The childhoods of the urban students who are the participants in my dissertation study, whose voices I listened to for many months, were mostly filled with adversity, trauma, and instability. Among these students were teenagers whose parents had been in prison for much of their lives, were barely in high school themselves when they were born, who had long histories of physical or substance abuse. Many of these teenagers were raised by a mix of grandparents and extended family and other siblings, and they had siblings living in multiple households.
One teenage girl — I’ll her Sarah — met me at a coffee house and apologized profusely for bringing her young brother. Sarah had been primarily responsible for the care of her younger siblings — all of whom had different fathers — for much of her life, and her mom had been a very young teenager when Sarah was born. Both of Sarah’s parents had suffered from mental health issues and addiction problems, never graduated from high school, and her father was not an active part of her life.
In my last post, I criticized what the American classroom is like for many students and argued in favor of the potential of homeschooling for many families to address these challenges.
However, today I’m going to argue that preschool — not homeschool — is necessary for millions of preschool children like Sarah (but not necessarily for every child) and why Obama is on the right track when he called for more funding and research of early childhood programs.
Blogger Penelope Trunk responded to Obama’s proposed pre-K program by arguing that children would be better off as homeschooled during their early years, since early childhood education is both unwanted by many parents and does not address kids’ needs. In her words, universal early childhood programs are “bad for everyone.”
This is simply not the case. There are millions of children like Sarah across the country, whose parents are not good candidates for homeschooling, children whose families’ experiences include intergenerational poverty, addiction, crime, mobility between households, and lack of basic literacy skills. They begin life born into families dominated by risk factors — crime in their neighborhoods, inadequate nutrition, poor health care — that can quickly overwhelm their potential.
Trunk posits a false dichotomy between “play-based” and “academic” early childhood programs that is not present at all in the research literature. As a research fellow for a nonprofit, I worked for a year helping to write a report evaluating the field of early childhood education in Massachusetts and researching the amazing work that early childhood programs across the state were doing with children. We interviewed dozens of early childhood experts, at Harvard and other local universities, as well as educators, advocates, public officials, and administrators.
And what we found is that quality early childhood education is absolutely critical to not only the academic potential of children from high-risk backgrounds but also their emotional and social development. Here are a few facts about early childhood development that Trunk, and other critics of Obama’s program, may be overlooking:
- Early childhood is the most important period for determining how a brain responds to stress. For millions of children, their home environment — and the adversity experienced within it — are toxic enough literally to change the neural pathways in the brain. As Paul Tough has argued in his recent How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, early exposure to the stressors often found in low-income or high-stress homes — economic insecurity, abuse, neglect, insecure relationships with the primary caregiver — can have lasting effects on brain development, contributing to academic struggles, anxiety, learning disabilities, and psychological disorders.
As Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic writes, “neuroscience has helped to provide a theory for why [certain early childhood] programs were so successful: The first few years of life turn out to have massive, nearly permanent effects on the actual architecture of the brain. It’s not just the acquisition of vocabulary or knowledge of multiplication tables….it’s also the ability to block out distraction, to control impulses, and to deal with anxiety—the ‘soft skills’ people need to navigate life.”
- Thus, high quality early childhood programs emphasize non-cognitive as well as cognitive skills. Many people are aware of the famous study that concluded that a low-income child has heard 30 million fewer words than his middle and higher income peers. The impact of exposure to literacy and sustained vocabulary development in the home is staggering. But what is less talked about is how phenomenal preschool programs strive to teach the types of noncognitive strategies that millions of children would not be exposed to anywhere else. Famous preschool programs such as the Perry Preschool Project did not transform kids’ lives because they focused on “intelligence” testing or schedules or any sort of regimented educational program. Instead, they focused on the development of relationships, behavior, and social development, which were missing in the home. They learned about impulse control, curiosity, and perseverance. While there are many legitimate criticisms of federal preschool programs such as Head Start, these smaller programs have made a difference in preventing deliquency, drop-outs, and criminal behavior.
- And high-quality programs that are trying to make a difference in the lives of kids facing significant adversities achieve this through play and other child-centered ways. Of course, we should be skeptical of any preschool that is just trying to stuff kids’ minds with information or are mind-numbingly boring for children because of their structure or routines. But this is not what the early childhood experts whom Obama consulted are advocating.
There are very real, unanswered questions about Obama’s plan that others have pointed out, such as:
- Should there be universal preschool all American children in the first place? There may actually be no demonstrable benefits for children of well-educated, middle class parents. Early childhood programs do a great job at compensating for the things that middle class parents do anyway. The subtitle of a recent Slate article was indeed: “The Early Education Racket: If You’re Reading This, Your Kid Probably Doesn’t Need Preschool.”
- How is it possible to scale small, high-quality programs? Small programs have great track records, large ones don’t. This is the same issue that K-12 education faces; how do you scale the results of individual schools and programs doing miraculous work?
- How much will Obama’s proposal cost?
- How will these programs be administered, at the federal, state, or local level?
As Matt Yglelias says, preschool is no “magic wand.” We should definitely keep that in mind before funding and implementing large-scale programs of no provable benefit to kids. However, Obama’s plan calls for “experimentation” to discover what approaches work best and why in different states and in different settings.
More than 30 million children in this country live in low-income households or in poverty. Children under 18 comprise nearly 35% of all the people who are now living in poverty.
But we can’t even get to addressing these basic facts about poverty or to answering fundamental questions about Obama’s plan if we’re still talking about whether it’s in our best interests as a country for kids from at-risk households to have access to early childhood education. Or whether women should even be working full-time jobs or demanding careers in the first place. Or whether it’s a good thing that the United States invests fewer resources in early childhood education than other advanced democracies.
From what I’m learning about homeschooling families, their concerns are about doing what’s best for their kids and their families, and — once they’ve decided what that choice is — having the freedom and support to do that without any interference from the government or state mandates.
By emphasizing that preschool is important for many children, we should not be saying that all forms of early childhood education — at home or at school — is right for all children. And the skepticism that I hear from homeschooling families about the current state of public education is certainly deserved. But that does not mean that public educational programs, particularly preschool, cannot be fundamentally transformative to the lives of millions of children, particularly the youngest and most vulnerable. And every taxpayer benefits from the long-term effects of quality early childhood education: fewer prison inmates, prevention of criminal activity, decreased tax spending on remediation and special education services. And by painting the life-altering results of effective public interventions such as early childhood education with such broad, uncritical strokes, as Trunk does, we may help to deny opportunities to children — like Sarah — whose futures are most in peril.