Darcy Olsen

Preschool isn't a silver bullet

Posted on June 11, 2006 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Darcy Olsen
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What I remember most about preschool were the waffle patterned wafer cookies. You can still find them in the same three great flavors as always -- chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.

Preschool has changed a lot since then. With childhood obesity on the rise, it's a safe bet that cookies are getting harder to come by. Building blocks and Lincoln logs are giving way to Dora DVDs.

But the biggest change may be the sheer volume of kids trading in sippy cups for school desks. Preschool, once an `a la carte option, has become an educational must-have.

Governor Kaine wants all children in school by age 4 and has made government funded preschool his top priority. "Preschool is vital to a child's success later in school," says Kaine, "The years from birth to age five are critical for developing the cognitive and social skills in children required for school achievement."

Few dispute the importance of the early years. But is school a better place than home for reading along to One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, painting by numbers, or learning how to take turns with Brother Bear?

Generations of Americans went to college, raised families, held jobs, opened businesses and kept the country growing, all without preschool. Of course times have changed. The traditional family with mom at home and dad at work is less common, and there are more single parents that need child care.

Still, the question must be asked: If preschool is so important, how did we succeed without it? And why are so many of today's students failing with it?

Preschool attendance has increased from 15 percent in the 1960s to 65 percent today. Yet the Nation's Report Card shows little to no improvement in overall test scores during this time. With this record, how did policymakers come to view preschool as critical for success in school?

One reason is the misuse of research on children in stark life circumstances. When one 1960s experiment showed that intense intervention could give struggling children a leg-up, benefits were assumed for all children. That was a mistake.

Penicillin may help a sick patient, but it provides no benefit to a healthy body and may even be harmful. Likewise, most American children are not disadvantaged, and for them, leaving a healthy home environment can be a costly tradeoff.

The most recent evidence drawn from a national sample of more than 22,000 children shows preschool incubates negative social behavior. According to a report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, "Prekindergarten attendance increases aggression and decreases self-control." 

Stanford and Berkeley researchers recently reached a similarly disturbing conclusion: "Attending a center also appears to suppress social development, including the child's motivated engagement in kindergarten classrooms, self-regulation, and a variety of interpersonal skills."

Like it or not, the evidence is what it is. When it comes to developing good behavior, preschool is at the bottom of the list.

The impact of preschool on cognitive skills is equally bleak. The same NBER report found, "For most children, the cognitive benefits of prekindergarten quickly fade." This finding is consistent with findings on Head Start, which show the program is really a false start: children get an initial boost but the effect on learning is zero after a year or two of schooling.

More recently, the universal preschool system Governor Kaine is promoting has been tried elsewhere and found a failure. Despite having universal preschool since 1993, test scores in Georgia have not improved. As one Georgia researcher put it, "There is no magic bullet here."

Oklahoma is facing similar disappointment. In a recent analysis, both Georgia and Oklahoma ranked in the nation's bottom 10 states when it came to improving fourth-grade reading scores from 1992 to 2005. In fact, Oklahoma was the worst, actually losing 4 percentage points. By contrast, none of the ten best performing states have implemented universal preschool programs.

In the meantime, as policymakers focus on preschool, the k-12 system continues declining.

A positive solution to poor school achievement is competition. For instance, Arizona currently has more than 400 charter schools giving traditional schools a run for their money, and at a lower cost to taxpayers. A Goldwater Institute analysis of test scores of 60,000 Arizona public school students found that charter students show annual achievement growth higher than their peers.

Virginia has only 5 charter schools. Policymakers could expand eligible chartering authorities to include independent boards, universities and even businesses, instead of limiting chartering authority to local school boards, who have no incentive to open the doors to competitors.

In Milwaukee, school choice has cut the high school dropout rate in half. Programs in Dayton, New York City, and Washington, D.C., show strong academic gains for children. No valid studies have found anything other than neutral to positive results for school choice. These reforms will help the Kaine administration reach its laudable goal of raising the "public education system from competence to excellence."

Preparing a child for school requires what it always has, and it's what millions of parents still do every day: talk, read or sing to, play with and love their children. I'd venture to guess that many parents still think they're the best people for that job, and they'd be right.

Darcy Olsen is President of the Goldwater Institute, a public policy research organization in Phoenix, Arizona. Ms. Olsen has a master's degree in international education from New York University.

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