The Case Against Universal Preschool
What little children need is play, care, and love, not school.
Posted May 24, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
The Biden administration has announced an ambitious, expensive plan for universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds. Some of the language in the White House (2021) announcement sounds comforting:
“President Biden is calling for a national partnership with states to offer free, high-quality, accessible, and inclusive preschool to all three-and four-year-olds, benefitting five million children and saving the average family $13,000, when fully implemented. This historic $200 billion investment in America’s future will first prioritize high-need areas and enable communities and families to choose the settings that work best for them. The President’s plan will also ensure that all publicly funded preschool is high-quality, with low student-to-teacher ratios, high-quality and developmentally appropriate curriculum, and supportive classroom environments that are inclusive for all students.”
Yes, the language sounds comforting, but what does it mean? What does “high quality” actually mean? What is a “developmentally appropriate curriculum?” Will families really have a choice of a “setting that works best for them?”
There is no such thing as a “developmentally appropriate curriculum” for three- and four-year-olds. Common sense should tell us that. Curriculum implies imposed learning goals, which implies assessments, which necessarily implies coercing children to abide by the curriculum plan. That is not appropriate for any children in my opinion, but it is certainly not appropriate for three- and four-year-olds. It is unclear where the settings will be for these preschools, but the common assumption is that many if not most of them will be in existing public schools.
Once upon a time kindergarten was a place for children to play, to get used to being away from home, and to practice getting along with other children. Then it became academic, a place to prepare academically for first grade. Kindergarten became what first grade used to be. Is there someone out there who does not believe that once we have public preschools they will be seen as places to prepare academically for kindergarten?
Preschool won’t be compulsory at the beginning, and maybe never compulsory legally, but people will begin to see it as compulsory. I hear it now: “If you don’t send your children to preschool, they will never be able to manage kindergarten! They will be forever behind.” Parents who fail to send their kids will be considered neglectful. Kindly and knowledgeable preschool teachers, who understand the value of play and the harm of academic training, will be berated—by principals, teachers of later grades, and, yes, pushy parents—for not training these tots in literacy and numeracy skills, just as kindergarten teachers who try to preserve play and resist academics are currently berated (see here and here).
A Brief Review of the Harm of Early Schooling
Many years ago, the esteemed developmental psychologist David Elkind (1987, p 69) described, as follows, the harm of early schooling: "When we instruct children in academic subjects at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm."
Today we have even more evidence of the harm of early schooling than was available when Elkind wrote those words. I have described some of that evidence in previous posts. Here, as review, is a list of some of it:
• A well-controlled study of the effects of a government supported pre-kindergarten program for economically deprived families in Tennessee revealed that, by third grade, children in the program performed significantly worse than those who (by random assignment) were not in the program (Lipsey et al, 2018). They scored lower on academic tests, were more likely to be diagnosed as having a learning disorder, were less likely to have been diagnosed as intellectually gifted, and were more likely to have discipline problems than those who had attended no preschool program. In short, the study revealed that being home, even if you are poor, resulted in better academic and behavioral development than attending this academically oriented preschool program (discussed here and here). [Note added 4/16/2022: For an update on this study, showing that by 6th grade those who had been in the pre-K were even farther behind by 6th grade, see here.]
• Many other well-controlled studies have revealed that academic training in preschool or kindergarten results in higher academic test scores in first grade, but by third or fourth grade those advantages have not only been lost but have been reversed. (I describe some of those studies here and discuss reasons why we might expect such harmful effects here.)
• Research on effects of the Head Start program has revealed mixed results. Reviews of such research indicate that when Head Start has operated as a childcare setting, along with help for the whole family, it has been successful in helping young people rise out of poverty. In contrast, when Head Start has operated primarily as preschool, with academic training, it has not been successful and has even been harmful. Apparently, the success of Head Start, when it is successful, comes not from any academic boost to the children but from help to the family, including daycare help, that enables parents to be employed and provide a better home for their family than they otherwise could (discussed here).
