Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Alarming Pre-K News

New research is problematic news for the world of pre-K. 

We've long known that a good pre-school is not a magical jump start that guarantees your kids will end up in the Ivy League, and advantages tend to fade within a few years, but new research from Vanderbilt's Peabody College suggests the reality could be far worse. One of the authors puts it bluntly:

“At least for poor children, it turns out that something is not better than nothing,” said Dale Farran, a professor in Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, director of its Peabody Research Institute and one of the authors of the study. “The kinds of pre-K that our poor children are going into are not good for them long term.”

The researchers looked at 2,990 children enrolled in Tennessee's voluntary state-funded pre-K program. By the end of sixth grade, those students were doing worse than their peers--academically, behaviorally, all the -allies. They were even more likely to end up in special ed. The study compared the students who were randomly selected for the program to those students who applied for the program, but didn't get in. So a pretty clean basis for the data.

We're looking at pre-K students from the 2009-2011 years, so there's a real possibility that much has changed in Tennessee's pre-K program (in fact, changed because of earlier findings from these same researchers). But the question remains--what the hell happened?

The short answer is that nobody knows.

Possible culprits? A heavy-on-academics program that attempts to pack the littles with studying scholastic stuff instead of just going outside and playing. But other experts argue that it's a lack of coherence, and that there's just too many pre-K programs that are higgledy-piggledy; standardize some academic rigor, these experts say. I say these experts are full of it."Possibly the problem in Tennessee is not with pre-K, but with K-6 and how it treats children who went to pre-K" says co-director Steven Barnett at the National Institute for Early Education Research (Rutgers). We know that "adverse childhood experiences" have long term negative effects--were Tennessee's pre-K programs somehow providing plenty of ACE  (for example, doing stupid worksheets and cramming academics). Another theory is that Tennessee's pre-K programs just aren't very good, but even if that's the answer, it's pretty alarming to learn that "not very good" is actually worse than nothing at all.

There are lots of blanks to fill in here, and I can't do that at the moment because the paper is behind a paywall and won't be released until January of 2023 (presumably academics can spend that year complaining that the public doesn't pay enough attention to research). So there are details I don't know--for instance, what exactly did the group that didn't get into pre-K do instead--home school? another pre-K program? nothing at all? 

And we know that other results are out there. Research about Head Start shows positive outcomes, and a recent study in Boston found benefits all the way up through high school graduation.

Meanwhile, state pre-K programs are struggling with the impact of problems going all the way back to the funding collapse of 2008 through the loss of students during the pandemic (and the corresponding loss of funding). At the very moment that we need to take steps to save these programs, we need to know what about them (if anything) is worth saving and what form they should take. This new study raises some huge questions that really, really need answers. 


  1. Even longitudinal studies of disadvantaged children who attended very high-quality early childhood educational programs (Perry, Abecedarian) show weak long-term effects. These were programs that combined well-thought-out academics with significant social services. They were so well-resourced that they can't be replicated, mostly because of the very high-quality staff.

    To me, trying to invent the perfect pre-K program and then get public entities to implement and fund it is a losing proposition. Well-funded day care programs that slowly lead children towards academic programming but focus on social skills, fun, listening and talking skills, and background knowledge make far more sense. Plus, decent-paying jobs for the children's parents.

  2. Think of all the children, rich and poor, who never went to preschool because no one did. Think of life before scientific studies from university faculty coupled with expensive software could somehow create data to chew about people who are in their 3rd and 4th year of life.

    Think about what the goal of preschool is. Think about what the goal of most people is at the ages of 3 and 4.

    Offer support for parents who want to help their children learn some things as they grow a d discover the world before formal schooling starts. The most obvious need of children at that age is a secure, nurturing relationship. For some reason, this obvious human need is considered secondary or not at all. "Highly qualified" or "super nice" don't mean anything. If a parent needs to work and the child goes to preschool as daycare, you cannot direct some "outcome".

    Most of the people who think up and design these studies did not live the scenario in question.

    When did it become acceptable to see people at an early stage of development as "subjects" for studies?

    Why do we need endless "studies" to conclude the obvious?

    What a sick world we have created where everyone is under some sort of evaluation from the age of three. This is modern "science".

    The answer to all of these problems has always been simple. Children learn on the foundation of relationships. You can't dictate a child's emotional state and the richest kid with all luxuries may be the most emotionally fragile in the group. A strong support of relationships with an opportunity to experience different aspects of life through the senses without any evaluation is more than sufficient. But because we can't measure that approach, it is not an option.

    Just keep measuring. Measure, measure, measure. Measure children as objects. Measure them as some sort of miniatures. They are none of these things. And then be surprised by negative outcomes.

    Whose idea was it to create preschool? Why isn't school enough? And what is the problem if a 5 year old still has to learn the alphabet? Why does everyone have to develop the same way, at the same time or be penalized? And then we wonder why children are deeply anxious.

    Real life is no longer acceptable as sufficient for young people. There has to be programming. Evaluations. Tracking. Labels.

    Preschool age children are often referred to as "the littles". Why? How shall we refer to the over 55 population? Is there a term that can equal the condescension and still be acceptable?

    Why not call them children? All of these labels and measurements have an impact. They say more about the people who use the measurements and labels than they do the actual people receiving the label.

    If you are gambling and keep losing, maybe it's not time to find another card game ... maybe it's time to stop gambling.

  3. Headstart? Government preschool when we already know the data mining is generational for children already. Aperture. Devereux. Dessa. DECA. Panorama. SEL is a smokescreen to divide us with “identity politics” so no one can see straight and all the children lose. The 1% hates the 99% and 1% of them are trying to do anything about it absent political agendas