Roaming around the WWW in search of links to the Reason Foundation Wall Street Journal commentary I came across a Kindergarten, Pre-Kindergarten, and Head Start thread on a blog that was new to me: “Jerry Moore’s School Talk” Jerry seems to compile full-text news coverage on a wide variety of education topics on the blog, without comment.
One of the articles he posts is an Aug. 29 Wall Street Journal piece on a British study that attributes significant advantages in early grades math performance to having attended preschool. The study is also interesting in that it attempts to isolate the
relative impact of various influences on children, such as a mother’s education, father’s education and so on. Interesting stuff.
The August 27 opinion piece by two Reason Foundation authors in the Wall Street Journal is still generating lots of traffic in print and in the blogosphere.
Libby Doggett, Pre-Know<
Susan Urahn, of the Pew Charitable Trusts (an underwriter of this blog) and
Libby Doggett of Pre-Know (also largely funded by Pew) collaborated on a Aug. 30 letter disputing the authors’ analysis. The same day the Journal also published a letter by economist James Heckman and longtime pre-k advocate Lawrence J. Schweinhart of the High/Scope institute correcting the authors’ misunderstanding of Heckman’s research. A commentary by David L. Kirp “Sandbox Investment,” (author of the pro-preschool book
partially funded by Pew) and Steve Barnett of the National Institute on Early Education Research that included a “fact check” on the original Journal piece appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Another critique came out from The Think Tank Review Project, which keeps an eye on conservative-minded think tank’s under a contract with the National Education Association teachers union.
Keeping the action going, the WSJ published a response by the Reason authors, Lisa Snell and Shikha Dalmia that accepted the clarification from Heckman/Schweinhart and continued to dispute Urahn/Doggett.
Lisa Snell, Reason Foundation
More to come, no doubt.
The authors of last week’s Wall Street Journal anti-preschool opinion piece hung part of their analysis on research conducted by scholars at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley that included Bruce Fuller, Susanna Loeb, and Russell Rumberger. Here’s a link to the actual paper, which found that the social skill development was slightly slower in children enrolled in preschool at least six hours per day. Here’s a link to the actual paper.
Fuller sent this message regarding the Reason Foundation op-ed:
The study with Stanford’s Susanna Loeb shows distinct gains from preschool centers for children from low-income families in terms of cognitive skills displayed in kindergarten. Very small gains for children from middle-class families were observed, which is consistent with other work by NICHD researchers and by Katherine Magnuson at U.Wisconsin. What’s worrisome is that we found that after about six hours a day in a preschool center, a slow-down in children’s typical rate of social-skill development was observed. The NICHD study of early child care and adolescent development found that this negative effect persists at a very small level of magnitude into the fifth grade. It’s a small effect and one that is not clinically troubling (although it is statistically significant). It does suggest that preschools have lots of room to improve social skills, and that obsessing on preliteracy skills, or tightly aligning preschool “curriculum” with elementary curriculum and standardized tests may distract from social-developmental activities.
The authors of the WSJ commentary captured the meaning of our research, but they failed to emphasize the positive benefits of preschool centers for children from low-income families, and they failed to recognize that the slow-down of social development largely disappears by the end of elementary school, based on what we know empirically to date. My book, Standardized Childhood, details how this one-sided emphasis on narrow cognitive skills is playing out in parts of California and Oklahoma.
The New York Times’ Tamar Lewin wrote about the Fuller et. al. research as well as two other studies of similar issues back in 2005. Here’s the link (free login may be required).
Lewin put it in perspective with this quote from Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Teachers College: “It isn’t that these kids are more likely to have clinical levels of behavior problems…You’re getting a slight uptick, but it’s still in the normal range.” See more from the article after the jump.
The anti pre-k arguments Lisa Snell and Shikha Dalmia of the Reason foundation made in the Journal last Friday were based on a paper they published two years earlier. When the first paper came out Steve Barnett of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers rebutted both that paper and also one by the libertarian Lexington Institute in a 2008 paper. Roy Bishop, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, linked to Steve’s rebuttals on his blog.
