Category Archives: preschool

Lessons for Americans, From a Chinese Classroom (Perri Klass, M.D.)

“Perri Klass is a pediatrician who writes fiction and non-fiction. She writes about children and families, about medicine, about food and travel, and about knitting. Her newest book is a novel, The Mercy Rule (Families! Children! Doctors! Pediatrics! Private schools! Crazy parents! Baseball!), and the book before that was a work of non-fiction, Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor, written in the form of letters to her older son as he starts medical school (Medical training! Scientific advances! Ethical dilemmas! Family!). She lives in New York City, where she is Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at New York University, and she has three children of her own. She is also National Medical Director of Reach Out and Read, a national literacy organization which works through doctors and nurses to promote parents reading aloud to young children.”

She also writes periodically for the New York Times on children. This article appeared January 20, 2020

SHANGHAI — We sat in toddler-size wooden chairs around an orderly circle of Chinese 2-year-olds, busy with circle time. As a parent of three children who collectively spent 15 years in American day care, I am very familiar with circle time.

But I was in this Shanghai classroom as a professor, with college students from many different countries in a class I’m teaching here on children and childhood.

We were observing in a private kindergarten, designed to provide young children — starting at age 2 — with a carefully structured, fully bilingual curriculum, especially important because English language skills are vital for educational success in China.

Visits to Chinese educational institutions allow the college students in my course to get a look at real children and the ways that they learn, while also thinking about Chinese society today. They get windows onto certain slices of this complex country: a high-end private bilingual program that starts with toddlers; a city high school for academically gifted students; a middle school created for the children of the rural migrants who have come by the millions from China’s poorer provinces to work in Shanghai, but whose rights to social benefits are severely limited in the city.

These visits offer the college students insights into many of the social issues facing China, and we spend time in class discussing questions like the huge role that the annual gaokao college entrance exam plays in determining a child’s educational destiny (English is one of the required subjects), the pressures on families that create a culture of cram schools, and the controversies over reserving spots in colleges for kids from rural areas.

But all of those questions have powerful resonances when you think about the issues of childhood education and child development, which have to be addressed in every country. As my college students discuss the different facets of childhood around the world, visiting the Chinese schools also helps them in remembering and thinking about what children look like at different ages, and how they play and interact and learn.

So there we were, watching the Chinese 2-year-olds at circle time, as they answered questions in English about the months of the year and the days of the week, and we watched them, as well, pointing out the written words — in English letters — that named those days and those months. In my own children’s day care experience, years ago in Cambridge, Mass., no one in the 2-year-old room was teaching — or learning — written words for days or months or anything else in English, let alone in any other language.

Then we watched 3-year-olds at their circle time, taking part in a lesson on Humpty Dumpty in which they read the words — in English — and went on to discuss the story, answering the “W questions”: What was Humpty Dumpty? He was an egg. Where did he sit? On a wall, of course. They jumped around the three-dimensional cardboard “wall” that figured heavily in the story, demonstrating their understanding of English terms like “behind,” “beside” and “in front of” (that’s early math in action).

At the end of the lesson, the teacher provided them with a number of eggs, all but one wrapped in Bubble Wrap or cloth or cardboard. The children dropped these from a uniform height, and sure enough, the naked, unprotected egg was smashed — everyone was gleeful.

And we watched older children at circle time, studying the animals under the sea — the octopus has eight legs, the sea turtle is a reptile. They could all read, they were all comfortable in English. More than that, they were clearly comfortable in the classroom; they knew all the subtle rules of classroom conduct, like making eye contact with the teacher, raising their hands to answer, giving their answers in complete sentences.

As we walked through the bright hallways, decorated, like day care and kindergarten hallways everywhere, with personalized cubbies (all the names here in English and Mandarin) and children’s art, we could hear much more raucous noises coming from the gym where groups of children were presumably engaging in more physical — and more chaotic — activity. All the classroom schedules featured playtime, built into the day in carefully programmed increments.

