Preschool kids work more, learn less

Preschool won’t close the achievement gap as long as teachers focus on kindergarten prep and neglect conversation, writes Erika Christakis in The Atlantic. “Today’s young children are working more, but they’re learning less,” she argues.

“A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool,” she writes.

Four-year-olds are asked to sit still and complete pencil-and-paper tasks that are beyond their motor skills and attention spans, writes Christakis. But it doesn’t work.

One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes,” Christakis points out.

A Vanderbilt study found low-income children who attended Tennessee’s publicly funded preschools started kindergarten with more “school readiness” skills than a control group. By first grade, teachers rated the preschool grads as “less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” the researchers write. They blame burn out.

The average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” estimates Robert Pianta, a leading child policy expert. Research suggests higher-quality preschools could cut the gap by 30 to 50 percent, he writes.

Quality preschools “provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language,” writes Christakis.

. . . their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

. . . In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

Conversation is the golden key, she writes.

More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

The article comes from her book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.

If the name sounds familiar, it is. As associate master of a Yale college, Christakis wrote an email saying that college students could pick their own Halloween costumes. Under heavy fire for racial insensitivity, she resigned her teaching job at Yale citing a “climate” on campus that is not “conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”

U.S. lags in preschool, college graduation

The U.S. is falling behind the world in college-educated workers, concludes a OECD report on education in 46 countries. “The U.S. hasn’t backslid, but other countries have made big gains,”  OECD Education Director Andreas Schleicher said.

In the past, the U.S. ranked second in the world in the percentage of adults with postsecondary vocational or academic education. Today, the U.S. has slipped to fifth position.

South Korea leads the world: nearly 70 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are college educated. Only 46 percent of young U.S. workers have earned a certificate or degree.

The U.S. is not on track to meet President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college-educated workers by 2020. College graduation rates are falling. according to a new report. Among students who started college in 2009, the year Obama launched his college campaign, only 53 percent had graduated in six years.

College enrollment rates have fallen since 2008, especially for low-income students. In 2013, just 46 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions, according to Census data.

More than 70 percent of young children attend preschool in OECD countries, compared to 41 percent of U.S. 3-year-olds and 66 percent of 4-year-olds. “It’s an area where the U.S. trails quite a bit behind,” said Schleicher.

Tantrums in the quad

“Halloween – traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people – is also an occasion for adults to exert their control,” wrote Erika Christakis, wife of a house master at Yale, in an email that inflamed  students.

Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

. . . Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.

Writing as a child development specialist, she asked: “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?”

She asked: Do you want to be treated like babies? A large number said: Yes, we do.

Nicholas Christakis listened to angry students, but told them he disagreed. “It’s not about creating an intellectual space,” a student shrieked. “It’s about creating a home.”

Overprotective parents are raising “fragile” kids who need an authority figure to settle any conflict, writes Jonah Goldberg.

When kids play, they have to “negotiate rules among themselves,” he writes. Parents or teachers may “short-circuit that process by constantly intervening to stop bullying or just to make sure that everyone plays nice.”

In Japan, preschoolers learn to work out their conflicts, writes author Alan Jacobs (no relation). Teachers watch but don’t intervene, even if children are fighting, unless it’s necessary.

Imagine if university students were “dependent on authorities to ease every instance of social friction,” Jacobs writes. “What a mess that would be.”

Yale’s “idiot children” tried to shout down a panel on freedom of speech, writes Kevin D. Williamson. Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education had said that students hysterical about the Halloween e-mail were acting as though Professor Christakis had burned down an Indian village.

“Genocide is not a joke!” they screamed.

“Yale doesn’t make them into hysterical ninnies,” concludes Williamson. “Their families do.”

Hans Bader’s roundup uses “cry-bullies,” which I think is an apt term.

We Dissent is a gutsy editorial in the Claremont Independent attacking the “spoiled brats” who forced a Claremont-McKenna dean to resign for a well-intentioned but poorly worded email.


‘Pay for success’ preschool gains are iffy

Students in a preschool program in Utah meant to help kindergartners avoid special education. Credit: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

A  “pay for success” preschool program in Utah helped 99 percent of high-risk children avoid special education in kindergarten, Salt Lake County officials announced last month. Investors who bought “social-impact bonds” to fund the program received a $260,000 payout, representing a share of the district’s savings on special education. They’ll get more in coming years, potentially making a profit.

