As Federalist editor Joy Pullmann recently reported, a new study of the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K Program (VPK) showed that preschool failed to help students succeed in elementary school and even hindered them in some cases. While the kids enrolled made academic gains at the beginning, these gains disappeared by the time the kids reached second and third grade. Moreover, the VPK students got into trouble more often, and more of them required special education services.
Other studies on preschools have shown the same discouraging pattern: students in preschool seemed to make greater learning progress than kids who stayed at home, but this advantage dissolved. Preschooled children eventually sink to the middle or towards the bottom of the class a few years later — their preschooling just “faded out.”
Clearly, this indicates pre-K programs do not help children enough to justify their time and expense, but that does not stop political and educational leaders from insisting otherwise. They can simply reject the evidence.
Regarding the VPK results, critics could claim that a whole multitude of other factors besides preschool caused the kids to decline in performance later on — bad parents, poverty, disability, incompetent educators, systemic prejudice, etc. Or, they could claim that the preschool actually prevented even worse performance that would have followed without it. Or, they could question the study’s values and criteria and maintain that the kids actually benefited. Or, as they did in this case, they could suppress the study by refusing to publish it, and ignore it after it is published.
Without a good explanation of why these studies work out the way they do, they will inevitably fail to make much of a dent in education policy. On the surface, giving kids a head start with their education should help them. Placing kids in the care of trained professional with abundant resources instead of an uneducated parent with bad habits should reverse their downward life trajectory entirely. Why doesn’t this work? Common sense screams that it should.
Human Beings Are Not Machines
In reality, common sense shows why preschool does little for a kid’s learning and may even inhibit it. What seems to elude the experts and partisans for universal daycare is that children are developing human beings, not circus animals or computers. A child learning to perform a trick like saying the alphabet or counting to ten in does not equate to actual human learning, nor does a child become smarter from having additional time to “download” knowledge.
Rather, a child’s cognition develops over time, and he will learn whatever his growing brain allows him to learn at that moment. Particularly in the early stages of life, nature will dictate how much an individual can learn, and no strategy or setting can really change this — except for the worse.
Parents of young toddlers can attest to this. They may have a one-year-old who cannot walk yet while another couple has a one-year-old who can. While it seems like a big difference at the moment, something that might give a huge advantage to the child who can walk earlier and explore more, it means nothing of the sort. In most cases by the time the two children reach two, they will both have the same mobility and same knowledge of their respective settings.
The same happens with learning to speak. A child who learns to speak earlier than another does not continue to have this verbal superiority forever afterward. The other will eventually start talking as well, and there will hardly be a difference in their verbal skills by the time they are four-year-olds. The habits they develop by that time will determine how much the progress they continue to make, not the point at which they started.
In both cases, the child’s brain reaches a point in its maturation that allows for a milestone like walking or talking. This process cannot be accelerated or enhanced; it will happen when it happens. A mother can waste money on Baby Einstein and all sorts of “educational” toys and programing, but her little toddler will not walk or talk until his cognitive development allows it.
Maturity Doesn’t Come on a Rigid Schedule
The great psychologist Jean Piaget explained this phenomenon in great detail nearly a century ago. He identified the stages of cognition that a person experiences from birth to adulthood. As the brain matured, its sensory input would change, its reasoning would change, and its whole understanding would change.
This means that people at different levels of cognition experience things completely differently. A one-year-old watching a television program sees colors, shapes, movements, and sounds while a three-year-old sees characters, a storyline, a song, and a lesson. The one-year-old has no way of understanding the content on the screen and will easily confuse it for reality — which is probably why pediatricians discourage babies watching television before they are two years old.
Piaget’s work goes a long way to explain the futility of most preschool programs, which tend to teach kids the wrong things at the wrong time. Unfortunately, most educators will favor Pavlov over Piaget and continue using behavioral conditioning techniques to force visible results. Thus, a preschool student will be given treats to sing songs about numbers and shapes, which looks like evidence of learning, but his mind will only understand these concepts properly later on — usually around second or third grade.
