Wrong Start?

Published September 1, 2003

Although supporters of Head Start and other preschool programs for underprivileged children maintain such efforts are a remarkably cost-effective way of raising student achievement in both the short term and the long term, the reality painted by research studies is that such programs produce only mediocre results. Congress recognized this in its 1999 Head Start reauthorization, when programs were called upon to ensure appropriate literacy growth in young children.

An educational researcher recently suggested a likely reason for the mediocre achievement gains of preschool programs: Preschool teachers are required to use teaching practices that delay, rather than accelerate, school readiness.

Although the nation’s largest accreditor of preschool programs has publicly repudiated such practices, it has failed to remove them from its accreditation and research standards, thus resulting in the accreditation of flawed programs, faulty practices, and inappropriate teaching methods.

In an article published in the American Educational Research Association’s Educational Researcher last December, Boston College education professor David K. Dickinson describes how the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) sets accreditation standards for preschool teacher training, preschool programs, and research on the quality of preschool programs.

Based on its adoption of “developmentally appropriate practice” (DAP), NAEYC in 1986 warned teachers against teaching reading and writing fundamentals by using direct instruction and explanation, because this method could overload the child’s developmental capacity and produce burnout. Instead, said NAEYC, children should be allowed to explore such skills on their own–if they were interested.

However, as Dickinson points out, the DAP approach succeeds mainly with children from structured home environments with supportive and literate parents. The DAP method doesn’t succeed with children who are most in need of guidance and instruction in a structured teaching environment–i.e., children from environments without structure and support. Those are the very children programs like Head Start were created to help.

With research showing the ineffectiveness of the DAP approach, NAEYC publicly reversed its position in 1996, repudiating DAP and now encouraging children to write letters and say the alphabet. But, as Dickinson points out, there was no accompanying reversal or change to NAEYC’s accreditation and research standards. Its teaching standards also were left open to the continued use of DAP methodology.

“Imagine the public outcry for accountability” if this were a drug for children rather than an education program for children, said J.E. Stone, education professor at East Tennessee State University and founder of Education Consumers Clearinghouse and Consultants Network. Stone suggested the following parallel:

  • A drug taken by children who attend preschool is found to delay their intellectual growth;
  • Children who have good diets are mostly unaffected, but the rest are consigned to a lifetime of diminished possibilities;
  • The drug was poorly tested and the manufacturer is trying to cover up the problem.

“Imagine the lawsuits,” said Stone, whose Consultants Network focused on Dickinson’s research and its policy implications in a December 2002 Briefing Paper.

“If NAEYC cannot satisfactorily reform itself, policymakers should act to restrict preschool standards to matters of health and safety,” concluded the Briefing Paper. “Fewer standards would clearly be preferable to faulty standards.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

David K. Dickinson’s paper, “Shifting Images of Developmentally Appropriate Practice as Seen Through Different Lenses,”was published in Educational Researcher 31(1), 2002, pages 26-32. The paper is available online at http://www.aera.net/pubs/er/pdf/vol31_01/AERA310105.pdf.

The Education Consumers Consultants Network has written a Briefing Paper that summarizes Dickinson’s research study and addresses its policy implications. The December 2002 Briefing Paper is available online at http://www.education-consumers.com/briefs/dec2002.shtm.