The preschool myth that is holding children back

From time-to-time, someone will claim that any kind of formal instruction in preschool is damaging for children. One such article has been doing the rounds since 2015 and seems to be quite popular on Twitter. The evidence it draws upon comes largely from a set of studies based upon the High/Scope preschool curriculum. Look out for these studies because they are often at the root of such claims and, in my view, they are deeply flawed.

It was therefore interesting to read a sober and authoritative review of the evidence on preschool programs produced by The Brookings Institute in the U.S. (thanks to @AlecMahony for the tip). Chapter 4 of this report compares the different kinds of preschool curricula that students follow in Pre-K and Headstart. Pre-K is the year of preschool directly prior to starting school proper and Headstart is a specific kind of Pre-K that is federally funded and made available to disadvantaged students.

The report groups preschool curricula into three classes; whole-child, skill specific and locally developed / no curriculum. The skill specific curricula allow lots of time for play but they also include sessions in mathematics, literacy or  both. These sessions feature sequenced, explicit instruction but should not be pictured as whole classes completing worksheets. Instead, the academic work takes place in small or large groups and includes elements such as storybook reading, games, art and discovery activities.

In contrast, the whole-child curricula are quite strict about following the child’s own interests and not forcing specific content on them. As the report explains:

“Whole-child (sometimes termed “global” or “developmental constructivist”) curricula emphasize child-centered active learning that is cultivated by strategically arranging the classroom environment. Rather than explicitly targeting developmental domains such as early math skills, whole-child approaches seek to promote learning by encouraging children to interact independently with the equipment, materials and other children in the classroom environment.”

Headstart program standards require centres to use whole-child curricula and the most popular seems to be, “The Creative Curriculum”. Pre-K programs seem to have more flexibility. Nonetheless, 41% still adhere to whole-child curricula.

The authors of the report note that children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to start school just over one standard deviation behind their more advantaged peers in literacy and numeracy (a standard deviation is simply a standardised way of measuring the difference between two groups). They draw on a meta-analysis* of Pre-K, Headstart and some other programs to work out the effect of different curriculum types on these key skills. Unfortunately, they state that this meta-analysis was conducted by “Nguyen (2017)” but I can find no further reference to this paper in the entire report which seems like some kind of oversight. I also cannot find an obvious reference through Google Scholar. So, with that caveat in mind, it is interesting to look at what “Nguyen” found:

There are a number of points to note. Firstly, the effects of different literacy interventions were highly variable and the headline figure masks that. Presumably, some of these literacy interventions were based upon whole-language principles and so this is not entirely surprising. Secondly, although the authors couldn’t find much consistent evidence for programs that improved students social skills and self-regulation, they noted that there was no significant difference between whole-child and skills specific programs on these measures. So skills specific programs deliver academic gains without causing social harm:

“By devoting time and attention to academic skills, it might be feared that skill-focused curricula would preclude full development of children’s socioemotional capacities. But for the most part, such curricula generate impacts only in the developmental domain they target, such as math curricula affecting math skills, but not literacy or socioemotional skills. Importantly, developmentally appropriate skills-focused curricula do not appear to generate negative impacts on children’s development in socioemotional domains.”

Whole-child curricula are widespread and yet appear to be no more effective than the kinds of curricula that centres are able to develop on their own. This seems like a triumph of ideology over evidence. If we want to better prepare children to start school – particularly children from disadvantaged backgrounds – then we would do well to teach them something.

*On a technical note, some of you might be aware that we are looking at ‘effect sizes’ here and that they can be controversial. In my view, they are far more valid in a meta-analysis of this kind because you are a) comparing apples with applies i.e. curricula with curricula and b) the data for all the studies comes from precisely the same age range.


5 Comments on “The preschool myth that is holding children back”

  1. Thanks, Greg. This is certainly very relevant in England where practitioners have had mixed messages about the ideology for their provision in the early years for a considerable time.

    Powerful early years advisors were not happy when whole-class systematic synthetic phonics teaching was formally introduced, or expected, for Reception children particularly through the introduction of ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES, 2007). Generally speaking, ‘phases 2 to 4’ (introduction of a basic or simple alphabetic code – mainly one spelling for the 44 sounds) are associated with the Reception-aged children through explicit whole-class teaching. So, I’ve posted this thread via both the Parents Forum and the General Forum at the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction:

  2. howardat58 says:

    In Denmark kids start school at 7 and learn to read in 3 months.

  3. […] The preschool myth that is holding children back → […]

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