Special Report
School & District Management

Schools Seek to Strike a Balance on Rigor in Early Years

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 03, 2015 10 min read

The push for earlier and more academically rigorous preschool for 3- to 5-year-olds comes during something of an Enlightenment explosion in the research. Fields such as psychology and neuroscience are showing that young children can understand and benefit from deep learning at the beginning of their lives.

Yet early-childhood researchers caution that the same studies showing what pupils are capable of also suggest that efforts to push down elementary-style instruction to preschool could undermine the exact cognitive development educators hope to build up.

“Over the last 15 years, there’s been a tremendous revolution in the way we see very young children,” said Allison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of the 1999 book, The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind. “They are learning in very sophisticated ways, playing in ways that help them find information. It’s not just that children are defective grown-ups; when you look at children’s brains, they really seem to be designed to learn in this way.”

Measuring Learning

At the time Craig T. Ramey started working on the now-famous ongoing Carolina Abecedarian Project preschool study in North Carolina in 1972, “there was a real suspicion that the environment really didn’t matter much as long as the kid had been fed regularly and not physically abused.”

Most educators and researchers followed the model put forth by Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist who helped found modern child psychology. Piaget studied children through direct questioning and observation and determined those younger than school age were incapable of reason.

“How children learn hasn’t changed very much” since Piaget’s work gained wide American prominence in the 1960s, said Mr. Ramey, a professor and distinguished research scholar at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke. “What we know about how they learn has changed a good bit. Children are learning all the time from early infancy; we have just been too ham-handed to see it.”

As researchers move instead to measuring how babies and children pay attention, react, and solve problems—"letting them answer in their own language, rather than ours,” as Ms. Gopnik puts it—they have identified extensive, complex thought in infants and young children.

In fact, a new wave of research suggests the very traits educators are desperately trying to cultivate in high school graduates—critical reasoning, lateral thinking, creativity, autonomous learning, and a host of other “college-and career-ready” skills—are not just present but the natural learning mechanism of young children.

In a 2014 study, Ms. Gopnik and her colleagues found that 4- and 5-year-olds were better than adults at recognizing when an event depended on multiple, related causes rather than a direct line of causation. Preschoolers were more open to evaluating all evidence, even that with unlikely or unusual connections, while adults tended to fall back on their established modes of reasoning.

That’s the kind of insight required to understand how the interplay of high blood pressure and genetics can lead to a heart attack—or how an early strength in critical thinking could combine with access to strong content in middle school to make a student more likely to graduate from high school.

Milestone Studies Resonate Decades Later

Researchers are gaining new insights into how children learn, but they build on a rich history of studies of preschool programs in the past 50 years. From tiny, highly intensive projects to those with a national scope, the studies—some of them still ongoing after decades—continue to shape the debate around preschool today.

The Abecedarian Project
BASICS: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill randomly assigned four cohorts of poor and minority infants, born between 1972 and 1977, to either a control group or an intensive educational program for infancy through age 5. Those taking part in the program had individual activities and games throughout the day focused on social-emotional, general cognitive, and language development. Participants were found to have both higher test scores and better reading and mathematics performance throughout their school years.

CRITIQUES: The intervention is highly intensive and continuous from as early as 4 months old up to kindergarten, unlike most preschool programs.

LEGACY: Follow-up studies were conducted when the students were ages 12, 15, and 21, and the former participants continued to outpace those who did not take part: They are likelier to have gone to college and to have had their first child at an older age. Also, the mothers of participants completed more education and had better employment than those whose children did not participate.


Head Start Impact Study
BASICS: Head Start, the national preschool program, was launched in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty initiatives. An early study in the 1960s found early school gains that faded by 3rd grade. A congressionally mandated follow-up was conducted in the 2000s. Researchers assigned a nationally representative sample of 2,559 low-income 3-year-olds and 2,108 low-income 4-year-olds, in two newly entering cohorts, to either a control group or one of nearly 400 randomly selected centers in 23 states that were oversubscribed and had waiting lists. The children were followed through 3rd grade. Head Start pupils gained about two months of additional learning during their time in the program, particularly in vocabulary skills, and they were more likely to have better relationships with their parents and more health care by the end of kindergarten. However, benefits faded by 3rd grade.