I missed last Friday’s Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by two policy analysts for the libertarian Reason Foundation that was headlined “Protect Our Kids from Preschool.” But it’s getting all sorts of attention in the blogosphere. (Sara Mead at Early Ed Watch hasn’t weighed in yet. Like the rest of the world, she must be on vacation.) Just Google the headline and you’ll get dozens of hits.
I’m trying to track down the research the Reasoners cite that they say shows preschool can be harmful for kids. I’ll report back when I’ve read it.
The Journal blog called “The Juggle” excerpted the op-ed and set off a torrent of responses. Most comments on preschool articles elsewhere in the blogosphere are predictable, negative and positive. Negative comments are along the lines of: “Don’t let the government brainwash your kids! Kids should be at home with their mothers! Mothers should quit their jobs and give up on frills!” Positive comments tend toward philosophizing about how good, caring societies spend money on children and education. Most of the comments here are thoughtful. The writers share the experiences of their children in preschool, which are positive. They also share how they decided to send their kids to preschool.
I was struck this past weekend by the number of television ads for toys aimed toddlers. Christmas selling and buying season starts right after Halloween. The ads caught my ear because they were talking about how babies develop skills with the right toys.
A couple of days ago I Googled eBeanstalk, the company whose ads for toys for infants I’d seen over the weekend. The philosophy of the company seems to be “teaching” begins at birth and that every interaction between a parent and a child requires a “lesson plan” and goal that can be measured. For example, the site sells socks for newborns with rattles “ attached. The rattles “give him a first taste of cause and effect” because when he kicks his feet the baby will hear the sound. The socks will also spur emotional development and dexterity–all for only $10. What tutor charges so little?
Or, take the colorful child-safe mirror toys. (Basic: $18.95. Premium: $44.95. For those who REALLY love their children): These toys develop neck control, teach him that things disappear and reappear, aid in self-recognition and allow the baby to play peek-a-boo. Generations of babies have grown up without these “skills,” apparently, because they lacked such devices. Helpfully, the site provides instructions for how parents can play with these toys. It turns out that playing “peek-a-boo” requires special training–for parents as well as babies. After a few lessons, babies will be able to play “peek-a-boo” with themselves, relieving parents of that chore after a long, hard day at the office.
Gender differentiation starts early. A package of bath toys–a pirate ship and shaving kit for the boys! Pink Tub Fashion and Princess in the Tub sets for girls!–can be had for $75 apiece. Perfect for 1 to 3 year olds. Spurs imagination, they’re educational, and improve dexterity. (I hope parents don’t leave their baby in the tub to work on their homework on their own.) Even Baby Einstein, a Disney company that sells toys and gear to make kids smarter, doesn’t go as far as eBeanstalk in its educational claims.
The Wall Street Journal on November 1 carried a story about Eee PC, a computer aimed at first graders. It’s just one of several companies selling computers to parents anxious to give their kids a head start on the technology of the future. (By the time they reach high school, of course, PCs will be the “technology of the past.”) An Oklahoma company called Digital Dimensions sells a pink PC for girls and a red, blue, or black racecar PC for boys, both equipped with software for children as young as 2.
Journalists have written quite a bit about the phenomena of affluent parents willing to do just about anything to give their kids an edge. Cloaking consumerism in pseudo-science that makes natural development seem to depend on the right toys–rather than just loving, talking to, reading to, and playing with your children–helps fuel this unfortunate parental instinct. This impulse among some parents creates business opportunities and it’s no surprise companies are out there capitalizing on them. Sometimes the universal pre-kindergarten movement overemphasizes education, as well, causing opponents to complain that schooling is more important than just fostering normal, healthy development. These issues are worth more critical attention, I think.
An editorial in the New York Times over the weekend commented ironically on “guides” that purport to teach kids the “basic skills” of childhood. With just the right note of sarcasm, the editorial suggested that such books (and, I would add, toys) make natural development seem like a take-home test.
“Lying on your back in your crib, point your knees outward and draw your heels toward your stomach. Using both hands, grasp your left ankle, if you are right-handed (or right ankle, if left-handed), and slowly draw your toes into your mouth. Chew with caution!”