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A high-quality program, according to early childhood education experts, features small classes and low student-teacher ratios, with well-trained teachers, an evidence-based curriculum that emphasizes hands-on learning, not eat-your-spinach instruction in the ABC’s or coloring inside the lines, and lots of time for play. The focus is on kids’ physical, social and emotional growth as well as their cognitive development. In that setting, youngsters, preferably from different social backgrounds, are solving problems together, while their teachers talk with, not at, them.

In other words, a good preschool is a place you wish you had gone to when you were 4 years old.

While a host of studies has shown that the impact of high-quality preschool can reverberate years later, only a minority of pre-K programs meet this standard. After surveying preschools nationwide, W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, concluded that “children in preschool typically spend much of their time in routine activities, including waiting or getting ready to do something and little time learning new concepts, getting feedback from teachers, and learning to plan and reflect on their actions and experiences.”

Prekindergarten will only realize its promise when it’s first class. That’s the conclusion of “Pre-K Effectiveness at a Large Scale,” a nationwide analysis of preschool’s effect on fourth graders’ reading and math achievement scores, conducted by Timothy J. Bartik and Brad Hershbein at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. In states with high-quality programs, attending pre-K boosts a student’s fourth-grade math scores by 2.8 percentiles and African-American students gain even more. However, the caliber of pre-K for the typical student in the average district isn’t good enough to generate substantial benefits. The bottom line: “For large-scale expansion of pre-K to make sense, policymakers must keep the quality up.”

The Tennessee program was a model of what not to do. “The state didn’t have a coherent vision,” Dale C. Farran, a Vanderbilt University professor and the co-author of the Tennessee study, told me. “Left to their own devices, each teacher was inventing pre-K on her own.”

Observers who sat in on nearly 300 pre-K classrooms reported that the teachers did the lion’s share of the talking. Such skill-and-drill teaching can familiarize children with basic facts, but those gains fade unless they are tied to deeper learning. “The most common activity in both sets of classrooms was transition,” Dr. Farran adds, “moving children from activity to activity with no learning opportunity during that time.”



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