Controversies: Is Preschool Necessary?

You are a mother of a soon-to-be four year old in Tulsa. You have to decide which preschool he or she will attend next year. What do you do?

First, let’s look at your assumptions. Does your child actually need preschool?

Need is a strong word. Will your child benefit from preschool? In a nutshell – probably.

Some research suggests that if you are an educated parent who spends time talking and learning with your children, that your child probably will not gain any extra educational benefit from preschool. Further, the type of preschool education (how many parents are researching the heck out of Montessori vs. Waldorf vs. Reggio Emilia?) matters even less.

Preschool benefits children from disadvantaged families far more than it benefits children from families that already provide the socio-emotional support, learning tools, and exposure to literacy as a natural and holistic part of child-rearing.

This seems a bit confusion in the light of much research indicating the effects of high-quality preschool are beneficial across all income strata and race indicators, but it’s not as paradoxical as it seems at first. What preschool does, according to twin studies done by University of Texas psychologist Elliot Tucker-Drob, is neutralize the effects of the home environment on students who attend preschool at the age of four. Therefore, students who come from disadvantaged situations – including those who have childcare providers or parents who do not engage with them on a high level – benefit the most from a quality preschool situation. The home environment factor accounts for the increase across all socioeconomic and race indicators when looking at preschool benefits as a whole. In addition, some research suggests any academic advantage gained by sending a child to preschool fades over time.

So, again? In a nutshell – four year olds need educationally stimulating environments to score well on literacy and math skills indicators in kindergarten and in the elementary years. How they get that environment is up to you.

(As a side note, a lot of the data indicate intervention at the age of four is beneficial – but not necessarily earlier. However,that may have to do with the quality of the intervention and the continuity of care.)

What about socialization?

Is a good literacy and math score the only indicator of success? Not necessarily. Much of early childhood education is focused on helping children learn how to be students, whether it is operating in a structured environment or speaking up in class. There are also socialization factors – how to interact with peers, for example. Those are all also indicators of future success in the elementary years.

So, preschool still may assist children make the transition to kindergarten smoother, which sets them up for future success. This, of course, means the decision to send a child to preschool is a very child- and family- specific decision.

Notice the mays here. There is evidence that preschool helps even the educationally-advantaged child by improving social skills.

However, parental involvement in social-skill modeling is just as, or perhaps even more, important.Preschool teachers may help with some of those skills where parents don’t (or, suggest to parents on how to teach these skills). But it is by no means necessary that a child needs to go to preschool to learn how to interact with peers.

Consider this. Socialization is not the same as socializing.  Socialization is the art of learning social skills; socializing is interacting with peer groups.  Glen Dewar argues that center-based care may increase levels of aggression in students, citing Tucker-Drob’s twin studies as well as other studies (discussed in more detail below). However, the studies do not necessarily distinguish between daycares and preschools, and do not distinguish between the quality of care.

Finally, the fact that preschool may help children become good students in a structured learning environment may not really speak to parents who don’t desire their children in a structured environment – for example, many homeschoolers. Homeschooling, of course, turns the educational value of preschooling on its head as well, as most homeschoolers (and many other stay at home parents regardless of their choice of kindergarten) don’t wait until the magical age of five to start teaching anyway, thereby ‘homeschooling’ their preschoolers.

This still begs a few questions. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Childcare versus preschool versus prekindergarten:

One issue with the various studies out there is that the terms are often mixed. As I stated in my private schools post, it is difficult to distinguish between center-based daycare and preschool, especially as some centers provide daycare for younger children but preschool-like curricula for older children. In addition, the terms preschool and prekindergarten are often treated as interchangeable (In the latter case, we will attempt to use the term prekindergarten only when referring to a public school program occurring on-site at an elementary school -basically, an extra year of public school before kindergarten).

