outcomes.  Fascinating, with a direct bearing on this discussion:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7234578.stm  As a nation, I wouldn't spend another dime on pre-school until I understand why kids in many successful countries don't start school until the age of 7.

Razzpunk
Razzpunk

@mcleod When will enough of this be enough?

KellyHand
KellyHand

I live in DC, where we have universal free pre-K for children 4 and up at most schools (although if your neighborhood school is overcrowded, guaranteed spots only begin in K and you have to get in by lottery).  Also, many schools have preK-3 for kids 3 and up.  My 2 kids had completely different experiences.  The oldest had the kind of experience the author worries about--essentially imposing age-inappropriate work on young kids.  There were worksheets to learn their letters, and not enough time for play.  Fidgety boys were scolded.  We switched my daughter to a charter school for K and it was so much more fun and positive--academic but in an age-appropriate way.  And pre-K there for my other daughter was the perfect transition from her play-based preschool where she'd gone from age 2.5-4.  They used the "creative curriculum" so that they would learn academic skills in a playful way.  For example, they played with ziploc bags with paint inside them to practice letters--or used  wooden blocks (some curved, some straight) to form letters.  This tactile approach made more sense for that age. And they played with pattern blocks or "counting bears" to learn foundational math skills.  It all made sense to me then, but it's true that later on the focus on testing does steer things off course a bit and it gets a lot less fun once kids are subject to No Child Left Behind in 3rd grade.  I think there should be room for play and creativity at all educational levels.

LisaGuernsey
LisaGuernsey

I don't see the evidence in the President's plan so far for the statement that "much of the programming would likely be placed in existing elementary schools." The emphasis in the three-page outline from the White House appears to be on "working with states" and with states working with both school districts AND "partner providers," which could be a whole range of different kinds of preschools based in a community. Over at Early Ed Watch, a blog on early childhood policy, we have an analysis of what this pre-K plan could mean. The plan is not perfect by any stretch but it does include an emphasis on the "whole child" and healthy development. Here's a link: http://earlyed.newamerica.net/blogposts/2013/new_details_obama_s_pre_k_proposal_stresses_birth_through_five_continuum_presents_pol 


JenM
JenM

I'm a teacher with 11 years experience in K/1st.  For the most part, I agree with you.  However, I don't agree about the drill & kill worksheets.  I teach in one of the largest districts in the country and those are a definite "no-no".

thegoo
thegoo

I am a student and from middle school to college, I've seen the emphasis on getting grades/focusing on the outcome, versus enjoying the process of learning. Thanks for your article and I definitely agree that at least we can keep pre-school a free and fun time for a child to grow! :)

MartiWilliams
MartiWilliams

How sad....not that I don't believe little kids don't benefit from school readiness and enrichment, they do indeed. However, I believe that more money needs to be spent on education in later years when the kids are getting ready to graduate and go out and make a living. It is easier and considerably cheaper to 'educate' the 3 and 4 year old children than it is to educate and prevent dropping out of the adolescent who is reaching sexual maturity with the 'raging' hormones that are there.

DDV
DDV

Stifle creativity and critical thinking. Just the way the Democrats want it! 

zoobster
zoobster

This needs some actual citation and examples. It bears literally no resemblance to every preschool and Kindergarten in my state(Massachusetts). In fact, we hard to look far and wide to even find a preschool that emphasized literacy and math skills, and the school director informed us that they had to keep it on the QT because their NAEYC accredition would be at risk if it was shown that they had "too much" basic language and literary instruction.  

Same with kindergarten, we were emphatically told by every public school in our area(7) that children had loads of unstructured time and less emphasis on reading or math and more on 'creative games'. Again, we were lucky to find a teacher that was able to sidestep the suggested curricula and have her kids be learning skills and reading at age-appropriate levels instead.   Not to be a Negative Nancy, but I'm finding the idea of 5 year olds in a rote learning environment doing drills specious until shown otherwise.

NWInsAgent
NWInsAgent

@TIMEIdeas @ErikaChristakis #HOMESCHOOL

DavidJWaters
DavidJWaters

One issue I have with the entire pre K proposal is that a child shouldn't be accepted or not based on if he lives in a particular financial situation.  It should be open to all children, they all should be able to benefit.  The way it is set up in a lot of places now makes it where the parents that are paying to majority of the taxes to fund the programs can't have their kids in them since they make too much money.  That is crazy.  

paolarizomd
paolarizomd

@blackgirlinmain I see it with my 8yo 2. She struggles at school and the little time she has at home we're drilling her with stuff. No fair

mcleod
mcleod

@Razzpunk Apparently our stupidity has no bounds... [sigh]

Guest136
Guest136

@DDV 

Funny, I thought it was the GOP who is trying to ban the teaching of critical thinking skills in Texas. They are the ones who were talking about that and introducing the legislation.

Cboyle88
Cboyle88

@zoobster Ok? So your all for going against what science has shown to be more effective methots for actual learning in favor of drilled repatition and memorization.  Also do you know the definition of specious, because the way you used it would suggest otherwise.

Razzpunk
Razzpunk

@mcleod Sadly, our students suffer our lack of insight....

zoobster
zoobster

I'm saying I have a hard time believing what this author says, that rote learning drills are common in preschools and kindergarten. There are no examples given or statistics cited, and my experience has been the complete opposite.  I therefore think that her argument is "Superficially plausible, but actually wrong" which is what the word specious means.


Also I don't want rote learning for my kids; i wanted things like learning the alphabet, how to write their name and read simple words, and basic counting skills. Those aren't at all unreasonable for PRe-K and Kindergarten, but have apparently been deemed too old-fashioned

MontyNeill
MontyNeill

@zoobster I know folks looking at Kindergartens around the country and they are finding drill and kill has become very common, blocks and play removed. Some of the fallout from No Child Left Untested.