At-risk chil­dren need much more than a pre-K pro­gram

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Es­ther J. Cepeda Colum­nist Es­ther Cepeda’s email ad­dress is es­ther­j­cepeda@wash­post.com. Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @es­ther­j­cepeda.

Pre-K ed­u­ca­tion has long been seen as a po­ten­tial sil­ver bul­let to help at-risk chil­dren ex­cel in school. But new re­search is prompt­ing sec­ond thoughts about its ef­fec­tive­ness for low-in­come kids.

In a re­cent pol­icy brief­ing de­scrib­ing statewide pre-K pro­grams in Ten­nessee, Ron Hask­ins of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of the An­nie E. Casey Foun­da­tion re­port that by third grade, chil­dren who at­tended pre-K had worse at­ti­tudes to­ward school and poorer work habits than chil­dren who didn’t.

About 3,000 chil­dren were ran­domly as­signed ei­ther to at­tend a pre-K class­room or to not par­tic­i­pate, then data on both groups’ sub­se­quent aca­demic per­for­mance were taken from a state data­base.

The short-term im­pacts of the pro­gram, re­ported in 2013, looked good. Re­searchers found that chil­dren who at­tended preschool per­formed bet­ter than those who didn’t on end-ofyear achieve­ment tests and got higher rat­ings from their teach­ers when kinder­garten be­gan. Plus, teach­ers said that the pre-K chil­dren were bet­ter pre­pared for school, had bet­ter work skills, and were more pos­i­tive about school (this is sim­i­lar to re­sults in other stud­ies of pre-K pro­grams).

How­ever, the 2015 data, which in­cluded re­sults of stu­dent per­for­mance into the third grade, showed that the achieve­ment-test ad­van­tage for chil­dren who at­tended the pre-K pro­gram had dis­ap­peared by the end of kinder­garten (also sim­i­lar to re­sults in other stud­ies).

Worse, by the end of first grade, their teach­ers rated pre-K pro­gram chil­dren as weaker in their work skills and less pre­pared for and more neg­a­tive about school. Strik­ingly: At the end of both sec­ond grade and third grade, chil­dren who hadn’t par­tic­i­pated in the pro­gram per­formed bet­ter on aca­demic tests than chil­dren who had.

No one knows why, but fac­tors could in­clude that the ac­tiv­i­ties the chil­dren ex­pe­ri­enced were not age-ap­pro­pri­ate to their de­vel­op­men­tal needs — i.e. heav­ily de­pen­dent on struc­tured di­rect in­struc­tion rather than on stu­dent-in­ter­est-based play (we’ve all heard the hor­ror sto­ries about kinder­garten­ers made to fill out work­sheets, so this is not far-fetched). Or that stu­dents who had ini­tially been ahead of peers got bored in wait­ing for them to catch up as they pro­gressed through grades 2 and 3.

Maybe for the young­sters in ques­tion, two ex­tra years of high-stakes ed­u­ca­tion and test­ing cast school as a drag to be en­dured, rather than ex­pe­ri­enced hap­pily.

Ob­vi­ously, more stud­ies are needed to see what went “wrong” with the pre-K in­ter­ven­tion, but this misses the for­est for the trees.

Ba­si­cally, chil­dren who need very early aca­demic in­ter­ven­tions tend to not have highly ed­u­cated par­ents pos­sess­ing ex­pend­able in­come with which to sin­gle-mind­edly cul­ti­vate their chil­dren for an Ivy League de­gree from the moment of con­cep­tion. How can we ex­pect chil­dren who, even as ba­bies, are be­com­ing in­ured to the dopamine-re­lease of in­stant dig­i­tal grat­i­fi­ca­tion, to de­velop the pa­tience and cu­rios­ity nec­es­sary to suc­ceed aca­dem­i­cally? And how can we ever hope to ex­pect it of chil­dren who grow up in the chaotic, loud and stress­ful en­vi­ron­ments that typ­ify poverty?

Pre-K in­ter­ven­tions feel good, but what at-risk chil­dren re­ally need are anti-poverty pro­grams, par­ent­ing classes for their moms and dads, and a so­ci­ety that un­der­stands that the dig­i­tal world is as much a chal­lenge as it is an op­por­tu­nity.

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