One study indicates that for disadvantaged children, any sort of center-based care, including daycare, provides a comparative advantage over parental care or informal familial care. The study is complicated by the fact the parents self-reported the type of care their child received (ex: center-based daycare or preschool). In addition, some children received a mix of care (for example, preschool plus a grandmother caring for them on off days).  Nevertheless, the results of the study seem to be consistent with conventional wisdom -those disadvantaged students benefited most from prekindergarten collocated with the elementary school, less from private preschool, and even less from center-based daycare. But all had a positive effect in comparison to no center-based care at all.

This is in stark contrast to studies indicating that center-based care pales in comparison to nanny or familial care – but in those studies, 1.) the quality of the center based care was not discussed, 2.) the type of center based care was not discussed, and 3.) the quality of nanny or familial care was not discussed.

Some other studies have shown positive effects of center-based on groups of children, mostly disadvantaged children but also other, more advantaged groups of children. At the very least, the studies have shown no negative effect if the quality of care was considered high. However, again, these studies did not often distinguish between types of center-based care (preschool vs. daycare) and did not compare with home-reared children.

A 2007 federally-funded study indicated that four years of center-based daycare correlated with slightly higher teacher-reported aggression by students by sixth grade. In fact, there may be lasting effects of daycare stress.  However, the fact that the aggression is teacher-reported,the length of time in daycare necessary to make a difference, and the very very small increase in aggression these reports suggest, makes the ‘danger’ of daycare in this case not every significant. In addition, the study shows that the quality of mothering has a much higher effect than anything about the daycare itself.

What can we draw from those mixed results? The type and quality of care matters. High-quality center based care can make a difference in overcoming bad home environments. Otherwise, it’s not certain that kids are better off in daycare or preschool centers as opposed to at home.

So, centers=good,usually when it comes to disadvantaged children. What about in-home daycare?

Research from 2007 indicates that toddlers and preschoolers in mixed-age settings, especially among large groups of children, experience some negative effects within in-home daycare.  Toddlers, especially, appeared to receive less-sensitive care, and preschoolers displayed more aggression. But again, this seems to be relative to the quality of care provided in the in-home daycares studied.

So mixed ages is bad.

Not necessarily. In childcare, maybe. However, educationally, mixed ages may be beneficial to the student.

We’ll look into this more later.

So what you keep emphasizing is that quality matters.


But, can sending a child to daycare (before preschool age) harm their emotional development with their mothers?

Probably not. Again, quality matters. However, in numerous studies of the long-term emotional effect of daycare on infants to kindergarteners indicate that although their quantity of time with their parents was obviously lower, the quality was unchanged, likely because the working parents made up for lost time. In early childhood, there may even have been some emotional benefit to entering daycare, although the beneficial effects diminished by the time the children reached kindergarten and first grade.

Okay, you got me. Center-based care is generally good. Quality preschools and prekindergarten is best. So, what about full-time vs. part-time preschool?

A 1999-2001 study on a universal four year old program for Francophone students in Ontario compared half-day students (1999-2000) to full-day students (2000-2001).  The results highlighted almost across-the-board positive results for the full-day students over the half-day students, including superior vocabulary, comprehension, and adjustment to academic learning.  The results did not highlight any difference is psychomotor development.

However, the results may be complicated by the fact that it surveyed Francophone students in an English-speaking province.  Much of the goal of the program was to encourage the use of French both in school and at home. In some ways, the program appears to resemble an immersion experience as many of the students spoke English in their daily lives.  It may therefore be more difficult to parlay those results into something useful for the typical preschool experience.

However, there is one notable result.  Teacher reports indicated students in the full-day program exhibited more hyperactive behavior, inattentiveness, and less willingness to share.

What IS a ‘quality pre-school’?  Do I need to find a Montessori program or a Reggio Emilia program?

I wouldn’t worry about choosing between the specialized teaching styles. That’s not the marker of quality we’re talking about. We’re looking at the teacher certifications, teacher pay, and teacher-to-student ratio – something we’ll discuss further when exploring Oklahoma’s quality system.