But in showing us circle time, what the school was showcasing was something far more curriculum-based and far more instructional than anything my own children experienced in their years of day care. In fact, the people running the kindergarten acknowledged that parents in Shanghai are deeply aware of the competitive nature of the educational system for which the children are being prepped — and expect them to emerge ready to take tests and excel.

I knew that some of the college students would have concerns about whether what we were seeing represented early academic pressure on very young children. But I also knew that my students were impressed — and so was I.

The classrooms were cheerful, the teachers were positive, and the children seemed to be engaged in the back-and-forth of learning. Yes, the 2-year-olds sometimes seemed to be speaking English sentences they had memorized, without necessarily completely understanding them — but that’s also a part of how children learn language, and they were clearly enjoying shouting out the words together. And the older children — the 4- and 5- and 6-year-olds — understood what they were saying well enough to be making jokes and even teasing their teachers.

When my own children were in day care, all those years ago, I never yearned after curriculum — I just assumed that my children would read on schedule, and read well, that they would learn math just fine when the time came (by the way, the Shanghai day care center told us proudly that it follows the Singapore math curriculum, which produces much better results than our methods in the United States.) But watching the process of deliberately creating bilingual 5- and 6-year-olds, taking full advantage of that remarkable developmental window that helps children learn fluent language in those early years, I felt downright wistful.

To speak a second language from childhood is to have a more capacious brain and a larger connection to the world. I never aspired to having young children who were prepped for testing, or who had been drilled to get a jump on elementary school subjects. But I looked at the way those 2- and 3-year-olds navigated a second language, and I wondered whether I could have done this for my children — or found them a setting that would do it.

The language of upscale early childhood centers is international. Private day cares and preschools in the United States offer the same assurances we heard from the curriculum director in Shanghai that every facet of a young child’s development, from motor and cognitive to social and emotional will be nurtured, fostered and polished; everything will be attended to, from early math to character development.

I looked up the website for my own children’s beloved former day care center, which was certainly a privileged and protected place, in the best of ways. I noted with approval that nothing is posted about formal education or curriculum; the website celebrates the importance of play in young children’s lives.

I took a deep breath. I let go of the fantasy of the bilingual children — I love the children I have, and I loved the childhood that day care gave them. They’re all doing fine, and they’ve had occasion to study languages, in high school and college, and none of them has ever asked accusingly if we couldn’t have managed an earlier start.

But, man, those Shanghai 5-year-olds were impressive.

This article again illustrates the bind that many Americans experience when it comes to schooling in general and kindergarten and preschool, in particular. That bind is how to best combine the value of play, exploration, cooperation, and developing the whole preschooler with the value of excelling individually, acquiring academic skills (e.g., reading, math, learning another language) as early as possible. Klass’s final paragraphs reveal that value clash in comparing what she sees observing Shanghai youngsters with her own children.

This ongoing struggle over what is the best way to teach and best way for young children and youth to learn has been around since the beginnings of tax-supported public education. Reduced to soundbites it is traditional vs. progressive, Deweyan ideas vs. conservative educational practices, teacher-centered vs. student-centered.

There is no one best way to teach children or have children learn given the variation in innate abilities and lived experiences in preschoolers and youth and the beliefs and expertise that teachers bring to the classroom.

Long sentence, I admit, but it summarizes my experience in schools and the research I have done for decades.

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Toddlers and Touchscreens: What Does the Research Actually Say? (Marnie Kaplan)

“Prior to joining Bellwether, Marnie [Kaplan] worked as a policy analyst at Success Academy Charter Schools, where she analyzed local, state, and federal education policies. Previously she worked as a program manager at the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she tracked and analyzed special education compliance, and as a Stoneleigh Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Education Law Center, where she proposed solutions to reform Pennsylvania’s alternative education system and improve the accountability of cyber charter schools. Marnie began her career as a middle school English and social studies teacher in New York City. She went on to earn her M.P.P. and J.D. from Georgetown University. While in graduate school, Marnie interned at the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the DC Public Schools’ Urban Education Leaders Internship Program; taught street law to high school students; worked in a day care center; volunteered with 826DC; and served as a research assistant to the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Marnie also holds a master’s in the science of teaching from Pace University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania” (Bio taken from Bellwether staff descriptions)

This post appeared December 8, 2016 in Ahead of the Heard, A Bellwether blog.

