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Early Education: If It Ain't
By David W. Kirkpatrick (August 9, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
The title of a previous column was Pre-K Schooling. It cited studies and experts critical of early schooling but not education. Too often schooling and education are used as synonymous terms, which they are not. One may be educated although not schooled, as was true for virtually everyone before schools were common. And, sadly, one may be schooled without being educated, a not infrequent occurrence today.
The previous remarks noted the importance of the first five years of life to children's development. Thus, while early schooling may or may not be helpful, early education is not only vital it is inescapable. All children learn a great deal during their first five years, most of which is acquired informally.
These informal learning, experiences are quite different for students from low-income families than those with a middle-class background. More than thirty years ago a report noted that disadvantaged youngsters "use language to meet their material needs, but less so to obtain or transmit information or to monitor their own behavior." As a result, "Their vocabulary is limited - approximately one-third that of the vocabulary of middle class children at age 9."
The importance of this was pointed out in the early 1940s, when Philip Wylie, in Generation of Vipers, noted a study of business and professional men showed that "the graph of their vocabulary parallels the graph of their success, but bears no relation to the amount of their formal schooling."
During the 1970s there was a "Parents Are Teachers" program in a New Jersey community. It was limited to a 5-month period, with only twenty-five second-graders. Beginning with a three-hour briefing, parents spent 20-30 minutes four or five times a week for six weeks with their children in home study. As a group the students "averaged an 11-month gain in vocabulary and 9 months in comprehension." This approach deserves further consideration.
Another aspect of the preschool debate is that it is often presented as a monolithic question - that is, proponents say it is a good thing while opponents say it isn't whereas there is some evidence it can be both, depending on how it is viewed. Some form of preschool, or at least early education even if perhaps not in too formal a setting, can be a good thing for disadvantaged youngsters but it can be a waste of time, or even harmful for middle-class 4-year-olds.
Even proponents often qualify their support by saying a "quality" program is helpful for youngsters. This suggests not all approaches are worthy of support and raises the question as to what is "quality."
One final point. perhaps the most important one. The debate over preschool or no preschool is largely irrelevant. A July 20th Investor's Daily article by Darcy Olsen and Bruce Fuller, notes that the early education industry (their word) is already a $48 billion enterprise. They say there are 120,000 preschools now run by businesses, churches, and others. That's more schools than the approximately 100,000 in the public school system, although, of course, the individual preschool is much smaller in enrollment. There are also some run by private individuals in their own homes.
They add that "Nearly half of all employers already offer pre-tax dollars to help pay for child care, and a fifth of all large firms operate a preschool on-site or nearby." As an aside, even some public schools are now located in conjunction with an industry or even a shopping center or an airport.
Finally, Olsen and Fuller cite three recent studies of 22,000 youngsters which found benefits for poor students. There were also cognitive gains for middle-class children but they faded within a few years. There were indications that long days in centers may slow children's social development.
There is such a wide variety of approaches that parents are offered many choices for their youngsters. As a result, Olsen and Fuller estimate that more than "two-thirds of the nation's 4-year-olds already attend preschool."
In brief, if more public money is available it should utilize the existing variety and parental choice. What is not needed is the extension of the public school monopoly.
As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
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"The 120 largest urban school systems have become self-serving bureaucracies organized for the convenience and the maintenance of everyone who works in them–except classroom teachers and students." p. 61, Martin Haberman, Star Teachers of Children in Poverty. West Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 1995
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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
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