How to make Pre-K work

Pre-K Can Work, writes Shepard Barbash in City Journal — but only it’s focused on disadvantaged children, uses effective teaching techniques and is held accountable for results. Unfortunately, the preschool expansion bills in Congress would fund the same, old programs that have show no lasting results.

Pre-K teachers learn that it’s not “developmentally appropriate practice” to seat children at desks; to give them worksheets; to make them work to master the alphabet, letter sounds, and math; to assess their academic skills (medical, dental, and nutrition assessments are okay); and to group them by skill level for instruction (because all children should receive equal treatment and because children learn as much from one another as they do from adults).

In the ’70s, Project Follow Through, a huge federally funded research project, examined nine preschool models. Only Direct Instruction “consistently accelerated the academic achievement of poor children,” Barbash writes. But DI violated the beliefs of early childhood educators, so the results were ignored.

The dominant preschool curricula “don’t show teachers how to teach oral language and phonological awareness the fast way,” he writes. That’s why pre-K hasn’t improved school performance in Georgia and Oklahoma, which have programs for years.

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Comments

  1. That sounds remarkably like sense. We should also try so very hard to remember that successful pre-K will not close the achievement gap. It will close the pre-K gap. Continue to give kids who start off with the least less of everything that matters in education, and the pre-K gains will be squandered.

  2. I suppose it is always possible that good pre-K programs could reverse the achievement gap, and this will almost certainly happen for some individuals assuming a large enough population. So then I’d guess we’d have to figure out where the political tipping point comes for good pre-K for all children.

  3. My toddler is learning to read. He does this by spelling out loud a word he sees, asking mom and dad what it is, being prompted by them to sound it out, sounding it out as best as he can, and then it’s said for him properly.

    the reason this works is because after every word he “reads”, he finds he already knows the word: “oh, “cobbler”, like where we get our shoes fixed”, ” oh, “escalator, I ride the escalator at the library!” “oh, “hot dog”, I like to eat hot dogs!”

    He knows the words. How in the world can children learn to read when they have no concepts to connect the written word to? How can they possibly overcome the cognitive load of learning a word, learning the pronunciation, spelling, meaning, and context all at once? How simple to read when you find out words are things you already know!

    a good Pre K will get these kids to 1st, or 2nd grade reading. but until something fixes their future grades so that these kids’ universe of experience with spoken word AND WITH LIFE is increased dramatically, exponentially, they will never learn the concepts fast enough behind the words they learn to “read” to keep up. they will always be behind.

  4. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Do any pre-K programs involve the parents so that what is accomplished in school can be reinforced at home?

  5. As far as involving parents/reinforcing at home, I don’t think that will help the most disadvantaged kids catch up to their advantaged peers. It may help some, but the most disadvantaged kids are likely to have parents (often never-married mom, with no father contact)that were themselves unsuccessful students, were drop-outs, have never held a job, are likely to abuse drugs/alcohol, may be involved with the criminal-justice system and generally have made/continue to make poor decisions across the board. In certain neighborhoods in the District of Columbia, no one has ever had a job or been married, for generations. In one study, the average age of the grandmothers was 34, and the youngest was 28. That is why the children are so ill-prepared for school/life success. Even if the parents are willing to help (and many say they value education), they don’t have the ability.

  6. momof4:

    If no one has had a job or been married for generations, where do they live and how do they eat? I don’t know if you have been paying attention to these things, but “welfare as we know it” was dramatically changed some time back, including such things as a work requirement to receive benefits and a life-time limit for benefits. I don’t deny that people are still poor–that was one thing that didn’t change–but odds are that someone has a job.

    But, yes, in fact, there are programs that involve parents–some better than others. I believe that Head Start has always had some components of parent involvement. I think that the general experience (all parents–not just low income) is that there is far greater involvement in the things that support reading than the things that support math (possibly due to public service efforts at encouraging parents to read at home, go to the library, etc). And, again, across parents of all income levels, involvement in school related learning declines from about 2nd grade, with a dramatic drop around middle school level.

    Among the programs that do well, with low SES populations, are ones that acknowledge that all parents have a contribution to made (even low SES ones) and build on that rather than being a one sided effort to tell parents what to do. Other things that are supportive are meeting with parents at home–where they are in charge. Again, there are some programs that do this.

  7. The Barbash article references the study that documents that 3-year-olds from professional families have a much larger vocabulary than the MOTHERS of 3-year-olds from welfare backgrounds, which illustrates the scope of the problem. Head Start and similar programs have done nothing to solve it, so more of the same philosophy won’t solve it either and there is heavy, well-entrenched and well-funded opposition to the one method that has been shown to work.

    There is more money/resources in the lowest SES communities than is often realized. Criminal sources provide significant money and various community/church sources (often funded by government) provide significant in-kind benefits. There is often a thriving barter economy, as well. This is not to say that there is not poverty unrelated to lack of work or criminal behavior.

    I’m not adverse to involving parents; I am just saying that there are limits on what they can realistically do.

