The Case Against Universal Preschool

By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn

What little children need is play, care, and love, not school.

The Biden administration has announced an ambitious, expensive plan for universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds. Some of the language in the White House (2021) announcement sounds comforting:

Source: We Heart It. Creative Commons

“President Biden is calling for a national partnership with states to offer free, high-quality, accessible, and inclusive preschool to all three-and four-year-olds, benefitting five million children and saving the average family $13,000, when fully implemented. This historic $200 billion investment in America’s future will first prioritize high-need areas and enable communities and families to choose the settings that work best for them. The President’s plan will also ensure that all publicly funded preschool is high-quality, with low student-to-teacher ratios, high-quality and developmentally appropriate curriculum, and supportive classroom environments that are inclusive for all students.”

Yes, the language sounds comforting, but what does it mean? What does “high quality” actually mean? What is a “developmentally appropriate curriculum?” Will families really have a choice of a “setting that works best for them?”

There is no such thing as a “developmentally appropriate curriculum” for three- and four-year-olds. Common sense should tell us that. Curriculum implies imposed learning goals, which implies assessments, which necessarily implies coercing children to abide by the curriculum plan. That is not appropriate for any children in my opinion, but it is certainly not appropriate for three- and four-year-olds. It is unclear where the settings will be for these preschools, but the common assumption is that many if not most of them will be in existing public schools.

Once upon a time kindergarten was a place for children to play, to get used to being away from home, and to practice getting along with other children. Then it became academic, a place to prepare academically for first grade. Kindergarten became what first grade used to be. Is there someone out there who does not believe that once we have public preschools they will be seen as places to prepare academically for kindergarten?

Preschool won’t be compulsory at the beginning, and maybe never compulsory legally, but people will begin to see it as compulsory. I hear it now: “If you don’t send your children to preschool, they will never be able to manage kindergarten! They will be forever behind.” Parents who fail to send their kids will be considered neglectful. Kindly and knowledgeable preschool teachers, who understand the value of play and the harm of academic training, will be berated—by principals, teachers of later grades, and, yes, pushy parents—for not training these tots in literacy and numeracy skills, just as kindergarten teachers who try to preserve play and resist academics are currently berated (see here and here ).

A Brief Review of the Harm of Early Schooling

Many years ago, the esteemed developmental psychologist David Elkind (1987, p 69) described, as follows, the harm of early schooling: “When we instruct children in academic subjects at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personalitydamage for no useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm.”

Today we have even more evidence of the harm of early schooling than was available when Elkind wrote those words. I have described some of that evidence in previous posts. Here, as review, is a list of some of it:

• A well-controlled study of the effects of a government supported pre-kindergarten program for economically deprived families in Tennessee revealed that, by third grade, children in the program performed significantly worse than those who (by random assignment) were not in the program (Lipsey et al, 2018). They scored lower on academic tests, were more likely to be diagnosed as having a learning disorder, were less likely to have been diagnosed as intellectually gifted, and were more likely to have discipline problems than those who had attended no preschool program. In short, the study revealed that being home, even if you are poor, resulted in better academic and behavioral development than attending this academically oriented preschool program (discussed here and here ).

• Many other well-controlled studies have revealed that academic training in preschool or kindergarten results in higher academic test scores in first grade, but by third or fourth grade those advantages have not only been lost but have been reversed. (I describe some of those studies here and discuss reasons why we might expect such harmful effects here .)

• Research on effects of the Head Start program has revealed mixed results. Reviews of such research indicate that when Head Start has operated as a childcare setting, along with help for the whole family, it has been successful in helping young people rise out of poverty. In contrast, when Head Start has operated primarily as preschool, with academic training, it has not been successful and has even been harmful. Apparently, the success of Head Start, when it is successful, comes not from any academic boost to the children but from help to the family, including daycare help, that enables parents to be employed and provide a better home for their family than they otherwise could (discussed here ).

• Evidence of pathological levels of stress to children caused by kindergarten comes from studies of hair cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, which at prolonged high levels can damage the brain. Chronic stress can be measured by measuring the cortisol level in a snip of hair. A research study revealed that hair cortisol levels were significantly higher in children two months after starting kindergarten than they had been two months before starting (Groeneveld et a l., 2013).

Emotional Abuse of Children in Early Education

Educators don’t like to talk about it, and educational researchers largely avoid the topic (for an exception, see Brengten et al, 2006), but everyone knows that teachers are not perfect, that teaching in a system where naturally rambunctious children, with diverse personalities, must all follow the same curriculum can be frustrating, and that sometimes teachers take their frustration out on children in ways that can cause long-term harm.

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