The Great Pre-K Debate

It has long been known, but only spoken of in hushed tones by university professors sitting in darkened rooms wearing Fat Elvis masks, that pre-Kindergarten “jump-start” (aka, “push-down”) programs don’t work other than to increase teacher employment and give parents the false idea that their kids are on the fast track to certain success. The problem is that the programs in question are sacred cows, thus to say publicly what I just said is to bring down the indignation of those who tear up involuntarily at the word “child.” I am, therefore, bracing myself.

Many years ago, research psychologist David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child (and several other excellent works that ought to be required reading for parents and educators), pointed out that the gains pre-K programs produce are fleeting. Everything else being equal, by grade three children who received pre-K academic instruction are achieving no better than kids who did not. Furthermore, there is credible evidence to the effect that premature (prior to age six) academic instruction increases the possibility of later learning problems and aversion to reading.

Most folks who, like me, went to school when teachers were always right and parents did not help with homework (and thus personalize their children’s academic performance), came to first grade not knowing their ABCs and sat in classrooms where the teacher-to-student ratio was around 1/35 on average. Yet by the end of the first grade we were reading at a higher level than today’s kids and outperformed them at every grade. The explanation for that is not that we were smarter, but that we respected adult authority. Furthermore, we were taught to think, whereas today’s kids are being taught what to think.

Since then, academic achievement has dropped considerably across the demographic spectrum. The reason for this is simple: Kids no longer, as a rule, come to school having already learned to pay attention to adults (women, in particular), accept assignment from them, do their best, and fear the consequences if they don’t. In the 1950s, the rare child who came to school having not learned those things was regarded as ill-trained. Today, he has a disorder and needs one or more drugs that have never reliably outperformed placebos in clinical trials. This amounts to a massive cover-up, a scam, a scandal.

A recent study has confirmed what Elkind and others said years ago: Pre-K programs are a waste of time and money – taxpayers’ money, to be exact. Children exposed to pre-K academic instruction entered kindergarten well ahead of children who had not, but the gains were unnoticeable by the end of the kindergarten year and “by second grade, the performance of the control children surpassed that of the (pre-K group) on some academic measures.” By the end of third grade, the control group (no pre-K instruction) were outperforming the pre-K children on every academic measure at a level of statistical significance. The authors of the study, published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, mention that their findings are consistent with outcomes for children enrolled in Head Start.

Nearly 3000 years ago, Israel’s King Solomon wrote “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The once-hallowed idea that there exist ideal times/seasons at which to introduce certain instruction and concepts to children has fallen to the well-intentioned misinformation of various early childhood education special interest groups.

This latest research simply corroborates what has been known for going on forty years: to wit, irrespective of a child’s IQ, academic instruction should not begin prior to age five, preferably six. The 1950s win again! Or, we can build better motors and computers, but we can’t build better children.

John K. Rosemond

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