Results are too good to be true, early-education experts tell the New York Times.

Even well-funded preschool programs — and the Utah program was not well funded — have been found to reduce the number of students needing special education by, at most, 50 percent. Most programs yield a reduction of closer to 10 or 20 percent.

It’s either “a miracle, or these kids weren’t in line for special education in the first place,” said Clive Belfield, an economics professor who studies early childhood education.

It seems clear that “miracle” is not the right answer.

The school district used a picture and vocabulary test called the PPVT to screen the incoming preschoolers. Those who scored below 70 — 30 to 40 percent of children over three years — were labeled likely to need special education.

“To just assume that all these children would have gone to special education is kind of ridiculous,” said Ellen S. Peisner-Feinberg, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

The test rarely is used to screen for disabilities, especially when used alone. Furthermore, 30 to 50 percent of the preschoolers may have scored poorly because they were not fluent in English.

Study: Kindergarten ‘red shirting’ works

Delaying kindergarten for one year dramatically reduced inattention and hyperactivity at age 11, according to The Gift of Time, a Stanford study.

The study was conducted in Denmark, where children enroll in kindergarten in the calendar year they turn six.  Those born in December are 5 3/4 when they start kindergarten; those born in January are 6 3/4.

Children glue leaves on paper for an art project in a Danish kindergarten class.

Danish kindergartners work on an art project using leaves.

Danish children can go to “reasonably good” preschool programs, said Thomas Dee, a Stanford education professor and co-author of the study. Delaying kindergarten may not benefit children who don’t have access to good pre-K.

About 20 percent of U.S. children now start kindergarten at age six instead of age five, researchers found. Most of the increase is due to “redshirting.” Parents want their child — especially a boy — to be more mature.

“It’s not just a question of when do you start kindergarten, but what do you do in those kindergarten classes?” Dee said. “If you make kindergarten the new first grade, then parents may sensibly decide to delay entry.”

Preschool pays — for kids and investors

First graders play during recess. Photo: Chris Detrick, Salt Lake Tribune

“Pay for Success” is succeeding in Salt Lake City. Expanding preschool cut special-ed spending dramatically. Most of the savings will go to repay investors who funded the expansion, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.

Private funding allowed about 600 students to enroll in public and private preschool programs in 2013. Of those students, 110 4-year-olds were expected to need special education during their kindergarten year.

But only one of the students — who are now in the first grade — has required special education, which translates to about $281,000 in cost avoidance for Utah’s public education system.

Goldman Sachs and J.B. Pritzker committed $7 million to the pay-for-success program.

United Way of Salt Lake has cut a check for $267,000 to cover 95 percent of the first-year savings.

Once investors are repaid, with interest, they’ll receive 40 percent of ongoing cost savings until the participating students complete sixth grade.

An Pay for Success project that tried to reduce recidivism at New York City’s Riker’s Island jail failed this summer, notes the New York Times. Goldman Sachs lost its money. The project was canceled.

Pay for what works

Salt Lake City uses social-impact bonds to fund high-quality preschool for at-risk children.

There’s a wild and crazy idea in funding social programs, writes AEI’s Katharine B. Stevens: Pay for what works — and stop paying for ideas that don’t work.

New York’s Rikers Island Jail tried a program to reduce youth recidivism that worked elsewhere, but failed at Rikers. Thanks to Pay for Success, also known as social-impact- bonds, it was evaluated rigorously and lost funding when it proved ineffective. Other ways of keeping juveniles out of jail will be explored.

Less than 1 percent of billions of public dollars spent annually on social services goes to programs that have evidence of actually accomplishing their goals,” writes Stevens. What’s unusual is that an idea was tried — and abandoned — without any cost to taxpayers.

1. The government and investors work together to find a social service provider with a rigorously-documented track record of success that proves their program is worth investing in.

2. Investors pay that service provider to run a scale-up of the program, aiming to improve specific, agreed-on outcomes for a defined group of at-risk individuals.

3. After the program is implemented for several years, the results are evaluated to see if the program achieved its goals.

4. If, and only if, the program is proven successful, the government pays investors back their original investment plus “success payments” out of the taxpayer dollars saved by preventing expensive problems that would have occurred without the program.

5. If the program isn’t successful, like Rikers Island, the government pays nothing and the program is closed.

Two private investors, Goldman Sachs and J.B. Pritzker, have put $6.8 million into the Utah High Quality Preschool Initiative. If Utah saves money on special education for preschool graduates, the state will use the savings to repay the investors.

