While we're busy talking about how to implement Pre-K next fall, let's remember one important thing:
Early "academic" instruction is bad for children.
If you like, you can turn to the anecdotal evidence. This does not require deep research. Talk to any first grade teacher, kindergarten teacher, or parents of small children. You hear the same story over and over and over and over again-- today, one of the biggest challenges of the early years is to keep the child from hating school, from fearing school, from associating school with misery. Plenty of teachers do it, but it is a measure of our times that doing so these days requires deliberate strategies, often including small and large acts of rebellion. It is hard to over-state how tragic this is. The one thing teachers of small children never had to do was whip up interest in school. You could ask a group of six year olds, "Who wants to jump off the building into a pile of smelly bananas for me?" and they would be lined up before the first peel turned brown. Small children are natural free-range learning machines. Trying to force them into regimented academic instruction is like beating a chocolate lab because he won't fetch with more care and dignity.
But never mind the anecdotal evidence. Instead, let's use data and science and all those things that our reformy overlords claim to love.
Even the mainstream is getting this. Psychology Today has a piece by Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College who has written, among other things, a psychology textbook.
Gray cites several research studies, some not exactly obscure.
For instance, in the 1970's the German government did a study of play-based kindergarten vs. direct instruction kindergarten. "Despite the initial academic gains of direct instruction, by grade four
the children from the direct-instruction kindergartens performed
significantly worse than those from the play-based kindergartens on every measure that was used." That's every measure-- they did more poorly academically and they were less socially and emotionally capable.
A large scale US study of poor African-American children found the same thing. The direct-instruction kindergartners had an initial leap ahead, but by fourth grade were behind their play-based peers academically.
Gray also recommends the paper by the paper published by the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years. "Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little To Gain and Much To Lose" also surveys many studies in the field, and the results are consistent--
Early direct instructions is not helpful. It is not even a neutral ineffective waste of time.
Early academic direct instruction is harmful to the future development of children.
Of course, there are many drawbacks to play based instruction. Wait, did I say "many"? I actually meant "one." And the one drawback to play-based instruction is that there's no good revenue-generating data-collecting standardized test for measuring it.
That's the front on which this battle will be fault. "Oh, sure. Play-based instruction is swell," reformsters will say. "But we still have to have data about how they're doing, so in April we're going to sit these children to give them a standardized test. Because data. And did you see this nice pen-and-pencil set the guy from Pearson gave me?"
And so we'll continue to pollute the early years with test prep. And test prep for small children is the worst, because we have to teach them what a test is and what is going on in this bizarre, artificial activity, not to mention why they should even care. While we're at it, let's just teach them that Santa is dead, too.