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Hoekelman Center Newsletter February 2022
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A Note From The Director February 2022
Doing Pre-K The Wrong Way Doesn't Work
This past week, a CARE Track graduate texted me about a disturbing news item on NPR. A rigorous study of thousands of Tennessee children followed to 6th grade found that attending free pre-K was harmful. It led to worse test results, more behavior problems, and more placements in special ed. There is a ton to unpack in this story.
When asked to explain why free government pre-K was worse than nothing, the lead researcher conjectured that the preschoolers were spending too much time being lectured to, getting disciplined, and standing in line for the bathroom. "Whoever thought that you could provide a 4-year-old from an impoverished family with 5 1/2 hours a day, nine months a year of preschool, and close the achievement gap…?" Her conclusion was that “We might actually get better results from simply letting little children play.”
The underlying issue is a problem of scaling. The effectiveness of what the article called “showcase pilot programs” like Perry High/Scope and Abecederian is not being disputed. The argument here is that it’s possible to get good long-term academic and social outcomes, but only in small-scale experiments, not in population-level services. This implies that there was something so special in those showcase programs that it can’t be replicated.
Let’s consider that. Why did the showcase programs work? The people who evaluated Perry High/Scope answered this in their causal model: "high-quality preschool programs do lead to an improvement in children's motivation, but because of, not instead of, improvement in children's intellectual performance.” 
The italics are in the original report. They’re there because the fear that preschool education could be bad for kids is not new. “At the time the Perry Project began, there was considerable concern on the part of nursery educators about the "pressures" a program as structured as the Cognitively Oriented Curriculum would inflict upon the children. There were dire predictions of permanent emotional damage to the experimental children.”
At this point, it helps to keep two things in mind. Firstly, the whole context of this is the “achievement gap.” Children born into poverty in the U.S. are, on average, way behind the starting line at the beginning of kindergarten vis-à-vis their more affluent peers. The middle-class and rich kids have a head start, and that generally works out for them very nicely, presumably without permanent emotional damage. Secondly, we know that Perry improved social-emotional long-term outcomes AND improved early cognitive development. So there does not appear to be an either/or here. We can teach the ABCs to little children from impoverished families without scarring them psychologically for life.
Not only that, but the point of the italicized lesson from Perry High/Scope is that the social-emotional gains are because of the intellectual gains. How does that work? By mastering basic tasks like knowing their letters and writing their names, the children became comfortable starting kindergarten and were therefore less likely to act out at school. This is “the foundation of school success, reducing placements [in special ed] and leading [to] a higher level of schooling.” And what is the High/Scope curriculum that achieves this? The core concept is Active Learning. It is not “simply letting little children play.” But neither is it an adult lecturing to a group of children. Pre-K teachers in the Active Learning model are doing a lot of work so that what looks like play from the child’s perspective is a series of learning moments. As the National Association for the Education of Young Children recognizes “It’s not play versus learning, but play and learning.” Fortunately, there are masterful preschool teachers in Rochester replicating the High/Scope methods.
In contrast, the pre-K programs described by the researcher in the NPR story seem to be doing the opposite of the Active Learning approach. They are apparently drilling the children with information instead of scaffolding play with learning; they are plugging the kids into the special ed system instead of instilling them with the confidence that comes from competence; they are spending a lot of time disciplining them to stand still instead of allowing them to explore activity stations. If all that is true, it is not a mystery why the “showcase programs” worked but Tennessee’s pre-K didn’t. “Teaching for the test” can produce some good short-term results but make long-term outcomes worse.
This story about expansion of pre-K is a cautionary tale, but I don’t think that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and give up on trying to close the equity gap in early learning. The challenge is to scale up effective, feasible and acceptable practices. This is not easy to do. For thinking about how to scale up projects, I use the SCALE framework: Situate, Collaborate, Advocate, Launch, and Evaluate. In this note, I only touched on the first letter in the acronym: Situating, getting the lay of the land by looking at what is already out there. The Hoekelman Center is currently working with multiple community-based partners to apply the SCALE framework in small ways for various projects, including some related to early education. I expect our results will be encouraging.
 Schweinhart, Lawrence J. Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through Age 27. Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, No. Ten. High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 600 North River Street, Ypsilanti, MI 48198-2898, 1993.
 Epstein, Ann S. The Intentional Teacher. NAEYC, 2019
- Andrew Aligne, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Hoekelman Center
Disclaimer: The views expressed on this page do not reflect those of the University of Rochester Medical Center.