Study nods to more rigorous preschools
NEW YORK — A group of students at Woodside Community School in Queens peered up at their teacher one morning this month, as she used an overhead projector to display a shape.
It looked like a basic geometry lesson one might find in any grade school, except for the audience: They were preschoolers, seated cross-legged on a comfy rug.
“What attributes would tell me this is a square?” asked the teacher, Ashley Rzonca.
A boy named Mohammed raised his hand, having remembered those concepts from a previous lesson. “A square has four angles and four equal sides,” he said.
As school reformers nationwide push to expand publicly funded prekindergarten and enact more
stringent standards, more students are being exposed at ever younger ages to formal math and phonics lessons like this one. That has worried some education experts and frightened those parents who believe children of that age should be playing with blocks, not sitting still as a teacher explains a shape’s geometric characteristics.
But now a new national study suggests preschools that do not mix enough substance into their curriculum may be doing their young charges a disservice.
The study found that by the end of kindergarten, children who had attended one year of “academic oriented preschool” outperformed peers who had attended less academic-focused preschools by, on average, the equivalent of 2 1/2 months of learning in literacy and math.
“Simply dressing up like a firefighter or building an exquisite Lego edifice may not be enough,” said Bruce Fuller, the lead author of the study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you can combine creative play with rich language, formal conversations and math concepts, that’s more likely to yield the cognitive gains we observed.”
The study comes amid rapid expansions of taxpayer-funded preschool in cities such as Washington, San Antonio and New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last month he would eventually expand the program, now open to all 4-yearolds, to 3-year-olds as well.
The new wave of preschools provides playtime, but their major goal is academic “kindergarten readiness,” and the study could provide ammunition for policymakers who want to keep on that course. It could also help officials like de Blasio make the case for even more public spending on prekindergarten programs.
Some child development experts question whether the goal of the new pre-K — putting all children on a path to read and do simple math problems by the end of kindergarten — is appropriate, and whether it might detract from the socialization value preschools have been known for.
Many children “are not ready to do that without being put under a lot of stress and strain,” said Joan Almon, an expert on play-based education with the Alliance for Childhood, an advocacy group.
Aware of the concern, the Berkeley study, which is being published this week in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, assessed the children’s behavior, based on interviews with their parents. It found students did not seem to be hurt socially or emotionally by attending the more academic programs.
Robert Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and an expert on effective teaching, said the new research, which followed 6,150 students nationwide and was controlled for income and home environment, confirmed smaller-scale studies from Tulsa, Okla., and Boston showing that academic prekindergarten programs benefited both poor and middle-class children. “These effect sizes are substantial,” Pianta said of the Berkeley paper.
Nevertheless, the study had limitations. It followed children for a relatively short period, and it remained unclear if the benefits of academic prekindergarten would extend beyond the end of kindergarten.
The study defined “academic-oriented” prekindergarten programs as those in which teachers reported spending time most days on activities such as sounding out words, discussing new vocabulary, counting out loud and teaching children to measure and tell time.
That is not to say that those schools are all letters and numbers. The de Blasio program requires two hours per day of play, which is typically broken into several smaller chunks.
After Rzonca’s geometry lesson, she released her students for 30 minutes of free time. As they cradled dolls, drew and made collages, Rzonca moved around the classroom, pausing to kneel next to individual children. She prompted them to dictate simple narratives about their activities. “Baby sleeps,” said Mohammed, whose collage featured a photo of a crib. Rzonca wrote the sentence down on a sticky note and attached it to his work.
Other methods of early childhood education will most likely continue to thrive, counting on devoted legions of parents. One example includes Waldorf schools, which at the preschool level eschew academics in favor of play and do not begin formal reading instruction until first grade.
Prekindergarten students work with computer programs at Woodside Community School in New York City earlier this month. New research suggests preschoolers who are exposed to formal math and reading lessons come out ahead, but some experts and parents are skeptical.