 

 

 

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You walk by an outdoor restaurant and see a toddler watching a movie on an iPad while his parents eat dinner. Your first thought is:

  • a) those parents deserve a break
  • b) screens don’t belong at meal time
  • c) is the video educational?
  • d) alert: bad parenting

Is there an app to help us decide how to respond? No. But a quorum of pediatricians might be able to help.

From 1999 till 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraged the use of screen media by children under two (which might have led an informed passerby to loosely circle answer d while feeling slightly judgmental). But just last month, the AAP departed from its previous strict restriction on screen exposure for this age group.

There was a lot of media attention heralding the departure from the “no screens under two rule.” Some celebrated the beginning of the end of the “screen wars.” In reality, while the new guidelines offer a more nuanced view of screen exposure, the debate will likely rage on. Screens continue to pervade modern life so rapidly that research can’t keep up.

Let me fill in some background on why the AAP changed its recommendations. The “no screens before two” rule was first issued in 1999 as a response to interactive videos for infants such as Baby Einstein. Research showed these videos decreased children’s executive functioning and cognitive development. In October 2011, the AAP reaffirmed its original statement regarding infants and toddlers and media. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age two, studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems, and studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. Since this statement was developed through  a lengthy internal review process, it was drafted before the iPad was first introduced to the market in April of 2010. So for the last five years, the strict restriction on screen time included touch screens even though the committee hadn’t evaluated the emerging research on this media.

In the intervening years, many doctors and scientists urged the AAP committee on children and media to revisit their recommendations and take a more balanced approach to media. In 2014, Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, urged experts to base their recommendations on evidence-based decision making instead of values or opinions. He criticized pediatricians for focusing too much on negative effects and overlooking the positive effects of media on children. Later that year, Dr. Dimitri Christikas, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at University of Washington, suggested rethinking the guidelines to distinguish between TV and interactive screens. Dr. Christikas was one of the first researchers to determine that the time babies and toddlers spend in front of the TV was detrimental to their health and development. He posited that the time young children spend interacting with touch screens is more analogous to time playing with blocks than time passively watching a television. In 2015, a trio of pediatricians published an article offering further support for the idea that interactive media necessitated different guidelines than television. In the same article, they recognizing the need for further research and argued that doctors should emphasize the benefits of parents and children using interactive media together.

So what are a quorum of pediatricians saying in 2016?

The new AAP guidelines still set rather strict restrictions for children under eighteen months. The AAP recommends that infants and toddlers only be exposed to screens for the purpose of video chatting with family members. This squares with some emerging observational research but likely also displays pediatricians’ understanding of modern life. The new AAP guidelines say parents can introduce children between 18 and 24 months to education shows. For children between the ages of two and five, the AAP recommends a max of one hour per day of “high-quality programs,” which they define as PBS and Sesame Network.

But there remains a lot that pediatricians, neuroscientists, and developmental psychologists cannot say conclusively. How does a small child clamoring to watch videos of herself affect a child’s conception of self?  Does the sensory experience of interactive screens have negative effects on small children’s brains?

Scientists continue to approach the research regarding long-term effects of this exposure from different perspectives. In fact, earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, new research was presented which hinted at the possible detrimental effects of touch screens on young brains. Dr. Jan Marino Ramirez, from the Center for Integrative Brain Research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, presented new research which revealed that excessive exposure to sensory stimulation early in life had significant effects on the behavior and brain circuits of mice. The mice acted like they had attention deficit disorder (ADD), showed signs of learning problems, and engaged in risky behavior. Ramirez therefore recommends minimizing screen time for young children. In a recent interview, Dr. Leah Krubitzer, an evolutionary neurobiologist at University of California, Davis, was less concerned about the detrimental impacts of screen time. She believes the benefits may outweigh the negative effects. Krubitzer argues that fast-moving interactive touch screens may prepare children for our increasingly fast-paced world.

