What if there was a way to level the playing field for low-income black and Hispanic students relative to their white or wealthier counterparts, so much so that gaps in language comprehension and numeracy can often disappear by the start of kindergarten?
What if there was a way of increasing the rates of high-school completion and college attendance, and reducing the incidence of teenage parenthood, welfare dependence, and arrests.
There is a way, but it is often ignored and unappreciated.
A growing body of research suggests that when done right, preschool can achieve such lofty goals.
According to a New York Times magazine, the idea that we can deliberately influence the cognitive and social development of very young children is a fairly new one. In the early 20th century, some doctors considered intellectual stimulation so detrimental to infants that they routinely advised young mothers to avoid it. At the beginning of the 1960s, the prevailing wisdom was only slightly less dire. Trying to stimulate a very young mind wasn’t considered dangerous so much as pointless, because 0-to-4-year-olds were “concrete thinkers,” incapable of theorizing or abstraction.
But such thinking began to shift with two seminal preschool experiments: the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which began in 1962 in Ypsilanti, Mich., and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, which began in 1972 in and around Chapel Hill, N.C.
Decades later, however, when researchers went back, they found a surprise. At age 21, the Abecedarian children were half as likely to have been teenage parents and 2.5 times more likely to have enrolled in college than the control group, who did not attend preschool. At 40, the Perry children had higher median incomes than their control-group peers; they were less likely to be on welfare and less likely to have been arrested.
Both programs appeared to have affected the children in ways that could still be seen in adulthood.
In the decades since those results were published, the biological and social sciences have radically altered our understanding of early-childhood development. We now know that infants and toddlers have the capacity for complex thought. According to a recent report from the Institute of Medicine, they can understand other people’s intentions, reason about cause and effect and intuit the more basic aspects of addition and subtraction. We also know that the earliest years are a period of intense and rapid neural development — M.R.I. studies suggest that 80 percent of all neural connections form by age 3 — and that a child’s ability to capitalize on these years is directly related to her environment.
Scientists and educators have begun to build on this new understanding, creating pedagogy and designing curriculums around the needs of our earliest learners.
However, despite such realization, the benefits of a preschool education tend to manifest unevenly. Amid that uncertainty, though, at least two things seem clear: Children in low-income and minority neighborhoods stand to gain (or lose) the most from whatever preschool system we ultimately establish. And the one-on-one exchanges between students and teachers — what developmental psychologists call “process quality” — may well be the key to success or failure.
But if teachers are crucial to high-quality preschool, they are also its most neglected component. Preschool teachers earn as little as $28,500 a year on average, well below K-12 teachers, who, according to the most recent national survey, earn roughly $53,100 a year.
In the United States, the care of children who have not yet aged into public school has long run on two tracks, separated mostly by household income. The upper-and-middle-income track was designed specifically to engage and nourish young minds at their ripest juncture. The low-income track originated in the social-welfare system; its programs were created not just for children but also for their mothers, who needed to work. As such, they tend to be larger and staffed by teachers with high-school diplomas. They also tend to be chronically underfunded.
Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, notes, that “there’s specialized knowledge that preschool teachers need that’s different even from what kindergarten and first-grade teachers need”, and believes that the ability to guide preschoolers through this stage of development takes a college degree.
But many current preschool teachers could not afford to get a college degree, so it creates a funding dilemma.
One of the reasons I am a fan of Philly’s soda tax is that a significant amount of those additional proceeds are going to preschool. That seems like a perfect use of such funds.
A successful preschool teacher needs to make her students feel safe and help them understand their emotions and regulate their own behavior. Creating such an environment is difficult if there is a lot of staff turnover, which is the norm for preschools.
Fortunately, there are many experiments taking place around the country, both in terms of teacher preparation as well as teaching methodologies.
My wife is a preschool teacher, and she is the type of teacher who makes her students feel safe and help them understand their emotions and regulate their own behavior. My wife also went through a post-bachelors degree program to prepare her for teaching young children.
And through my wife, and many of her teaching colleagues, I have witnessed the benefits of having a knowledgeable, caring preschool teacher.
But my sense, after reading this NYT Magazine article is that there are not enough teachers that have the educational background and personality of my wife.
So if the above initiatives don’t pan out, then I have another suggestion.
Look into cloning my wife. Young kids, and eventually, our country, will be better as a result.