There is a huge push on now for the government creation of “universal pre-K” with increasing amounts of government control. It’s not going anywhere at the federal level, but Deblassio is trying to raise taxes and close charter schools to fund it in New York. I’ve made my thoughts on the matter quite clear: universal pre-K crosses me as a solution in search of a problem:
As the Reason documentary shows, any gains by pre-K students evaporate quickly. The reason is that we learn differently when we’re four years old than we do later in life. It’s the same reason those “teach your baby to read” programs fail. The transition to abstract learning that occurs at about age five changes how we learn. For young kids, learning their ABCs, learning to count and learning to interact with other kids is the important thing—one that private pre-K is very very good at.
That last part is becoming critically important in the stampede toward pre-K. As Alfie Kohn points out, the current push is for a pre-K system that is heavily oriented toward formal education and “accelerated” learning. I’m going to pull a long quote here because I think he says it so perfectly:
Very few people are talking about the kind of education that would be offered — other than declaring it should be “high quality.” And that phrase is often interpreted to mean “high intensity”: an accelerated version of skills-based teaching that most early-childhood experts regard as terrible. Poor children, as usual, tend to get the worst of this.
It doesn’t bode well that many supporters of universal pre-K seem to be more concerned about economic imperatives than about what’s good for kids. In his speech last year, for example, the president introduced the topic by emphasizing the need to “start at the earliest possible age” to “equip our citizens with the skills and training” they’ll need in the workplace. The New York Times, meanwhile, editorialized recently about how we must “tightly integrate the [pre-K] program with kindergarten through third grade so that 4-year-olds do not lose their momentum. It will have to prepare children well for the rigorous Common Core learning standards that promise to bring their math, science and literacy skills up to international norms.”
That “tightly integrate” horse manure is a response to research showing that what small pre-K advantages exist vanish by third grade. Big Education’s response is that we need to massively ramp up first through third grade education (i.e., hire more teachers) to “sustain” pre-K gains. This is nonsense. If pre-K gains are that ephemeral, just improve first through third grade and forget universal pre-K.
“Tightly integrate” is also code for having the government run the pre-K system, which is currently mostly private.
The top-down, test-driven regimen of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiatives in K-12 education is now in the process of being nationalized with those Common Core standards championed by the Times — an enterprise largely funded, and relentlessly promoted, by corporate groups. That same version of school reform, driven by an emphasis on global competitiveness and a determination to teach future workers as much as possible as soon as possible, would now be expanded to children who are barely out of diapers.
That doesn’t leave much time for play. But even to the extent we want to promote meaningful learning in young children, the methods are likely to be counterproductive, featuring an emphasis on the direct instruction of skills and rote rehearsal of facts. This is the legacy of behaviorism: Children are treated as passive receptacles of knowledge, with few opportunities to investigate topics and pose questions that they find intriguing. In place of discovery and exploration, tots are trained to sit still and listen, to memorize lists of letters, numbers, and colors. Their success or failure is relentlessly monitored and quantified, and they’re “reinforced” with stickers or praise for producing right answers and being compliant.
This dreary version of early-childhood education isn’t just disrespectful of children; decades of research show it simply doesn’t work well — and may even be damaging. The same approach has long been over-represented in schools that serve low-income African-American and Latino children; indeed, it was described by the late Martin Haberman as the “pedagogy of poverty” and it continues to find favor in inner-city charter schools. If we’re not careful, calls to expand access to preschool will result in more of the same for younger children whose families can’t afford an alternative.
Sal 11000 Beta went to a great preschool. The reason it was great was because they taught the kids the basics — letters and numbers — in a low-pressure environment while also giving them the freedom to be kids. They did art, they ran around in the playground, they learned how to interact with fellow kids and they learned through play. That’s what I wanted and that’s what I got. In a memorable moment, one teacher apologized to me because Sal 11000 Beta had fallen in the mud and gotten her clothes dirty. I told the teacher to apologize when Sal 11000 Beta didn’t come home with mud all over her. I can’t imagine a kid in Barack Obama’s future pre-K’s coming home with mud on them.
That’s what pre-K should be. Sal’s kindergarten teacher told me she always knew the kids from that particular daycare because they were ready to learn and well-adjusted. That was in part because they hadn’t had their heads crammed with stuff that wasn’t appropriate for their age; they had been allowed to be kids instead of being nailed to desks like high schoolers. They were ready to make that decade-long transition from playing like kids to learning like adults.
In my post, I mentioned the Soviet “daycare” system which took children away from their parents as young as two months. The Soviet system saw its citizens — from cradle to grave — as assets of the state. Therefore getting them into the grind toward productivity as early as possible was paramount. Who cared if they got to be kids. That was individualism!
It seems to me that a lot of our education policy is driven by a similar idea: that the schools need to produce product for businesses, not independent educated citizens. And if you’re not getting the product you want, you just need more input: longer school days, shorter vacations, the awful idea of year-round schooling and now universal pre-K. Slowly but surely, our system is trying to kill childhood to produce product.
In the end, I don’t think the motives are sinister. I think the Democrats are pushing pre-K because they are beholden to Big Education. When it comes to actual policy, they are mostly (but not always) absentee landlords, content to let policy egghead “educators” run wild in the Department of Education, constantly coming up with some new magic bullet to fix our education system. But the end result of this is a system that wants to be an assembly line instead of a school: babies go in one end, workers come out the other.
The longer this goes on, the more I think we should just privatize the whole smash. Education is too important to be controlled by the likes of Barack Obama and Arne Duncan (or George Bush and Rod Paige for that matter). It’s too important to be put in the hands of people who either don’t know or don’t care what kind of education is appropriate for young children. It’s too important to be put in the hands of people who think more schooling is, by definition, better schooling. It’s too important to be put in the hands of people who look at a wide-eyed four-year-old and think, “that child belongs behind a desk, learning fractions.”
(H/T: Lenore Skenazy, whose Free Range Kids blog should be in your daily internet newspaper.)