Even if he had not memorized these songs and did these activities in preschool, he would still learn them just the same when he reached the appropriate age. This explains why preschool students ultimately have the same success as students not in preschool after a few years. They essentially performed tricks that looked like learning (like Pavlov’s dog, who slobbered when hearing the bell), but they did not actually learn concepts and skills that could assist them in future classes.
Conditioned Responses Are Not Substantive Learning
Some might argue that learning tricks with a teacher can still help a child with basic skills like listening to directions, following a schedule, cultivating discipline, and socializing with peers. This is debatable for two reasons: (1) children learn these “skills” without schooling, and (2) they usually learn them much better without schooling.
Like an athlete who learns a sport better by playing it than watching it played, a child learns basic manners and chores better through practicing them freely and naturally than through passively listening to a teacher talk about it. Later on, when the basic skills are established, the athlete might learn to perfect his technique through watching professionals play, just as an older child might learn abstract concepts by taking notes and listening to a teacher.
The restrictive environment of preschool also accounts for an increase in misbehavior and learning disabilities. By hindering the acquisition of basic life skills in favor of skipping to advanced academic concepts, it smothers natural curiosity and creativity.
Such a student becomes like a man who hates his job because he never had a passion for it and thus never learned how to do it well. This man will complain, need extra supervision, and dream about his upcoming vacation. Similarly, the student will act out, need extra support, and dream about his upcoming vacation.
Mandating more training and education for early childhood teachers and forcing more regulations on daycares and preschools will not change this outcome. Children in their early years need more love from their caretakers, not more certificates.
Montessori Works for Little Kids Because It’s Like Home
A loving mother can do more with her toddler than a paid professional can. She can let her child explore freely; she can effectively discipline his bad behavior; she can motivate him; she can personalize instruction; she can control his environment and keep him safe from bad influences; and most importantly, she can interact with him and make him happy.
The trained professional is frequently limited in all these regards: she cannot let the toddler explore; she cannot discipline him effectively; she cannot truly motivate him, except with the help of external incentives; she cannot personalize instruction; she cannot control what he might encounter; and she cannot really interact with him or make him happy. The stay-at-home mother is living out her vocation, whereas a preschool teacher is doing her job, and this makes all the difference.
This is not to say that all preschools are necessarily detrimental, but many, if not most, end up being a waste of money and effort. Insofar as they imitate the home environment and respect Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, preschools can actually work quite well.
In terms of early education, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke truly when he said, “the whole theory of school is on the nurse’s or mother’s knee.” Montessori schools, which have sprouted up all over the country, incorporate this wisdom by allowing kids to explore and inquire like they would at home. Finland’s preschools also try to maximize freedom and play for children before they begin formal schooling at seven years old.
In the short-term, this model doesn’t look as impressive as the model that drills kids on colors and countries right as they begin to speak, but in the long-term, it sets a much better foundation for future learning.
Older Kids Need More Structure and Brain Food
As children grow older and their thinking matures, they will undoubtedly benefit from more structure and abstraction. Stay-at-home parents and Montessori schools work well in the beginning, but their teaching effectiveness wanes as a child moves past acquiring basic skills and needs to learn more advanced skills to function independently.
At this level, he will progress much faster with well-trained teachers with an expertise in pedagogy and their subject matter. Some parents may be able to assume this role and attempt to homeschool, but the majority of parents would do much better leaving this work to professional educators.
As one can observe, this debate over preschool can expand into a larger conflict in education where two extremes predominate. One side, usually progressive and statist, believes in the power of experts and standardization and disparages the home as the source of every evil. The other side, usually traditional and libertarian, believes in the power of loving parents and the natural desire to learn and disparages all public institutions as the source of every evil.
Both sides easily become too idealistic (and ideological), and frequently disregard what is best for the child. The best path, as with most issues, lies in the middle, with parents and teachers coordinating together to best meet children’s needs where they are. This is not only the most natural approach, but as each successive study suggests, also the most effective.