A Berkeley professor says preschoolers need the academic skills parents are rebelling against

Hit the books, Captain America.
Hit the books, Captain America.
Image: Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez
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For parents with means, selecting a preschool can feel nearly as onerous as choosing a college. Elite and competitive preschools abound, especially in the US, with parents picking apart their pedagogies—Reggio Emilia or Montessori? Waldorf or YMCA?—to figure out which might later clinch their child’s academic success (and make them happy, well-rounded human beings).

These parents don’t have much to go on, since most research about preschool learning has centered on disadvantaged children. There is a wide gap in knowledge—about a full school year—between low-income kids and their highest-income peers at the start of kindergarten, and we know that well-designed preschools with trained teachers help close that gap. But a new study from Bruce Fuller from the University of California-Berkeley looks specifically at how a focus on academic preschools—those where teachers use more language, pre-literacy activities and skills, and math concepts—can affect both low-income and middle-class children.

“For the first time we can finally detect larger effects from pre-k on middle class populations,” said Fuller, a professor of education and public policy, who directed the research.

The research introduces a new wrinkle in a charged debate about what kind of preschool kids really need: Is it more child-directed programs, like Montessori, where kids get messy, and learn through play? Or do academic-based programs that focus more on pre-literacy and math skills set children up better to face the challenges of kindergarten and beyond? Fuller and his team found that, to varying degrees, the programs that emphasized math, language, and literacy boosted the average child’s cognitive skills, relative to those who stayed at home. And it gave a bigger boost than previously shown to disadvantaged kids, the ones who need it the most.

The debate

In the mid 1980s, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, psychologists who lived in Kansas, studied how 42 families spoke to their children. The sample was small, but they tracked the families—who were from welfare homes, working-class homes and professional homes—for three years. They found that the professionals’ children were exposed to an average of more than 1,500 more spoken words per hour than kids in the welfare homes. That’s 8 million words a year, by age four, rich kids had a 32 million-word gap advantage over poor kids.

The 32 million-word gap has become a short-hand way to explain an achievement gap that starts young, and is stubbornly persistent. It is among the arguments underpinning programs like Head Start and universal pre-kindergarten, which have gained momentum in the US, including in places like New York City where mayor Bill de Blasio announced last month that he intended to expand the program for four-year-olds to three-year-olds.

But others argue the push for more academic pre-K is overwrought. Kids are expected to sit for longer and focus on more academic tasks, relegating play to recess time. According to Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, 80% of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten in 2001, up from 30% in 1998.

Many Head Start programs and pre-kindergartens have been designed to better prepare kids for school, leading some educators to wonder if too much academic pressure on children could be crowding out play, and critical social and emotional skills children also need, including emotional regulation, perseverance, and empathy.

These advocates argue the development of these skills underpins the academic ones, enabling or unleashing them: A child who cannot control his/her emotions cannot learn; a child who is hungry, or does not feel he/she belongs, or who lacks in love and care will have a harder time learning.

When children reach the age of three, they are not only rapidly developing thinking skills that are important predictors of academic success in school, but also developing life skills (pdf) like how to work in a group, stay on task, and control one’s emotions. Randa Grob-Zakhary, global head of education for PORTICUS, an international philanthropic organization, told Quartz:

When children reach the age of three, they are already robustly developing areas key to executive functions, the critical cognitive processes that are important predictors of success in school, such as problem-solving, sustaining attention, planning and directing activities, and monitoring performance.

Many developmental psychologists and progressive educators share the belief that too much academics too soon can squash a childhood, which should be protected for child-led inquiry and imagination. Peter Gray, a psychologist, wrote: “My hypothesis is that the generational increases in externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by the decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time and weight given to schooling.”

The class gap

This is a very class-based debate. Rich parents send their kids to Montessori programs, or Emilio Reggio programs in part because they think their kids deserve a childhood, but also because they can rest assured that if they get to first grade and they are behind in math, the parents will find a way to close that gap (private school, tutors, apps, flashcards, coding camp). For kids who start behind, that gap can persist, or grow. Also, high-quality Montessori programs weave in academic skills, but in ways that appeal to children’s interests at age three or four, rather than what schools think they need to know.

But Greg Duncan, a professor of education of University of California Irvine says the class gap is too big to ignore.”I can’t get around the implication of this starting a year behind and never catching up, a fact that turns up in all the data sets we look at.” All schools should, theoretically, act as equalizing agents, he says, reducing the education gaps of disadvantaged children throughout a student’s life. But they don’t: The gaps “are pretty much preserved,” he said.

The study 

Fuller and his team tracked 6,150 youngsters born in 2001 and tracked from birth to 5 years of age. They looked at kids who were exposed to more academically oriented preschools—where teachers spent more time on oral language, pre-literacy skills, and knowledge of mathematical concepts—and kids who stayed home, and measured how each group fared on cognitive and social and emotional skills at age four and then again at five.

Academic preschool benefitted black children from low-income families the most, accelerating their pre-literacy and math skills by over four months in knowledge of math concepts, relative to kids who remained at home through age four.

The average American child made gains too, with those attending the academic programs for a year outperforming those who went to less academic preschools by about two-and-a-half months of learning in literacy and math. There were no gains or losses on social and emotional factors, the researchers found. The benefits persisted through the end of kindergarten, but were not measured beyond, to see whether they faded out over time (which other research has shown).

Middle ground

Both Fuller and Duncan were quick to point out that no one is calling for three or four-year olds to be doing worksheets (which are typical of teacher-directed rather than child-led learning).

For preschool-aged kids, a successful math curriculum like Building Blocks is not overly time-consuming (20 minutes of supplemental activities a day), and “is built on the notion that kids learn through play,” says Duncan. The teacher uses a puppet called Mr. Mix Up, and Mr Mix up mixes up a lot of math problems. Kids have to correct it, which is something young children delight in doing.

Fuller agrees. “Rich language, pre-literacy skills, getting kids familiar with kids books, introducing math skills, they all have to be couched in activities that are fun and engaging with kids.”

Both argue that there is no evidence that kids suffer emotionally from more academic programs, and they say there is ample evidence that poor kids in particular benefit academically. Since the bigger gap is in academic skills, that is the one we should be trying to close, says Duncan.

The results are not likely to challenge the beliefs of wealthy parents who gravitate toward play-based programs. The programs they embrace are more likely to pull off the difficult balance of giving kids enough structure to learn and enough freedom to explore. “It works well if you have a teacher who can pull it off,” says Duncan. “That’s a difficult thing to do.”

But too many programs do not accomplish that, says Fuller, and disadvantaged kids suffer the most. “Dressing up as a firefighter may be cool and fun, but it lacks cognitive challenge and rich language, it lacks really tapping into the potential of kids cognitive and mental development.”