Here we go again.
Last week, Dale Farran and a team of researchers at the University of Tennessee concluded that preschool education gets kids off to a great academic start, but by the end of kindergarten the results start to wear off. And, by the end of second grade you can’t even tell that the kids had attended preschool or not.
That suggests that preschool education is a lousy investment—if the goal is to improve students’ later reading and math achievement.
The same kind of findings resulted a couple years ago in a similar study of Head Start. Good initial payoff, but no lasting value.
Over the past few days there have been lots of post-mortems of these findings. The press has interviewed various experts and many have focused on the same concern: the quality of this specific preschool program.
But as Dr. Farran points out, these preschool experiences must have been darn good. Remember, these children were initially doing better than the other kindergarten kids on lots of measures.
I think the experts are looking in the wrong direction.
Our system of education, both formally and informally, aims at the bottom, with a clear goal of trying to raise the lowest kids up. Kindergartners and first-graders are tested to identify those who need extra help. Then Title I reading support kicks in; not for everybody, but for the strugglers.
If the children who experienced preschool are generally in the top half of the distribution when they enter kindergarten, schools are going to work hard at trying to close the gap. They’ll address it by giving the lower achieving kids (the ones who didn't attend preschool) more instruction to try to close the gap. This isn't some weird response by individual teachers. It is public policy. The lower achieving kids--that would mean the ones without preschool will get Title I, RtI, Reading Recovery, after school interventions, and summer school.
What will the higher achieving kids get while this is going on? Probably not very much. If they enter kindergarten already knowing their letter sounds or able to segment words phonemically, then they are likely to get more work with those same concepts. [I remember my oldest daughter, who could read when she entered school, being surprised that they were going to teach her the letter names—despite the fact that she had known them for years.]
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Dolores Durkin documented it back in the 1970s. She taught a bunch of preschoolers to read then followed them through second grade. Each year the schools retaught these kids skills they had mastered long ago, until eventually the other kids caught up.
Some people think that early teaching changes kids cognitively, making them smarter. If it worked that way, the early benefits wouldn’t wash out, even given these policies and programs.
But I think preschool helps because it gives kids extra time to learn specific knowledge and abilities, like numbers and addition or letter sounds and high frequency words. They don’t lose this knowledge once its gained, but if they have no opportunity to add to it, then the other kids simply catch up, making it look like the preschool time was wasted.
If we were really serious about early childhood education making a long-term difference in children’s literacy achievement, we would change primary grade reading curricula to allow these kids to keep progressing from where they are when they enter kindergarten—rather than reteaching the same skills again and again, as if they had not been in preschool, and giving all the extra tuition to the kids they accelerated ahead of.
If you want preschool to be effective, take a close look at what is going to happen to these children when they leave preschool. Given that their skill levels are generally so advanced, one would expect to find a more advanced curriculum aimed at these kids. But I bet you won't find one.