There is a lot of discussion on the news and online, in schools and homes across the country about whether or not having a robust and even mandatory pre-k program in our schools is necessary. There are all kinds of statistics pointing to the advantages of pre-k. For example, the “Chicago Longitudinal Study” found that pre-k recipients were 29% more likely to graduate from high school than their peers who did not attend pre-k. The “State Efforts to Evaluate the Effects of Pre-Kindergarten” study out of Yale found that pre-k attendees were 44% less likely to repeat grades than their peers who did not attend pre-k.
So it is a slam dunk that we need pre-k... Right?
Every kid should go... Right?
Believe it or not, these are not simple as yes and no answers. It would be easy to look at these statistics and say that all 4-year-olds need to be in a pre-kindergarten prep class. It would also be easy to infer that if our kids all attend pre-k, our kids will be doing much better in school and have a much better chance of academic success. But when you read these studies a little closer, you find the groups are looking at the kids who are at the highest levels of risk. These are the kids who are the most likely recipients of special education due to either learning and/or behavioral disorders. These are also the kids most likely from homes that are at higher levels of risk due to poverty and divorce.
So what... Right?
If it works, it works... Right?
We are all concerned about the state of our schools and we all want the right answers. Pre-kindergarten for kids may very well be one of the big “right” answers, but I think we need to approach mandating pre-k very carefully. What is the objective? If it is to simply accelerate our kids' academic capacity to make kindergarten more academic-centric, then I think we are missing the mark. While reading and writing and doing math are the ultimate goals of education, if they are the sole goals then the education will never be complete. This point is even more critical in pre-k than in primary grades.
Think about it for a minute: Are our kids falling behind in kindergarten, first and second grades because they cannot read and write with the necessary level of proficiency? I thought that is what kindergarten and first and second grades were for. No, we have kids lagging behind and dragging their classmates behind -- not because they don’t show up for kindergarten unprepared to read -- because they show up for kindergarten unprepared to socialize.
The pre-k through early second grade years are within the “Preoperational Stage” of the Piaget Stages of Development. During this stage, kids are developing memory and are beginning to use their imagination to create cohesive stories and link experiences to play. During this stage, kids are an absolute sponge and can learn languages and other abstract processes at an accelerated rate because it is all new and they do not have the rules of learning yet to create boundaries that may or may not support their learning capacity. But as much of a sponge as these kids are, they are not yet fully capable of learning complex processes such as cause and effect, time management, and even comparisons. In other words, a 5-year-old might be able to quickly learn multiple phrases in multiple languages, but doesn't yet realize their actions have consequences and that they therefore need to be accountable for those actions.
I do believe in pre-kindergarten preparation. Some kids will do great in a “Mother’s Day Out” program coupled with a robust accountability parenting at home. Some kids will do great at a day care and learn structure through that time. Some kids will come from a very active home and will learn social responsibility through their interactions with their brothers and sisters. However, some kids will come to the first day of kindergarten not having a clue why they need to sit down when the teachers tells them to. They won’t understand the concept of sharing, and they definitely do not understand that taking something just because they want it is wrong.
I say all of this to say that the reason some pre-k programs are successful is not because they give our kids a head start in reading or adding or writing. They are successful because they begin to help our kids understand and conceptualize the process of socialization and the stratification of authority and accountability. We might take it for granted that a kid coming into kindergarten will know to obey the teacher, but why would be take that for granted? Have you been in public lately and seen some kids that do not obey their parents? Why then would they obey a stranger? And when you get one or two of those kids in a classroom, then suddenly we have kindergarten teachers teaching the basics of social responsibility and accountability to the detriment of academics.
Now, this is not to say that kindergarten teachers do not need to teach socialization; on the contrary, it is vitally important. However, they should be teaching the socialization necessary to begin learning, not how to begin being around other kids and interacting with peers and authority. Those are lessons kids need to come to school with a basis of understanding.
Over the next couple of weeks we will explore the pros and cons of pre-k.
As with any initiative, it can be incredibly important and successful if it is done right.
As with any initiative, it can be an absolute bust if it is done as a quick fix without the proper focus on results if it is not implemented correctly.
Pre-k can be a difference maker, but it can also be one more grade level that is behind from an expectations standpoint because we have kids coming into pre-k that are not ready for the academic benchmarks of that aged group.
Let’s think boldly and out of the box on initiatives like pre-k.
Let’s look at the true need of this age group: It isn’t to read and write and add. Those skills will come from the very capable hands and minds and mouths of our teachers. Instead, pre-k should be a time to focus on how to walk into a classroom and be a part of a group. It should focus on how to listen and mind a teacher. It should focus on how to work independently as well as part of a group. It should be about how to play and work and sing and eat and walk and talk and run with your classmates while still doing the tasks and work that each individual is accountable for. Pre-k can be a game changer if we use it as the first step in educating the whole child, not just the part that is on the standardized test. I have had a friend tell me once that it is much easier to teach a kid when they aren’t throwing a chair at you. Let’s teach our kids to sit in a chair an listen as part of the process of moving towards teaching them to read and write.
Yes, pre-k can be a difference maker. It is most likely necessary. But we have to do it right. We have to begin realizing that the sole focus on academics alone is not truly educating a child when that child’s behaviors keep him from learning.
The balance of intellectual capacity and social quotient is how intelligence is measured.
We need to start nurturing whole intelligence early and often.
We need to feed intellect and social capacity hand in hand.
We have to educate the whole child. And pre-k is a great place to start.