Always blame standards

As everyone knows, last week the Yale Child Study Center issued a report indicating that pre-schoolers are three times more likely to be "expelled" from their programs than K-8 children are to be expelled from school. (See "Tossing the Terror Tots," or see here for the full report.)

It's not totally clear what it means to be "expelled" from an optional program that some parents simply withdraw kids from. But let that go. Assume that pre-school authorities are in fact bouncing their wee pupils at the reported rate of 5,000 per year.

Why could this be? How could anything so small and innocent as a pre-schooler do anything so dreadful as to warrant expulsion?

The first round of explanations ranged from inadequately trained pre-school teachers and aides to heedless parents who fail to train their toddlers to behave properly and share nicely before inflicting them on hapless pre-school workers. 

Over the weekend, however, a second round of explanation emerged in - where else? - the pages of the New York Times. The culprit is now said to be - are you ready? - academic standards!

The Times reporter rustled up the requisite couple of experts to lament that pre-schools have become places that replace "block sets and dress-up rooms" with "alphabet drills and quiet desk work." "The notion of standards are [sic] coming down almost to the embryo," grumped one such expert. "We are not allowing normal, creative, interactive play. We are wanting kids to sit down and write their names at 3. . . ."

What's behind that dire development? (Are you still on the edge of your chair?) Nothing other than the federal No Child Left Behind act, which, claims the Times, is a cause of "the push for academic-centered preschooling."

Good grief. If we have learned anything about schooling, it is that young children have the best odds of succeeding there if they arrive having already mastered a host of skills by the time they reach kindergarten. When Bill Bennett, John Cribb, and I wrote The Educated Child a few years back, we strove to itemize those skills and, to our own amazement, the "kindergarten readiness list" occupied four pages.

To be sure, only about half of the skills on that list are predominantly cognitive. ("Recognizes primary colors." "Knows own age." "Repeats nursery rhymes." "Asks questions to gain information.") The other half are an important array of the motor skills, social skills, and "self-reliance" skills that child development folks traditionally prize.

The point, though, is that the years from birth to age five are vital time for learning, not just for becoming. This was pounded home to me all over again the other week while babysitting my 16-month-old granddaughter. She's a little sponge, eager to learn, indeed impossible to keep from learning. The task of adults is to shape and structure what she learns so that it does her the most good in the long run - while also cuddling, diapering, feeding, playing, and the rest of the nurturing number.

Middle-class kids with conscientious parents (not to mention grandparents) are likely to arrive in kindergarten having already mastered most of the items on our readiness list. Some of those skills will be acquired at home, some at preschool, some from the thousand other experiences that little kids have. These little ones will know their colors, have a vocabulary, and be able to tell the difference between big and little and to distinguish up from down and "mine" from "yours."

The children on the nether side of the achievement gap, however, too often don't get enough of those things unless in pre-school. Which is why pre-school needs to teach them, not just nurture them. Lots of "early childhood experts" don't agree. (That's part of what the big Head Start reform debate has been about.) But just ask a kindergarten or first grade teacher struggling to impart primary reading skills to five or six year olds who didn't acquire the pre-reading skills before coming to school.

It is indeed the case that standards-based reform of the K-12 system, with the additional pressure of NCLB, will reverberate into the pre-school years. But lots of other countries (e.g., France) have had structured, cognitive pre-school programs for decades. (See, for example, here.) And such programs have done much to reduce their achievement gaps.

The United States is sorely overdue for such a focus in all its pre-school programs. But that doesn't mean you should picture tiny tots sitting in big school desks with dictionaries in front of them. Anyone who has witnessed a well put together pre-school knows that cognitive skills can usually be imparted with very little pain via activities that are also fun - not to mention nurturing.

Of course that calls for pre-school teachers who know what they're doing. And it's helped considerably if parents do their part, too. But as a country we'd be far wiser to try to solve those problems than to accept the nonsense of the New York Times and its hand-picked "experts," namely that pre-school should shun intellectual development and cognitive skills. The kids would be better served, too.

"Maybe preschool is the problem," by Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times, May 22, 2005

More By Author