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A recent article on the NPR website raised the interesting and somewhat frightening possibility that Pre-K was not all that it was cracked up to be. The article (A top researcher says it’s time to rethink our entire approach to preschool) discussed a study by very well-respected academics at Vanderbilt University. The study was done in Tennessee among 2,990 low income children who applied to free, public pre-kindergarten programs. Some were admitted by lottery, and others were rejected, creating, as the academics pointed out, “the closest thing you can get in the real world to a randomized, controlled trial – the gold standard in showing causality in science.”
Both groups of children were followed all the way through sixth grade. At the end of their first year, the children who went to pre-K scored higher on school readiness, as expected. But after the third grade, they were doing worse than the control group. And at the end of sixth grade, they were doing even worse.
So what was going on here? One possible answer is that there are Pre-K programs AND Pre-K programs, and they are not all alike. In the Tennessee study, these were all low-income children and there was apparently some belief that this group needed more formal instruction to prepare them for the tasks and challenges of higher grades of school, like drilling kids on basic skills, worksheets for tracing letters and numbers, having a teacher giving ten minute lectures to a whole class of 25 kids who are expected to sit on their hands and listen.
And then the buildings in which the Pre-K classes took place were not designed with just young children in mind. Some had desks lined up in the old-fashioned way (yes, I remember mine being bolted to the floor) and in some schools, the bathrooms were very far away. These environments were neither supportive nor welcoming to toddlers and preschoolers.
As one of the researchers said, “one of the biases that I hadn’t examined in myself is the idea that poor children need a different sort of pre-preparation than do children of higher-income families”. This distinction between lower and higher income families is unreasonable and makes the point, once again, that a Pre-K program serves its clientele best when it is physically designed for young children, is play-based and encourages individual exploration, the model whole-heartedly embraced by WMS.
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