• Evidence of pathological levels of stress to children caused by kindergarten comes from studies of hair cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, which at prolonged high levels can damage the brain. Chronic stress can be measured by measuring the cortisol level in a snip of hair. A research study revealed that hair cortisol levels were significantly higher in children two months after starting kindergarten than they had been two months before starting (Groeneveld et al., 2013).
Emotional Abuse of Children in Early Education
Educators don’t like to talk about it, and educational researchers largely avoid the topic (for an exception, see Brengten et al, 2006), but everyone knows that teachers are not perfect, that teaching in a system where naturally rambunctious children, with diverse personalities, must all follow the same curriculum can be frustrating, and that sometimes teachers take their frustration out on children in ways that can cause long-term harm.
In a rare article on emotional maltreatment of children in school, Margaret King and Gregory Janson (2009) describe an example of abuse that is quite common and may not even be seen by many as abuse. I quote from their example:
“Robert is in the first grade. Each morning when Robert enters the classroom, the teacher, Ms. Jones greets him with a smile. Ms. Jones … is a friendly woman who has very specific ways for children to behave in her classroom. When children enter, they know that they are to put their jackets and backpacks away and go to group meeting. Robert is always late getting to group meeting and Ms. Jones responds in the same way each day. She says, ‘’Robert, I am glad that you finally decided to join us. …We have to wait for you every day and we are tired of your tardiness. Aren’t we class?’ Everyone yells, ‘’Yes!’’ Then Ms. Jones asks if any of the students have anything to say to Robert about making the class late starting meeting. Several students respond to her request with negative comments. Ms. Jones continues by saying to Robert, 'If you continue to be late, the class will have to give up recess to make up the time.’”
Every classroom has its Robert, and Ms. Jones’s approach to dealing with Robert is not uncommon. The fault is not Robert’s, and in a way it’s not Ms. Jones’s either. The fault is a system premised on the idea that little children should all march in step to the same drummer. That’s just not the way children are built. By age six most children (at considerable loss to their creativity and initiative) are able and willing to conform to curricular demands, but some are not. This is how children get singled out as “bad” or, more commonly today, “disordered,” and are either punished or drugged. If this happens at age six, it is going to happen even more at ages three and four. This is why I say a curriculum for little children is cruel. There is no such thing as a developmentally appropriate curriculum for little children.
A few years ago, I received an email from a person in New York City describing the plight of her friend and her friend’s four-year-old son. New York already has universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds. By the second week of the year, the child was bringing home notes from the teacher saying that he was “academically behind.” The father was at his wits end, trying to train the child in academic skills so he wouldn’t be behind, and the poor child “just wants to go to bed.” This is just one example of the tragedy of school for little children. “Academically behind” at four years old!
What kids need is love, kindness, care, and opportunity to be their playful, curious, creative selves. A place for this might be called a childcare center, or, better yet, a play center. Please, let’s drop the word school or any such term that implies a curriculum in relation to little children. Children are designed to learn, in their own ways, in play. Every attempt to shape them to follow a curriculum is harmful.
Mr. Biden, I’m all for making opportunities for Child Care available, free, for all families that need or want it. But let’s not call it school or make it anything like school. The caregivers do not need to be certified for teaching academically. In fact, anyone whose orientation is toward academic training should be ruled out. The qualifications for being a caregiver should have nothing to do with academics and everything to do with a joyful love of children, in all their varied ways of being. For the sake of our children and our nation's future, let’s stop the madness of ever-earlier schooling.
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Brengden, M., et al. (2006). Verbal abuse by the teacher and child adjustments from kindergarten through grade 6. Pediatrics, 117, 1585-1598.
Elkind, D. (1987). Miseducation: Preschoolers at risk. p 69.
Groeneveld et al (2013). Children’s hair cortisol as a biomarker of stress at school entry. Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress, 16 , 711-715.
Lipsey, M. W., et al. (2018). Effects of the Tennessee prekindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through third grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 45, 155-176.
White House (April 28, 2021). Fact sheet: The American Families Plan.