CRITIQUES: Nearly 60 percent of the control-group pupils ultimately took part in some sort of early-childhood education program, and some of the participating children did not complete a full year of Head Start. There was also wide variation in effects from site to site.

LEGACY: Head Start still serves about a million children up to age 5 and their families, at a budget of about $8.6 billion as of fiscal 2014. The findings of the impact study, released in 2010 and 2011, are being used in debates about funding and program reauthorization.


HighScope Perry Preschool Project
BASICS: From 1962 to 1967, researchers identified 123 3- and 4-year-olds who were both poor and at high risk of failing academically in the Ypsilanti, Mich., district. The youngsters were randomly assigned to either a control group or a program of two years of intensive education activities in small classes, plus weekly parent-education sessions in the children’s homes. By age 10, participants were less likely to have been retained in their grade or identified for special education, and by age 15, they showed significantly higher achievement-test scores.

CRITIQUES: There were two parents in the original program group who were switched to the control group, as well as a few program dropouts, though the authors argued these were not significant. The program’s two-year curriculum and parent-involvement requirement are considered more intensive than many preschool programs’.

LEGACY: In the most recent follow-up study, when the children were age 40, former participants were roughly 20 percentage points more likely to have graduated from high school and be earning at least $20,000 per year, and less likely to have been arrested five times by age 40.


Voluntary Pre-K for Tennessee Initiative
BASICS: The program began in 2005 to provide preschool, with licensed teachers instructing at least 5½ hours per day, five days a week. Enrollment priority is given to youngsters in poverty, English-language learners, and children with disabilities. Researchers randomly assigned 3,000 pupils to preschool or control groups in 2009-10 and 2010-11, with 1,100 of them selected for more intensive study. By the start of kindergarten, children in the preschool program had gained 2½ months more learning, particularly in language, than peers in the control group. Those benefits faded by the end of 1st grade, however.

CRITIQUES: Pupils in the control group had significantly lower participation rates in the study than those attending the preschool. That required researchers to statistically create matched groups of students who participated in the program and those who did not.

LEGACY: As of the 2013-14 school year, Tennessee school districts are serving more than 18,000 4-year-olds in nearly 1,000 classrooms through the program, with a budget of more than $85 million.

Programs in Focus

At the same time, researchers and educators are starting to take a more-nuanced look at how early-childhood programs should work.

“What we’re seeing is like a tsunami of research on the science of learning at early ages,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a distinguished faculty fellow in psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh gosh, kids are behind by age 3 or 4,’ we know what curricular pieces are missing and what we need to focus on.”

Those in the field have more than a half-century of programmatic research to draw on. Federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs improved the health of children in poverty, but results have varied from site to site. Small-scale, but highly intensive, programs like the Abecedarian preschool study and the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan have shown significant improvement in academics and quality of life over decades, but have been harder to replicate in larger populations. And a host of state, local, and private preschool programs have shown varying effects.

Critics have pointed out that many programs, even highly intensive ones, show fading effects as students grow up. In part, that may be because the range of “normal” is wider in earlier grades, Mr. Ramey said. Some 4-year-old preschoolers may act more like 7-year-olds, while others may appear closer to 2, depending on their background, developmental trajectory, and how much exposure they have had to academic settings. But these differences often smooth out as students age.

Moreover, “preschool is not a vaccination,” said Barbara T. Bowman, a professor in child development and a co-founder of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in Chicago specializing in early-childhood-development studies and named for the developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson. “If you don’t have a very good kindergarten program, by 1st grade, you’ve lost your benefit. Unless they are building on that prior learning, why would they be any smarter? Preschool builds a foundation, but you have to keep teaching them.”

Tomoko Wakabayashi, the current director of the Ypsilanti, Mich.-based center that launched the landmark Perry Preschool Project, a study of an intensive early-child education program, argued that research on preschool and early-childhood education must take the long view—as the Perry Project did—because many of the benefits in executive function and other noncognitive skills don’t start to show up until much later in life.

“Some of the effects that came out, you never would have found them in preschool,” said Ms. Wakabayasi, who directs for Early Education Evaluation at the HighScope Educational Research Foundation. “If Perry hadn’t followed students for so long, a lot of the discussion around preschool would have been different; there would have been just a fade out of IQ [benefits], and that would have been it.”

