One area of education reform that everybody seems to agree on is the need for quality pre-k. There is a growing body of evidence that links the growing achievement gap to the lack of quality pre-k. This gap begins before children even begin their formal education and once that gap is established, it is never overcome. However, in shrinking that gap we need to make sure we are not increasing the opportunity gap in our society. We need to ensure that early childhood education isn’t used to propel some children down one track and others down another.
A key component of the achievement gap stems from the fact that children from lower income and EL populations are exposed to fewer words at home during the formative years. This results in a slower cognitive development. They are also exposed to less social contact which slows social development and means that wealthier children are better prepared to learn when they start kindergarten. Now some may counter with studies that show that things even out by third grade, but if somebody wanted you to run a race and start a mile back under the guise that you’d probably catch up by mile three, would you leap at the opportunity? Pre-K gives the opportunity for all to start from the same starting line.
In the interest of public disclosure, prior to having children, I would have argued against the necessity of pre-k. My position at that time was that children were best left with their parents until they started kindergarten. However, after watching my children flourish by attending day care since being 6 weeks old, I’ve abandoned this position. I feel no shame in admitting that there is no way that my wife and I would have been able to expose them to all the opportunities that their daycare/pre-school has offered them. We are confident that they will be ready for kindergarten when it comes time to transition because of the learning environment their teachers provided. This has lead me to believe that all children should have this opportunity.
Overwhelmingly, based on empirical evidence, it appears that making universal pre-k available is a no brainer. Unfortunately, I can’t get my Spidey sense to stop tingling on the back of my neck. In order for it to be successful pre-k has to mirror child development and the problem is, the same people talking up universal pre-k are the same ones who have advocated for more rigor in kindergarten. These are the same people who constantly are focusing on making kids career and college ready starting in kindergarten. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/02/career-test-for-kindergar_0_n_1644215.html ) My daughter wants to be an artist, so I’m not quite sure how you test for that.
Education privateers are constantly focusing on reading, math and other measurable skills, disregarding learning through play. Yet research clearly shows the importance of play. (http://eyeonearlyeducation.com/2012/05/07/how-do-young-children-learn-through-play/)So I’m a little concerned that we’ll be heading down the wrong path curriculum wise with this brand new universal pre-K plan. I have a hard time buying the fact that the testing and consulting industry is willing to exploit our kindergarten through twelfth graders but they’d have the best interests at heart for our youngest learners.
Then you take into account Peter Greene’s fantastic article on why the test matters.(http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2014/03/why-ccss-cant-be-decoupled.html?m=0) You have to ask, do you honestly think for one minute that these people will naturally stop at kindergarten? Pre-K offers the perfect opportunity to start collecting “tags” even earlier. Let’s get these kids on the right path before they have the opportunity to start developing on their own. You brown skin ones head to the “no questions follow orders” isle, you others to the “creative think out of the box” section, which translates into bosses and followers. Eyes front now.
Tying in with the for mentioned is that business is always looking for a new market and urban education theorists are always saying ending our current education system is paramount, so what if you could bring both interests together? KIPP is way ahead of you. (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/02/04/20kipp.h28.html?r=254053340&preview=1) Since 2009 they’ve been working on cashing in on this emerging market. My favorite quote from the referenced article is, “In some communities, children will be able to begin preschool in a KIPP charter school and make the transition into a KIPP middle school in 5th grade.” If that doesn’t chill you to the bone then you have a better constitution then I do. It puts a whole new meaning on the phrase “cradle to the grave.”
People don’t like the word “indoctrination”. The truth though is that a certain amount of indoctrination is necessary in order for a society to smoothly function. During the wave of immigrants that arrived in America in the early 1900’s it became apparent that schools were the best vehicle for educating young immigrants about the values of an American society. Now the values of America have grown much more diverse but I argue that makes time in public schools even more important. Are we going to now let KIPP exchange their values for American values or even allow the further splintering of American society by letting every charter operator have their time with our children’s formative years? Like I said, its pretty scary.
All that being said, universal pre-k is a hard issue to raise a red flag on. Any time you bring up the fact that you may have concerns about what universal pre-k would actually look like, you’re instantly met with disdainful looks and an utopian description of its curriculum. Better yet, you may get that blanket statement of, “pre-k is wonderful”. It’s another one of those subjects that critical discussion on is frowned upon. You are either “for” or “against”.
Yet all I keep hearing about is more rigor and less play. Another favorite quote from above article is, “They are thrilled by their progress,” Ms. Young said, but added she and her young staff are discovering that in the midst of all this academic activity, 5-year-olds also need some breaks. Sometimes a teacher just has to make time for a freeze dance, in which the children dance for a bit and “freeze” when the music stops.” Yikes! Perhaps the freeze dance should stop every once in a while so some academic activity could come in and not the other way around. I also like the fact that they are just discovering that sometimes 5-year-olds need a break. These aren’t random test subject either. They are our children and future key player in our society.
Its important to keep in mind that despite altering the use of language, introducing something that initially appears good is what education privateers do best. TFA, intelligent energetic young people helping out hard to staff school districts? Charter schools, mini-labs where educational specialists craft new best practices? Common Core, more stringent standards that expect more from children? Yea, that’s not what any of those do and now they are so firmly entrenched it takes an act of congress to move them. If only we’d been more vigilant.
I believe universal pre-k is next on the list and this time we can be prepared. The way to control what shape it takes is through vigilance and education. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated into not questioning. Questioning does not automatically put you in the against column. Educate yourself on what child development experts say. Don’t let pre-k be like Common Core, developed without the input of child development specialists.
The concept of pre-K is still an essential one, but it must reflect how children actually learn. It must entail a curriculum that encompasses as much play as it does academic work. Done correctly, it can prepare children to be lifelong learners. Done incorrectly, it can lead to further stratification of our society. Pre-k is too important to be entrusted into the hands of private enterprise. We must be careful that in attempting to close the achievement gap, we don’t widen the opportunity gap.