  8. Allsion,

    In regards to your following comment, wouldn’t the ability to read open up new worlds? What do you think?

    a good Pre K will get these kids to 1st, or 2nd grade reading. but until something fixes their future grades so that these kids’ universe of experience with spoken word AND WITH LIFE is increased dramatically, exponentially, they will never learn the concepts fast enough behind the words they learn to “read” to keep up. they will always be behind.

  9. momof4:

    The Hart and Risley study that Barbash refers to was a very small study (a total of 6 welfare families were observed and a total of only 42 families overall). What there were observing was not the number of words that were known, but the amount of verbal interaction. There were differences, and they did make recommendations. The recommendations are not difficult to act on, mostly they have to do with developing a consciousness about asking questions and interacting with a child.

    Regarding the amount of money/resources in low income neighborhoods–not sure what your point is, but any time you want to come show me what I’ve been missing in the mostly low SES neighborhood that I live in, just let me know.

  10. –wouldn’t the ability to read open up new worlds? What do you think?

    Because in 2nd grade, the “average” kid who lacks conversational support at home is going to be able to go to the library by himself d learn about places and subjects he’s never heard of? You really think reading yourself picture books is going to open up the world?

    :iterature like Charlotte’s Web, or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Swiss Family Robinson, The Hobbit, etc. isn’t accessible to a 2nd grader on his own, but is when Mom or Dad is reading it to him at night. The world keeps getting larger for these kids’ peers, increasing their experiences, their vocabulary, their sophistication in the world, while these children are now stuck in a 2nd grade world. They only far farther and farther behind without that determined level of intervention. AND if you give that same level of intervention to the Hobbit reader, they will fly ahead even more.

  11. –The recommendations are not difficult to act on, mostly they have to do with developing a consciousness about asking questions and interacting with a child.

    Maybe it’s not difficult, but it’s light years away from where these families are or they wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.

  12. Allison:

    This is really only one factor of many. Uneven distribution of school resources certainly plays in, low expectations in the schools, differences in social capital. Point is–it is possible to impact interactions between parents and kids–and some have.

    I am not terribly convinced that we–as a society–are very interested in moving in a direction that would provide more equitable access to education (or anything else). We are very individualistic in our outlook. The downside of this is that those who have more are able to ensure that their kids have more. Those that have less pass this on as well. There are countries that have enacted policies to interrupt this kind of stratification. Public opinion frequently casts these policies as “freebies” that interfere with individual initiative. So–we have what we have.

  13. Allison,

    So you’re thinking that increased and sustained intervention is the approach public education should take?

  14. No, I think public education needs to again have one single goal: Society’s goals should be to indoctrinate all students into being good citizens by teaching liberal arts up to a certain level of mastery, by teaching the benefits of our constitutional republic, of pluralism, of free market principles, and individualism. I think it needs to teach to a certain standard for everyone. No “close the gap” issues–the gap can be wide between the top and that standard as long as the standard is sound. No relative issues. No more nonsense curricula. The public schools need to provide the liberals arts disciplines to a specific level of mastery without excuses.

  15. I see. When you mention liberal arts and sound standards, do you mean something like the Paideia proposal by Mortimer Adler et. al.?

  16. “I am not terribly convinced that we–as a society–are very interested in moving in a direction that would provide more equitable access to education”

    You’re darned right if that means leveling the playing field by bringing down the high-achievers. I’m not concerned about equality of OUTCOME (what the social justice folks seem to place their priority on) but rather equality of ACCESS. I want every child to have an education that will enable him or her to reach his or her own maximum potential. But that’s a very different goal than wanting education to eliminate socioeconomic stratification in our society.

    You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear…

  17. CW–you’re right, a narrow range of achievement is not an improvement if it is accomplished by moving the top down. Lifting the bottom, or raising the bottom faster than the top is the sort of thing that will get us to the levels achieved by some of the international leaders (Finland, Singapore, Canada). And yes, I would measure the outcomes as being a far more important indicator than the inputs. The inputs really have to be matched to need. Giving every kid a third grade reading book if some of them are reading at the fifth grade level isn’t going to get them all closer to their maximum potential (whatever that is). Neither is counting the number of kids in every class or the square footage of the buildings or the per student expenditure. These things are important–but again may be variable. A mismatch in any direction isn’t going to be helpful.

    I don’t want to disappoint you, but I think that this may result in some diminished social stratification (and increased social cohesion). I’m not sure why you want to hang on to that (it seems like one of those things we fought the Revolution to get away from). But I would be interested in how you would evaluate either ACCESS, or maximum potential.

  18. CW,

    Do you know if anyone has worked on how equality of access would be measured? This is a real question, I’m not just asking it for sake of argument. I’m really curious to learn more about how some of the difficulties might be resolved. Take one of the typical complaints, schools in neighborhoods where parents have low average incomes seem to have higher rates of teacher turnover. Hence those schools have less experienced teachers on average which could effect the quality of education. So one might think that measuring the experience of teachers would be one element of equality of access. I’m sure there are other aspects of teachers that are important not to mention all the other aspects of a quality education. In practical terms I’d guess there will always be some inequality of access to education because there are only so many best teachers who can only teach so many students. But I’m wondering how we can measure it so that we could ensure that it is basically random in a mathematical sense.