The perils of preschool
Back in 1970 I condemned “Sesame Street.” I’d never actually watched “Sesame Street,” but I was a college sophomore. I condemned thousands of things I knew nothing about.
On this issue, though, I think I was right. I figured 3-year-olds had better things to do than watch television and study the alphabet, like be 3-year-olds, and that children needed a little more experience in the real world before they took on the abstract world of numbers and letters.
In part, I based my position on the fact that the smartest kid in my kindergarten class only knew how to read “off” and “on” when he got there. In case you’re wondering, he did fine by our high school’s 20th-century standards, which means that if he’d been able to travel ahead in time, he would have put most smart, 21st-century, college-bound high school graduates to shame.
President Johnson disagreed with me about 3-year-olds. A few years earlier he’d established Head Start, which should have been named Catch Up because its purpose was to help poor kids — especially poor, urban, minority kids — catch up to middle-class kids who were more likely to grow up with two parents, more books, better health care and more education.
For nearly 50 years Head Start has provided preschool programs that introduce some of the “Sesame Street” numbers-and-letters stuff while focusing primarily on “social-emotional development,” social services and “helping kids feel secure and learn to play well with others.”
Unfortunately, according to critics, “one study after another” has suggested that Head Start “does nothing of lasting value to prepare them to read, write and do arithmetic.” Most data suggest that any “limited cognitive gains … vanish soon after or even before [participants] enter school.” Even the government’s own Head Start Impact Study found that gains “disappear by the end of second grade.”
This is a serious problem if your goal is to help poor kids catch up academically. It’s also a concern if you’re spending $8 billion, or $10,000 per child, per year. That’s close to the average cost of sending big kids to real school.
When President Bush proposed revamping Head Start to target “early reading skills” and retraining the program’s teachers, many of whom aren’t college graduates, so they could deliver “explicit instruction” in “the basics of literacy” like the alphabet, sounds, letter formation, and storytelling, many preschool practitioners rejected this heightened emphasis on the ABC’s and cognitive skills. One preschool director boasted that at her school “there are no letters or numbers on the wall to distract from [children’s] focused play.” The “only rule” is “the kids are in control.”
She was talking about 3- and 4-year-olds.
Meanwhile, other preschool specialists pointed to the practical obstacles that impede teaching letters and numbers to 4-year-olds “who aren’t potty-trained, who don’t know how to sit in a chair.”
President Obama, having confronted similar ongoing problems in “program quality,” announced in his State of the Union address his intention to “expand access to preschool” for all moderate- and low-income 4-year-olds, as well as to “Early Head Start” for children “from birth to age 3.”
The president maintains that these additional programs won’t add to the federal deficit. He further claims that “every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars” by “boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
Somewhere there’s undoubtedly a study that computed the seven-dollar figure. But like a Centers for Disease Control calculation that a 20-cent tax on six-packs of beer would lower teen gonorrhea rates by “8.9 percent,” the numbers and the conclusions are highly speculative. It’s rather unlikely that teenagers who are thinking of having sex will decide not to because it costs them each an extra dime or because they went to preschool.
It’s also unclear how after half a century of academically ineffective federal preschool initiatives, the president expects to establish significantly expanded, “high-quality” preschool programs without significantly increasing the federal budget for preschool programs.
Preparing children for kindergarten doesn’t mean a course in Russian novels. Experts’ suggestions for parents include basics like “Talk with your kids,” and “Read with them every day.” It’s also good for children to have “writing supplies” like paper and crayons. And it helps to “point out familiar letters” and “write their names” on things.
Yet simple though these basics may be, according to advocates, they apparently exceed the efforts or abilities of many parents. That’s why advocates argue that we need preschool programs like Head Start, Early Head Start, and even universal preschool to supply poor children “the language and reasoning skills that wealthy families pass on as a matter of course.”
They forget that millions of their own poor, immigrant, non-English speaking ancestors managed to advance their families without government preschools. On the other hand, it’s equally insupportable to charge that preschool advocates are part of some “communal,” “socialist scheme.”
Turning 3-year-olds into premature intellectuals makes me nervous, and dropping infants and toddlers off at an early childhood gladiator arena hardly qualifies as the ideal social environment. But the real peril of preschool initiatives lies in assuming the duties of those children’s parents.
Compensating for someone else’s irresponsibility is called “enabling.” At least that’s what social services providers call it when they’re talking about addiction and alcoholism. When they’re talking about child-rearing, and they’re the ones doing the compensating, they call it a “comprehensive early child-care system.”
Schools increasingly care for children from September through summer, from breakfast through dinner, from birth to adulthood. Do we really want to establish a system where parenthood begins and ends with the sex act, and family life takes place in the school’s multipurpose room?
All this comprehensive compensating doesn’t just affect the targeted families. Schools began serving breakfast because some kids came to school hungry. But now it isn’t just the hungry kids who line up for their morning meal. Other parents quickly concluded, “Why should I cook breakfast if the school will feed my kids for me?” The result is that many families actually became more like the families that were the problem.
Some advocates argue that if society doesn’t step in and raise these children right, nobody will. But it’s even more likely that if society does, their parents won’t.
And that’s an even greater peril than children who don’t know the alphabet.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.