Yet David J. Armor, a professor emeritus in policy and government affairs at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., argued in a recent critique of preschool studies for the Washington-based Cato Institute that researchers and policymakers may be too quick to generalize findings from the prior programs.

“It’s a really complex behavioral model that says you see fade-out in the present but [benefit] shows up in the future,” Mr. Armor said. “Before we extend this to universal preschool, we need to find out what is going on.”

Universal or Targeted?

That’s tough to do, because modern preschool policy is both spurred by and pulled between the twin concerns of anxious middle- and upper-class parents trying to find the “best” academic foundation for their children—often enrolling them in programs designed for highly at-risk children—and disadvantaged parents often unable to access preschools at all.

“The vast majority of our research has occurred in children with extremely low-resource homes; very often, we’re taking information from studying an extremely high-risk, vulnerable group and trying to apply it to all children,” said Sharon Landesman Ramey, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech Carilion. “But there’s no evidence that children from upper-middle-class families and beyond have need of public pre-K.”

In fact, an analysis of Head Start data from October found that about a third of the differences other studies have seen in the effectiveness of different sites is accounted for by differences in the format and audience of the centers. Full-day programs improved children’s cognitive skills most, and programs with home visits were most effective at boosting social-emotional learning. Moreover, children with less-educated mothers got the most benefit from the centers.

A separate study by the National Center for Research in Early Childhood Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, published in the journal Early Child Development and Care, found preschool programs universally available had, as one would expect, more middle- and upper-income and white children than did programs that targeted children in poverty. Universal programs tended to run for longer hours and have teachers with more education, but teachers in targeted programs rated higher on teacher-student interactions and classroom climate.

More recently, a study of Tools of the Mind, a preschool and kindergarten curriculum designed to improve executive functions like attention and reasoning, showed better effects for pupils in high-poverty schools than in wealthier schools.

“The concern is, there will develop a preschool inequality: The middle- and upper-class kids are going to Montessori and Waldorf preschools, … but for poor kids, we just have to get them reading and writing to get them through school,” Ms. Gopnik said. “That would be a terrible waste.”

Chasing Trends

Moreover, early-education researchers repeatedly voice concern that both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum would end up poorly served by making preschool more “formally” academic.

“I’ve been in some classrooms that make me want to pull my hair out, because the 4-year-old program looks like a bad, dumbed-down 3rd grade program,” Mr. Ramey said. “If you walk into any program and don’t see kids laughing and deeply engaged, you are looking at a bad program.”

Neuroscience and cognitive researchers may be partially to blame for encouraging educators and parents to “run after and do the next best thing,” and apply it too broadly, said Nathan A. Fox, a distinguished professor and interim chairman of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Take a hot K-12 focus like inhibitory control, for instance. The classic Stanford University “Marshmallow Study,” in which young children tried to delay gratification in order to get more treats, showed later benefits for students who were best able to resist temptation. But it also showed that the ability to wait develops naturally with age, and that 5-year-olds are better able to hold off for an extra marshmallow than 4-year-olds.

Trying to push that skill earlier has trade-offs, argued Yuko Munakata, a psychology professor specializing in developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Just because we can improve inhibitory control and executive function doesn’t mean we always want to,” she said at the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, in November.

Brain-imaging studies by Ms. Munakata have found 8-year-olds’ brain activity for impulse control looks “pretty similar to an adult’s,” but “3½-year-olds’ [brain activity] seems nothing like adults. They show no planning; they react in the moment.”

Pushing 3- and 4-year-olds to think more like adults may “impair statistical bottom-up learning, like that used to learn language and social conventions,” Ms. Munakata said—removing the mental flexibility preschoolers showed in Ms. Gopnik’s study on causal effects.

“The problem is, there’s a misinterpretation: When scientists say, ‘Children are learning a lot more than we thought,’ people think that looks like what people do in schools,” Ms. Gopnik said. “The message that children are learning and [that] this is a really critical stage has gotten through. But people are misinterpreting it to mean that children should be in scholastic settings earlier and earlier.”

Just as they changed how they viewed young children’s ability to learn, Ms. Hirsh-Pasek said researchers and educators may benefit from changing how they view the goal of early education, from closing potential achievement gaps to building students’ intrinsic skills and motivation to learn.

“What we’ve been doing is teaching kids how to build the tower,” she said, “but we are not giving them the context to explore the ... things they can do with the blocks.”

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