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Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

Should preschool concentrate on building forts or math skills?

Many parents bemoan academically oriented preschools, contending the trend squelches the natural curiosity and creativity of young children and tethers them to their seats when they should be running through meadows and building blanket forts. The argument is children learn through play and formal lessons in phonics and math can wait until kids are older.

But a new national study out of the University of California, Berkeley, finds preschools that strongly promote academics improve the literacy and math skills of both middle-class white kids and black children from low-income households. The study tracked 6,150 children from birth to age 5, and documented significant gains in children from classrooms focused on oral language, pre-literacy skills and knowledge of mathematical concepts.

The middle-class findings in the study are important because preschool has been touted as more important for lower-income children whose parents on average talk and read to them less than better educated parents.

The study recognizes the increased academic thrust in preschools and posits: What's not understood is whether this academic orientation inside the classroom results in stronger cognitive growth, or whether effects on social development, be they positive or negative, can be detected.

Among the findings reported by the researchers:

•We observe positive benefits on the average child's cognitive proficiencies after about five to six months of attending a preschool that is academic-oriented, and these effects display stronger magnitudes than prior studies with national samples, where investigators did not focus on academic intensity, as one specific element of classroom quality. These benefits from academic-oriented preschools range higher for the average Black child attending at least 20 hours per week.

•Overall, these results offer a more complete picture of how the magnitude of preschool benefits is sensitive to the intensity of academic content and varies among subgroups of children. These effects are stronger for Black children, many raised in poor households. At the same time, cognitive benefits are shared by the average American preschooler, albeit at lower levels of magnitude, when attending an academic-oriented program.

•Our findings show that greater time spent on academic content – focused on oral language, preliteracy skills, and math concepts – contributes to the early learning of the average child at magnitudes somewhat higher than previously estimated. We tested the effects of teachers spending more time on academic-related activities, as one particular dimension of classroom quality.

The study has its limits; it did not follow kids beyond kindergarten to see if the academic edge persists.

I read several news accounts of the study since its release three weeks ago and the reader comments those media stories inspired. I saw almost no comments in favor of a stronger academic push in preschools. Here are three examples from The New York Times:

•We are getting caught in a false binary debate here. I can assure you that virtually all pre-k's weave play and academics together. For example, my kids just completed the free state-funded pre-k here in Georgia - it's considered an "academic" program in that it has basic math/literacy goals. It also has three recesses/day, a small-group/centers-based classroom approach, and lots of free expression built in (dancing, art, dramatic play, sensory play). Basic math is taught by counting real-life objects like beads. Letter recognition and writing is done in small group instruction that meets each kid where they are. There are no worksheets. In other words, it's totally age appropriate and I observed happy, thriving kids. Honestly, if you have not observed or experienced these programs firsthand, you are projecting your own (probably biased) preconceptions based on limited or misleading information.

•What many people don't seem to understand is that it is not either have fun or learn. Learning is fun. Children are naturally curious and their curiosity should be encouraged. The implication in the article that benefits of early learning might not last is because many elementary schools don't follow-up. I remember our experiences with my daughter who entered kindergarten knowing how to read. When we suggested to her teacher that students who already knew how to read be given extra attention (there were a few in her class), the teacher replied that she had seen many students like our daughter who came into kindergarten with advanced skills, but in her experience, by the time they got to sixth grade, "they were just like everyone else." Chilling words. My daughter left that school in one year. She is now a math professor.

•The theft of childhood from these little ones is profoundly depressing. Many of the children in our grandson's academically oriented pre-school suffered anxiety and frustration on a daily basis. One day when I dropped him off late, I entered to find one of the girls in tears because she didn't understand the phonics lesson of the day while the teacher kept badgering her for the right answer. She was three. My grandson didn't get this concept either, but luckily, he didn't care. He just sat not participating until it was time to go outside and run around. My husband did not read until he was seven. He has two master's degrees and has had two very successful careers. Yes, offer enrichment to youngsters by reading to them a lot and allowing them to explore in new environments, but hold the heavy duty academic material until much later.

Here is the official release from UC Berkeley. Read it and let us know what you think:

“This is the first time that we have seen remarkable gains for the average preschooler nationwide,” said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy, who directed the research.

Educators and scholars have long agreed that quality preschool yields sustained benefits for poor children, while earlier studies revealed disappointing results from average pre-K programs for middle-class peers.

The early surge powered by pre-K continues to lift children from both middle-class and low-income homes during the kindergarten year, researchers said. These facets of cognitive development accelerate by at least three months for the average child nationwide after attending an academic-oriented preschool for one year, compared with children who remain at home during these early years. “Many parents worry about undue pressure on young children when instantly pressed by teachers to tackle academic skills,” Fuller said. “But preschool teachers who purposefully advance these proficiencies yield stronger gains for middle-class youngsters.”

The study finds that academic preschool packs the strongest punch for black children from low-income families, accelerating their pre-literacy and math skills by over four months in knowledge of math  concepts, relative to peers who remain at home through age 4.

The amount of time spent in pre-K is important, the researchers found. The average American child gains slightly from attending an academically oriented pre-K for more than 20 hours a week, relative to peers attending less often, while black children reap the most potent gains in pre-literacy and math skills when attending full-time.

The researchers observe that black children are more likely to be enrolled in publicly subsidized, academically oriented preschools, along with children in the South, while children of better-educated mothers are less likely to enter academically intense preschools.

“We have known that pre-K differently benefits poor and middle-class children,” the authors write in the journal. “But much less is understood about what kinds of preschools lift the average American child.” The UC Berkeley study begins to fill in this picture.

The UC Berkeley results also inform a widening debate about whether pre-K classrooms overly concentrate on academic or mental skills, while ignoring the nurturance of social skills.

“We can detect no advance in children’s social development when attending preschools that stress academics, rather than learning through less structured play,” said Fuller. At the same time, he emphasized that preschools stressing academic skills did not slow children’s maturing social skills.

The UC Berkeley team concludes that more must be learned about how complementary dimensions of pre-K quality, especially teacher-child interactions, might elevate social-developmental gains in academic-oriented preschools.

The findings arrive as pre-K advocates step up their calls for increased funding, from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to President Trump’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka.

De Blasio announced in April that he aims to provide universal pre-K access to all 3-year-old children citywide. Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump is urging expansion of tax credits to offset the high cost of child care, a device that would mostly benefit middle-class and affluent families.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.