Preschool Is No Substitute for Parents

Published November 1, 2012

In naming preschool a legislative priority, GOP leaders may make Indiana the first state to ground such a program in private initiative. There’s talk of preschool vouchers, for example, rather than the usual state preschools, which function like a space-time-money vacuum.

As a mother of two small children, a relatively new Hoosier, and someone who reads stacks of education studies for work, I’d like to sketch why state preschool has largely failed so far.

Anyone interested in surveying early childhood research would do well to start with E.D. Hirsch, a prominent former University of Virginia professor and bestselling author. His work demonstrates that people build new knowledge on old knowledge. Knowledge sticks to itself, like a spider’s web. This means what and how much children learn in their earliest days is crucial to constructing a sort of upside-down pyramid of knowledge that increases as they age.

“There is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success,” Hirsch writes.

This means a child’s most influential teachers are his parents, as our ancestors knew without studies. They also knew another truth we don’t like to acknowledge: Some parents are better than others. Some weave their children the first few rounds of mental spider web with habits such as speaking frequently with their children, reading books aloud, practicing numbers and names, and taking the kids to places that expand their knowledge, such as the zoo, grandpa’s farm, the library, and parks.

These are all normal behaviors for many families (they are also largely free, so not restricted to rich people). But these habits are foreign to some, and consequently their children are deprived.

Observers of this deficit suggest government can solve the problem. Kids can’t count to ten by age five? Put ’em in school at age three.

This is similar to the classic answer to the question about what holds up the turtle that the ancient myth says the Earth rests on: It’s turtles all the way down. When children prove unready for preschool at age three because of home deprivation, then what? Decide when a woman gets pregnant whether she will be a fit mother and, if not, have government agents waiting in the delivery room?

The reality is that mass preschool programs don’t work. Most studies claiming fabulous effects from government early childhood programs are extrapolations from three test programs of decades ago. No statewide preschool to date approximates these intensive programs, which included expensive amenities such as health care, parent training, and home visits, costing upwards of $65,000 per child, and unlike typical half-day preschool they were full-day and even full-year interventions.

No state preschool does that much substitute parenting, or could, so it’s not surprising they haven’t yielded smarter kids. Oklahoma, for example, has the highest percentage of state preschool students in the nation, but students statewide have had declining average test scores since the program began.

States’ experience with preschool largely exemplifies what doesn’t work. Research and common sense show us why: Even 40 hours of remediation a week doesn’t change the child’s other 58 waking hours.

Instead of attempting the impossible–displacing parenting–a rational and fitting early childhood initiative would aim to cultivate it. This is the crux of the early childhood deficit Republican lawmakers must target. They could start by acknowledging it.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute. She lives in Fort Wayne.