Preschool and getting the right start in life
As the state of Nebraska has set aside money for an early childhood endowment and I somewhat passively view the increasing fervor surrounding preschool education, I cannot help but wonder what exactly we as a nation are desiring for our youngest members. There is a great deal of research out there confirming that early childhood development is key to later learning. Much of the brain has already been developed by age five. By the age of three, the "achievement gap" is already firmly established. Children in higher socio-economic classes have a vocabulary at least twice that of impoverished children. And while Paul Tough may find the reasons startling, I think they are pretty obvious: parents in higher socioeconomic classes speak to their children almost three times as often and are far more likely to encourage their children regularly.

Universal preschool is hardly the answer, but all this talk of the educational value of these early years is making parents a little nutty, I think. In order to get the best job, you have to get into the best college. To get into the best college, you have to come from the best school...and the pressure starts in preschool in some areas. Or with some parents. Have you really cut your child's future career short if he doesn't get into the right preschool?

I'd like to know, because while I am enjoying playing play dough with my four year old, some are already on the roller coaster of rejection slips.
Never once did I have any clue that having a child in San Francisco would lead me down a road of such agony and disappointment. Please don't think for one instance that my son, who is amazingly sweet, radiant and utterly blameless, has anything to do with my agonizing dismay or that I'm at all unhappy with motherhood--quite the opposite, it's a highlight in my life. My defeat has all to do with the horribly broken, outrageous and utterly unfair preschool application process and school system in San Francisco.
Preschool is not rocket science. In fact, you can download a nice booklet (pdf) from the US Department of Education that highlights important developmental milestones and how to stimulate your child's intellectual development through each stage. Note how the activities center on involving your child in everyday activities and talking to them. The ideal situation for any child, rich, poor or somewhere in between, is in a loving home that is well connected in the community. This environment gives the child the love, support, encouragement and opportunity he needs to begin to safely explore his world and build the confidence needed to tackle bigger problems later in life. The family, not the exclusive preschool, is the core foundation of a child's education. (Review the reasons for the early onset of our achievement gap above).

A quality preschool is plan B. It is for situations where the ideal cannot be met. And the best ones involve a low teacher-child ratio, caring adults who speak encouragingly to the children, a variety of books, frequent read-alouds, lots of songs and finger plays and a variety of manipulatives for the children to explore. How much better can this be provided in the home?

Incidentally, there is an interesting section in the book Standardized Minds which discusses the strain these high-stakes preschools can put on the relationship between parent and child.

Hat tip: Education Wonks

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