What about learning the three Rs? That comes into play, right?

No. In fact, play is the operative word here.

Noted blogger Penelope Trunk, with her typical acerbic style, took President Obama to task with her entry, “Univeral Pre-K is Bad for Everyone. ” Look, at first, I was expecting to agree with her wholeheartedly. Offensive or not, Trunk often cuts to the heart of the matter. And, as a small-government lover myself, I don’t generally like universal anythingˆ.

One of Trunk’s many objections stems from the fact that the early childhood years are better served by play rather than academic learning.

That idea is backed up by a ton of research.

Formal instruction may hinder a young child’s creative learning skills. For example, in two separate studies, when young children were given a toy and able to explore it own their own, they were able to discover the various features of the toy and even come up with novel uses of their own. When an authority figure showed the child how the toy worked – whether by demonstrating only one aspect of the toy or providing an illogical use of the toy – the children played the way they were shown and did not discover new ways to play with the toy. (See the studies here and here)

Let’s return to the Francophone program in Ontario. As I stated earlier, the full-day students appeared to have a decrease in social and attentiveness skills relative to the part-day students (based on teacher observations). Why? The study authors speculate:

These two results could be explained by a higher level of fatigue among children who attended the full-day program for 4-year-olds. The parents and program administrators noted that the children in the full-day program were tired at the end of their day in class, while this remark was rarely made with regard to children in the half-day program. …our results may indicate that the adaptation of a half-day program to a full-day curriculum does not produce an improvement in the behavioral development of children.

While we lack sufficient data to explore this increased level of fatigue, it is possible that teachers in the full-day preschool program focus more attention than did teachers in the half-day program on providing pedagogical activities to prepare children for the academic learning of the first grade. Therefore, they may have relinquished a play-focused educational approach that targets children’s overall development. As such, the paper-and-pencil activities completed by the children may have benefited their academic development at the expense of the anticipated positive effects on their socialization and behavior.

In fact, too much formal instruction in the early education realm may lead to children’s being mislabeled as ADHD and may negatively affect the perception of boys’ behavior in the classroom, thereby increasing a gender gap in grades. In addition, the lack of play may affect emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self control.

We will dig more into the research regarding play-based education in follow-up posts.

But Trunk confuses preschool with a place where children cannot play.

Can a stay-at-home parent provide this level of play education? Sure. Of course, the stay at home parent may instead decide to chunk her child in front of the TV for hours at a time to get a break (I’m pointing fingers at myself here). Can a child care facility provide this level of play education? Sure. Of course, the childcare facility might be more focused on getting kids to eat on a schedule, sleep on a schedule, and stop hitting each other.  Can a preschool provide this level of play education? Hopefully. Of course, the preschool may instead be focusing too much on rote memorization and ABCs in order to prove parents that they are ‘teaching’ their children something.

And therefore we again reach my bottom line. Is preschool necessary for your child? No. Can it be helpful? Yes. But, it’s going to be an individual decision.

Next Up: State- provided quality preschool education – in Tulsa, Oklahoma, what that means for universal Pre-K and HeadStart, and if the immersion education and age-banded classes offered in some Tulsa classrooms is beneficial.

After that: Private educational models – Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so much more.

After after: A new look at redshirting and greenshirting kindergarteners, and more on play-based education.


6 thoughts on “Controversies: Is Preschool Necessary?

  1. Pingback: Controversies: Does Head Start Work? | Six Forty Nine

  2. Pingback: Is Tulsa a Beacon of Excellence in the Early Education Landscape? | Midtown Tulsa Parents

  3. Pingback: Universal Pre-Kindergarten: Evidence from the Field | Six Forty Nine

  4. Pingback: Welcome to the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting! First Edition: Preschool | Science of Mom

  5. Pingback: Why Johnny is Broke: Marrying Market-Driven Principles with Government Excess in Early Education | Six Forty Nine

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