In last month’s First Friday Q&A, I talked about why quality preschool is so valuable, with the caveat that hanging a shingle that says PRESCHOOL and congregating with children, is not enough to qualify for the benefits early education has shown in established studies.
I used a pie analogy — chocolate pie and mud pie are both called “pie”, but there’s certainly a big difference between them.
Well, I’ve found a much better analogy. And it comes along with a study that appears to substantiate just what I was talking about.
A recent article from NPR outlined the unsettling finding in a study out of Vanderbilt University, showing that while participants in the state’s PreK program showed significant advantages at the start of kindergarten, those advantages disappeared by the end of kindergarten, and in fact, by second grade the children began to underperform when compared to their peers who had not received state PreK services.
You’d have to believe that’s exactly what the state’s government officials were asking, after pouring $86 million a year into their state program.
Some observers have been quick to jump to the conclusion that preschool doesn’t really matter. The state is wasting their money.
While the latter assertion is something I’m sure Tennessee will be examining, the former is hard to argue. As I mentioned in the First Friday video, as policy-makers have quoted, and as the NPR article cited, there are many studies that substantiate the beneficial impact of quality early education.
But the devil is in the details. And it’s the word “quality” that makes all the difference. You can’t change the formula and expect the same outcome.
It appears that’s very likely what happened in Tennessee. According to the study’s author, Dale Farran, her results are not a condemnation of preschool as a whole, but perhaps a sign that the PreK program that has been implemented doesn’t have all the right ingredients.
In fact, the NPR article cites the man Tennessee hired to help create benchmarks for their program, Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, when it states, “Tennessee’s program looks good on paper but … the state made a few key mistakes when it scaled the program up to more than 900 classrooms across 95 counties. First, it created no mechanism for quality control to make sure teachers were following best practices from one end of the state to the other. Also, Barnett says, the state underfunded the program.” (NPR)
(And here’s where the oh-so-much-better metaphor comes in.)
Farran responded, saying this undercutting may be the source of the problem. “It’s like saying spinach is really good for you, but we can’t afford spinach. But here, I’ve got this Easter grass. Maybe that will be just as good.” (NPR)
Brilliant metaphor, right?
Quality early childhood education provides great benefits for children. But strip that quality experience of all its nutrients and it doesn’t matter what you call it or what you spent on it, it won’t have the same impact.