So, parents of young children can now feel less guilty encouraging their toddlers to video chat with family across the country. And possibly we have a more clear answer for the scenario above (e.g., If the child is at least two years old, the appropriate response is c, at least for now).

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Does Pre-Kindergarten Education Work – or Not? (Isabel Sawhill)

Making policy to improve schooling has been popular for the past century. And constant. Because making policy is a political decision and schools have been vulnerable to every gust of the reform wind, research and best-available- evidence has played a part in that decision-making process. The past three U.S. Presidents and Congress have supported pre-kindergarten programs with both words and dollars. Yet critics have pointed out shortcomings to both the research and argument for bringing three- and four year-olds into a school-like setting. Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., summarizes well the point-counterpoint of the policy debate. This op-ed appeared April 19, 2016.

 

In this tumultuous election year one wonders whether reasoned debate about education or other policies is still possible. That said, research has a role to play in helping policymakers make good decisions – if not before than after they are in office. So what do we know about the ability of early education to change children’s lives? At the moment, scholars are divided. One camp argues that pre-k doesn’t work, suggesting that it would be a mistake to expand it. Another camp believes that it is one of the most cost-effective things we could do to improve children’s lifetime prospects, especially if they come from disadvantaged homes.

The pre-k advocates cite several earlier demonstrations, such as the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs. These have been rigorously evaluated and found to improve children’s long-term success, including less use of special education, increases in high school graduation, reduced crime, and higher earnings. Participants in the Abecedarian program, for example, earned 60 percent more than controls by age 30. Mothers benefit as well since more of them are able to work. The Abecedarian project increased maternal earnings by $90,000 over the course of the mother’s career. Finally, by reducing crime, improving health, and decreasing the need for government assistance, these programs also reduce the burden on taxpayers. According to one estimate, the programs even increase GDP to the tune of $30 to $80 billion (in 2015 dollars) once the children have moved into and through their working lives. A careful summary of all this research can be found in this year’s Economic Report of the President. The Report notes, and I would emphasize, that no one study can do justice to this issue, and not every program has been successful, but the weight of the evidence points strongly to the overall success of high-quality programs. This includes not just the small, very intensive model programs, but importantly the large, publically-funded pre-school programs such as those in Boston, Tulsa, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Some estimates put the ratio of benefits to costs at $7 to $1. Very few investments promise such a large return. Pre-k advocates admit that any gains in IQ may fade but that boosts to nonacademic skills such as self-control, motivation, and planning have long-term effects that have been documented in studies of siblings exposed to differing amounts of early education.

The pre-k critics point to findings from rigorous evaluations of the national Head Start program and of a state-wide program in Tennessee. These studies found that any gains from pre-k at the end of the program had faded by the time the children were in elementary school. They argue that the positive results from earlier model programs, such as Perry and Abecedarian, may have been the result of their small scale, their intensity, and the fact that the children involved had few alternative sources of care or early education. Children with more than adequate home environments or good substitute child care do not benefit as much, or at all, from participating in a pre-k program. In my view, this is an argument for targeted programs or for a universal program with a sliding scale fee for those who participate. In the meantime, it is too early to know what the longer-term effects of current programs will be. Despite their current popularity among scholars, one big problem with randomized controlled trials (RCTs) is that it takes a generation to get the

answers you need. And, as is the case with Perry and Abecedarian, by the time you get them, they may no longer be relevant to contemporary environments in which mothers are better educated and more children have access to out-of-home care.

