Over the last few years, we’ve witnessed an intermediate push for more early-childhood education. The Obama administration returned to the idea of universal preschool on multiple occasions, and the idea featured in Hillary Clinton’s campaign as well.
While Donald Trump remains relatively uninterested in education policy, academic circles are picking up the slack with renewed claims that we should be shoving toddlers into a formal education system almost as soon as they can talk.
A new study claims that more rigorous preschool curricula — focused on formal concepts like math, reading and geometry, and less on free play — can help children become more “kindergarten ready,” with the assumption being that this is somehow a good thing. That’s right — America’s problem is that we’ve been giving too much latitude to 3-year-olds, and if only we could impose some discipline on them, things would be better.
To someone like me (the product of a completely self-directed education), it seems a ridiculous claim. Children need the freedom to explore the world and learn about it based on their interests. Drilling them on shapes and colors may make them better at regurgitating information or taking tests, but it will not make them smarter, happier, or more successful.
This is not simply my opinion; there is an extensive body of empirical researchconfirming that preschool is not only not helpful, but may actually be harmful to children’s development. And the studies that do show gains from preschool, like the one mentioned above, usually only measure short-term outcomes. For example, the study focused on “kindergarten preparedness” showed that children from rigorous preschools performed better than their classmates at the end of kindergarten — but failed to track them beyond that.
This is consistent with other findings, like the Health and Human Services evaluation of the federal Head Start preschool program. Since HHS runs Head Start, they have every incentive to represent the program favorably, but an evaluation nevertheless found that virtually all gains from preschool disappear by the third grade. If this is the case, why are we subjecting our children to a costly and time-consuming curriculum that doesn’t help them in the long run?
There are other effects of schooling on children besides academic performance. It’s important to remember that, as individuals, all children are different and learn differently. Some will be ready to start reading before they enter kindergarten, but others will not be.
That doesn’t mean that the slower readers are less intelligent than their peers — their abilities will level out in time — but it does mean that trying to force certain skills on them before they are ready can be traumatizing and reduce the motivation for future learning.
Further research shows that too much schooling is harmful to children both mentally and physically. Early schooling encourages sitting and listening instead of running and jumping, which can contribute to childhood obesity, and the constant pressure of having to compete with peers and be evaluated by teachers can be damaging to children’s confidence and sense of self-worth.
What most efforts to evaluate education miss is a clear idea of the ultimate goal of learning. We have already seen kindergarten readiness listed as a goal, but to what end? Middle school readiness? College readiness? And then what? We hear a lot about “international competitiveness,” but what does it really mean to “outperform” foreign students on an algebra test?
None of these studies show that putting 3-year-olds in school makes them happier, more successful, or more well-adjusted people. And if parents are more concerned with test scores than with their children’s happiness, then we as a society have deeper problems than quibbling over what a preschool curriculum should look like.