Six Pay For Success projects have been approved so far and more are in the pipeline, writes Stevens. All are focused on preventing problems.

What’s a rhombus? Ask a 4-year-old

Cheryle Chewning leads a discussion about shapes with her pre-K class at P.S. 93 in New York City. Photo: Steve Remich, Wall Street Journal

Some preschools are teaching math, reports John Higgins in the Seattle Times.

On a recent morning in South Seattle, Kristin Alfonzo challenged her preschoolers to make the number 7 using beads strung across two rows of pipe cleaners. One 5-year-old boy slid four beads across the top and three across the bottom. Another did the reverse, and one kid pushed all seven on one row. “I see many different ways of making 7!” Alfonzo said over the ruckus of kids counting out loud.

Research shows students who start out behind in math rarely catch up, writes Higgins. Seattle educators hope introducing math in preschool — in a playful way — will prepare children to be successful in elementary school.

Statewide, only 53 percent of children arrive in kindergarten with basic math skills. At South Shore PreK-8, where almost two-thirds of students live in lower-income families, 95 percent learn entry-level math skills in pre-kindergarten.

Boston’s city-run preschools use the play-based Building Blocks math  curriculum, which includes geometry.

In a game called “feely box,” the teacher puts a thin foam shape in a box with holes on two sides.

“It has four L [right] angles and four sides,” said Hoang-Son, a boy at Everett Elementary, as he cupped his hand around a rhombus.

“Can you tell us anything else about the sides?” asked his teacher, Sara Gardner.

“All the sides are the same length,” he said.

Someone guessed correctly that it was a square, but Gardner pushed for more, until Hoang-Son confirmed that the equal sides meant it was a rhombus, too.

I learned what a “rhombus” was in seventh grade.

New York City will spend $6 million to roll out Building Blocks in free preschool classes, reports the Wall Street Journal. Preschools will be given “books, related games and seven days of training, plus coaching.”

At P.S. 93 in the Bronx, teacher Gabriela Yildirim “held up a moose puppet named Mr. Mix-up and challenged him to look at several shapes to find one with two parallel lines.” After the moose picked a triangle, the children corrected him. “A trapezoid!” they said.

Yes, trapezoids came up in seventh grade for me.

Still, early learning may not stick. A 2011 study of Building Blocks found “very few differences at the end of kindergarten, and virtually none at the end of first grade.” Researchers speculated that children’s preschool math gains vanished because “primary grade curricula and teachers do not build” on what they’d learned.

Hearing test predicts reading woes

The Associated Press

Testing how well preschoolers can recognize sounds such as “dah” predicts reading difficulties, according to a Northwestern study published in PLOS Biology.

Early intervention could help children develop their auditory processing skills, said senior author Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

The new study used an EEG to directly measure the brain’s response to sound, attaching electrodes to children’s scalps and recording the patterns of electric activity as nerve cells fired. The youngsters sat still to watch a video of their choice, listening to the soundtrack in one ear while an earpiece in the other periodically piped in the sound “dah” superimposed over a babble of talking.

The 30-minute test predicted how well 3-year-olds performed a language-development skill and how those same youngsters fared a year later on several standard pre-reading assessments, the team reported.

In tests of older children, the EEG scores correlated with their reading competence.

Big Bird vs. preschool

Watching Sesame Street appears to help disadvantaged children get off to a good start in school, according to a new study. In the program’s early years, when it wasn’t available in all areas, children who had a chance to meet Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie were less likely to be held back in school.

The effect was stronger for boys, blacks and children living in low-income areas.

Watching Sesame Street was as effective at improving academic readiness as attending preschool, researchers Phillip Levine and Melissa Kearney told the Washington Post.

However, preschool teaches important social and emotional skills, they said.

Big Bird can’t close the achievement gap, responds Sam Chaltain. “The problems that beset poor children run a lot deeper than the 30 million word gap,” he writes.

Improvements in school readiness didn’t affect high school graduation rates, college enrollment or success in the job market, the study found. Big Bird’s fans weren’t any more likely to escape poverty as adults.

Of course, fade-out is the primary problem with Head Start. Readiness isn’t everything.

Head Start will move to a full-day, year-round program, reports Ed Central. Tat will be very expensive. The feds want to do less micromanaging — but also want to require more home visiting, higher attendance rates and limits on suspension of children with behavior issues.