Early childhood education is on the rise in a big way, with the small stumbling block of ECE teacher pay. Biden has just made an executive order aimed at making child care more accessible while also improving working conditions for those in the industry. But it isn’t just in cost and quantity that ECE is getting an overhaul, research has been coming out for decades about the importance of education for younger students, and it has recently taken on more value as a strategy for closing racial achievement gaps. But because the teacher shortage is more acute for ECE than other areas (again, because of the pay), changes to the ECE landscape are going to take time to implement.

It is important to move fast and get ECE to those who need it but it is also important to really think about what kind of preschools we want for our children. For many years there has been discussions as to whether Friedrich Froebel’s play-based theories or more traditional academic theories for preschools are better. There is some evidence that wealthier families tend to choose play based preschools, whereas publicly funded preschools for low-income families tend to focus on imparting knowledge. The thinking was that economically disadvantaged children do not get the same kind of enrichment at home as other children so it is important to give them a head start in their education. In 1965 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) even named the national preschool program Head Start, another area that is having trouble finding employees

A recent study in Tennessee has made researchers question whether those children were really getting a head start. As expected, researcher Dale Farran at Vanderbilt University found that Tennessee’s academic program for disadvantaged preschoolers produced kids that scored higher on school readiness for kindergarten than a similar control group of children who didn’t attend preschool. But these scores didn’t lead to better long term performance. After third grade, the kids who attended preschool were doing worse than the control group and the gap only widened with time. They had lower test scores, were more likely to be in special education, and were more likely to get into trouble in school, including serious trouble like suspensions.

This flies in the face of many studies that say a quality preschool education is important. Farran thinks she understands what has been happening. “One of the biases that I hadn’t examined in myself is the idea that poor children need a different sort of preparation from children of higher-income families.”

She found that the type of preschool matters. Play preschool is better than academic preschool. Enrolling very young children in a regimented preschool, usually based at an elementary school environment gives these young kids very little play time. They have to be controlled and walked in lines to the bathroom like much older kids. These kids aren’t ready for that kind of structure.

This has been born out in other countries. In Ghana, where there is a huge investment in Preschool education, they have found that pushing young kids into academics is counter productive. But when they tried to reverse the trend, they began getting pushback from parents who don’t understand why their children aren’t getting as much homework as they used to. 

On the other hand, kids in Finland don’t start their formal education until they’re 7 years old. They attend a state run preschool where the kids play with no schedule. When they start regular  school, many of them are still illiterate. Yet, By age 15, Finnish students do very well in global tests of math and science. The fact they waited a few years before learning what everyone else was studying only helped them.

Of course it is always hard to compare Finland with other educational systems. For whatever reason they are consistently good while spending fewer hours, even compared to their Scandinavian neighbors.

The new initiatives aren’t all government based, and don’t always rely on either traditional academic or Froebel play based theories. The Montessori based Bezos Academy is opening a number of no cost preschools. Funded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who has fond memories of his own Montessori preschool experience, there are presently 16 free schools with more to open by the end of the year.

While the demand for more, better, and cheaper preschool is very present, we are at risk of leaving some children behind. No parent who can afford and is aware of the importance would choose not to have their children attend pre-school in 2023, but plenty of parents can’t afford to right now. And it is impossible to get these years back. If we spend much more time debating whether we should federally fund preschool, we could keep a lot of structural inequities in place. After all, former President Bush had a huge ECE initiative and 20 years on we are not in a better place for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *