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Preschool School: Proceed With Caution
By David W. Kirkpatrick (June 01, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         When the public school establishment is faced with an education proposal to which it objects, such as vouchers or charter schools, a standard response is not just to ask for research proof but to ignore or denigrate such proof if it exists and to oppose any pilot projects that might establish possible answers.
 
         On the other hand, when a proposal is made of which they are fond - smaller classes or extended schooling - especially if it is accompanied with large amounts of money, they want it implemented as quickly and widely as possible. Beginning with small projects is not on their agenda.
 
         An example a few years ago was California's statewide implementation of smaller class sizes in the early grades.  Ignoring evidence and caution to the contrary the program was established and continues costing billions of dollars even though results have not justified the expense.
 
         The same approach, and possible results, are now underway in California regarding pre-K schooling, with an initiative on the June 6 ballot that may cost $2.5 billion a year and would include all 4-year-olds in the state, although 66% of them reportedly already attend preschool.
 
         There is no question that the early years of life are extremely important and that the experiences youngsters have during these years have great impact on them for the rest of their lives, and not just in school.  But to take a blind faith leap from that premise to extend formal schooling downward is an unjustified and possibly harmful path.
 
         For one thing, universal preschool is not only being considered elsewhere but, as Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles has noted, it has existed for several years on a statewide basis in Georgia and Oklahoma and a recent findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress regarding results for fourth-grade reading tests list both states as among the lowest ten performers in the nation.
 
         There may be complicating or extenuating circumstances at play in these two states, the NAEP should at least give pause before throwing billions of dollars what may be a faulty approach to a perceived problem.
 
         As Richard Salzer noted more than thirty years ago, it is at least debatable whether it is a good idea to start school a year or two earlier and to give authority over four-year-olds to schools already having difficulty with five- or six-year-olds.
 
         And, just as Georgia and Oklahoma have not had noteworthy success with this approach, other nations, whose students outperform ours, have had success avoiding early schooling.  A generation ago, the Scandinavian countries did not place children in first grade until the age of seven.  About the same time, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, who did have day-care programs decided to cut back or eliminate them when studies determined that institutional care damages preschool age children.
 
         One thing that virtually everyone agrees upon is the importance of the home environment.  In fact, public school people repeatedly cite inadequate home care as the cause of their problems with many students.  Many years ago Cornell University early childhood expert Urie Bronfenbrenner noted extensive research indicated children's IQ's could be permanently raised as much as 30 points by increasing the quality of maternal care they received.
 
         Even Professor Edward F. Zigler, credited as "the Father of Headstart," and chair of the Advisory Council of the National Institute for Early Education Research, has been quoted as saying "there is a large body of evidence that there is little to be gained by exposing middle class children to early education.. (and) evidence that indicates early schooling is inappropriate for many 4-year-olds , and that it may even be harmful to their development.".

         Twenty years ago, Martin Engel, then head of the National Demonstration center for Early Childhood Education in Washington went further.  He said "early schooling may be the most pervasive form of child abuse."
 
         At the very least, proponents of ever earlier schooling should conduct small-scale programs to demonstrate the validity of their approach.  And, if they really want to be creative, before expending thousands of dollars per year on the each student, they might spend a few hundred dollars per family to improve parenting skills.

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         "Studies show that children who started kindergarten before age 5 ½ Ďare far more likely;' to flunk a grade, need special tutoring and emotional counseling, be socially ill at ease and later be diagnosed as learning disabled." James Uphoff, professor of education, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, cited, p. 53, "The kindergarten wars," pp 53-54, U.S. News & World Report, April 10, 1989

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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
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Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

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