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.

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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.

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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.