Study nods to more rig­or­ous preschools

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY DANA GOLDSTEIN

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.

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