Tuesday, May 04, 2021

What the White House Should Know About Preschool

The current administration is proposing universal free preschool in the US. People keep asking me what I think about it. I support publicly funded early childhood education, but frankly, I'm worried. In my lifetime, policymakers and elected representatives, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, have always been wrong about education. Sadly, it appears to be one of our only true bipartisan issues: to be wrong about what our children need. I'm worried because history tells us that they will not listen to educators. I'm worried because they will say they want children to grow up to be successful, without having any idea what that means. I'm worried because they will listen to deep-pocket corporate education "reformers" who are more interested in a greasy buck than the future of young children. I'm worried that the current regime of academic testing and grading and ranking and judging will be foisted upon our youngest citizens. 

Back in the 80's I held the position of communications manager at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce where I kept my hair short (even sporting a flat top for a time) and wore suits with large shoulders and lots of extra fabric. About a year or so into the job, my assistant manager found a better position and as she moved up, I began interviewing to fill the vacancy. My superiors left it up to me to make the decision, so the resumes landed in my inbox where I took pleasure in sorting and categorizing them the way I had my baseball cards as a boy, using this process to bring the number of candidates down to a reasonable number, then scheduled interviews. Within a couple weeks, having spoken to a dozen or so prospects, I had my top five. Up to this point it had been a fairly easy process, but now I had five top quality candidates, each well-qualified on paper and general deportment.

So how did I make my final decision? The way every employer makes the final decision: I tried to imagine what it would be like to spend my days, day-after-day, with each one of them. Would I be able to handle this personality quirk or habit or would it get on my nerves? Did they seem upbeat or dour? Had we laughed together during the interview? Did we connect in any way on a personal level? In other words, putting transcripts and resumes and achievements aside, my final decision came down to how well I thought we would get along.

No one had told me about this as a young man. No matter how locked down and data-driven the world becomes, no matter how much they attempt to treat humans like resources, if you're going to move up in the world, be it in business, a profession, government, or education, if you don't work well with others, your only hope is to develop savant-like skills because otherwise people are just not going to want you around.

A longitudinal study conducted by researchers at Penn State and Duke Universities and published in the American Journal of Public Health (pdf), confirms what many of us have known for a long time. Social-emotional skills, the kind we practice in play-based preschools, are at least as important, and probably more important, than those precious "academic" skills that reformers and politicians continue to force upon our youngest citizens. The researchers followed a group of 800 children over the course of two decades to determine if there is a link between a child's social skills in kindergarten and how they were doing in early adulthood. 

Our analysis included 4 education and employment outcomes representing attainment through age 25 years. Kindergarten prosocial skills were significantly and uniquely predictive of all 4 outcomes: whether participants graduated from high school on time, completed a college degree, obtained stable employment in young adulthood, and were employed full time in young adulthood.

Of course, education is about more than just vocational success, but that is the leading argument used by those who are turning our public schools into test score coal mines: getting our children ready for those jobs of tomorrow. This study confirms what early childhood educators already know. It doesn't matter how traditionally brilliant a child may be, if he lacks the ability to resolve conflicts, share, and cooperate, he's going to suffer both in school and the workplace.

Two of the 3 outcomes representing public assistance in young adulthood were significantly linked to early social competence. Early prosocial skills were negatively related to the likelihood of living in or being on a waiting list for public housing.

Corporate reformers love to dress themselves in the garb of social do-gooders, even going so far as to call themselves "civil rights" leaders, claiming that their narrow focus on academics will lift those poor children out of poverty (approximately half of all public school children live in poverty), yet it appears that focusing on social skills will do more to keep these children "off the public dole."

Results for justice system outcomes demonstrated consistent patterns across different ages and variables. Early prosocial skills were significantly inversely predictive of any involvement with police before adulthood and ever being in a detention facility . . . juveniles' self-report of whether they had been arrested and or had appeared in court followed the same pattern. In young adulthood, early social competence was significantly and uniquely linked to being arrested and appearing in court. Finally, early social competence significantly predicted the number of arrests for a severe offense by age 25 years, as determined through public records.

Reformers and politicians of all stripes regularly pivot to "education" when asked about crime rates. It appears that a focus on social competence would do more to reduce criminal activity than any amount of drill-and-kill education.

And when it comes to health:

Although early social competence was not associated with alcohol and drug dependence diagnoses in early adulthood, our model showed that it correlated with substance abuse behavior. We found statistically significant associations in separate models of the number of days of binge drinking in the past month and the number of days marijuana was used . . . Finally, early prosocial skills significantly predicted number of years on medication for emotional or behavioral issues through high school.

The conclusion:

The growing body of literature that demonstrates the importance of noncognitive skills in development should motivate policymakers and program developers to target efforts to improve these skills to young children. Much evidence has shown how effective intervention in preschool and the early elementary years can improve childhood noncognitive skills in a lasting way. Enhancing these skills can have an impact in multiple areas and therefore has the potential for positively affecting individuals as well as community public health substantially.

I've been looking for years, and despite the corporate reformers' pretense of being hard-headed businessmen, I've never found a single longitudinal study that points to any sort of long term benefits of our current drive to hammer children with academics. Even Bill Gates, the billionaire leader of the corporate reformers, admits that we won't know if he's right for decades. In other words, they are using a generation of children as guinea pigs in their cruel experiments. Meanwhile, this study is just one of many that have shown that social-emotional skills in early childhood are the greatest predictor of future success.

As I read through some of the mainstream media reports (like this one from CNN) I found "experts" touting things like special social skills board games and books to help children exercise their social skills "muscles." What a load of crap. The way to learn social skills is to practice in a safe and loving environment. No video game or pre-packaged program can replace what we do in play-based preschools and kindergartens, places where children have the freedom to play with one another in self-directed and therefore meaningful ways, where they actually practice cooperating, sharing, resolving conflicts, and being sociable in the real world.

Perhaps the greatest accolade our school has ever received was from a local public school kindergarten teacher who regularly sees the children from our school in her classroom. She told me, "I can always tell which kids came from Woodland Park: they know how they should be treated and how to treat others." That's the secret to success.


Teacher Tom's Play Summit from the idea that our youngest citizens need us and that there is no force on earth more powerful than parents and educators united. This is nothing less than an attempt to bring the full web of the early childhood world together with the mission of defending childhood by transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? As the great children's troubadour and summit presenter Raffi sings, "Together we can turn this world around."

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