In the end, you can’t make public policy with RCTs alone. We need to incorporate lessons from neuroscience about the critical changes to the brain that occur in early childhood and the insights of specialists in child development. We need to consider what happens to non-cognitive skills over the longer term. We need to worry about the plight of working mothers, especially single parents, who cannot work without some form of out-of-home care. Providing that care on the cheap may turn out to be penny wise and pound foolish. (A universal child care program in Quebec funded at $5 a day led to worse behavior among the kids in the program.) Of course we need to continuously improve the effectiveness of pre-k through ongoing evaluation. That means weeding out ineffective programs along with improving curriculum, teacher preparation and pay, and better follow-up in the early grades. Good quality pre-k works; bad-quality does not. For the most disadvantaged children, it may require intervening much earlier than age 3 or 4 as the Abecedarian program did — with strikingly good results.

Our society is coming apart. Scholars from AEI’s Charles Murray to Harvard’s Robert Putnam agree on that point. Anything that can improve the lives of the next generation should command our attention. The evidence will never be air-tight. But once one adds it all up, investing in high quality pre-k looks like a good bet to me.

 

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Kindergarten Teachers’ Effects on Five Year-Olds’ Futures

I never went to preschool. I also missed being in kindergarten when I went to a Pittsburgh (PA) elementary school in the early 1940s. It was my loss.

Why a loss? Because there is much evidence–both quantitative and qualitative–that what five year-olds learn in kindergarten when strong ties exist between them and their  teachers produce short- and long-term effects (e.g., cognitive gains, social behaviors, and psychological benefits) that last into adulthood.  In the past few decades, educational researchers and social scientists have fastened upon metrics that seemingly prove that  such outcomes have occurred (see here and here).

More recently, economists have gotten on board with their algorithms and cost-benefit analyses and found that preschool and early childhood school experiences did, indeed, have long-term effects on adult earnings, getting married, raising families, and daily behavior in the community. See here, here, and here. Because economists have accrued outsized influence on U.S. policies in health care, education, government operations, and other sectors, their cost-benefit analyses have helped in building political coalitions supporting investments in early childhood education, especially for low-income families.

But you do not need social scientists to tell parents or early childhood educators that kindergarten helps all children build mind, body, emotional strengths, and lifetime habits. For decades, preschool and kindergarten teachers have believed that such effects lasted beyond preschool into elementary and secondary grades. Middle class parents also.

Remember Robert Fulgrum’s best seller, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten?  Although critics have called the collection of short essays trite and sugary, the book  has sold over seven million books since 1988 and continues to sell well a quarter-century later. The part about kindergarten sums up what so many Americans still believe are core values and behaviors learned in families and school.

Share everything.
Play Fair.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Sure, these behaviors are learned in families first and then in preschool and kindergarten. Academics call these learned behaviors socialization . Five year-olds learn how to behave in groups in the next dozen years as students and as adults later.  Ah, but trying to get metrics to capture these all-important learned behaviors  still remain beyond the reach of current social scientists including economists.

If Fulgrum’s platitudes annoy social scientists and educational researchers, few ever  ask adults about their memories of those early years in school. Even fewer researchers listen to those parents who remember well their kindergarten teachers–experiences at least three to four decades earlier. But all of that has now changed with the foot-to-the-pedal, standards-based school reform since the early 1980s. Those reforms have altered the character of kindergartens.

Kindergartens today have become academic boot camps for first grade. Much time is spent on getting children to read, learn arithmetic and getting tested.There are now pre- and post-tests for reading and math, most often timed to get supposedly accurate measurements. And Common Core standards for kindergarten are yet to be implemented with more of the same academic concentration.

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Many teachers and parents have complained about the loss of play-time and children choosing activities. As standards-based testing and accountability have seized three-to-five year-olds, parents and teachers have noted increases in thumb-sucking and bed-wetting. In short, top-down pressures to teach academics to young children has reshaped the relationship between early childhood teachers and young children in negative ways (see here and here).

So test-driven policies using easily quantifiable measures have indeed influenced how kindergarten teachers practice by squeezing students to achieve academically and, in doing so, has eroded the all-important teacher-child relationship, one that remains central to what five year-olds learn and practice for years to come.

And here is the rub. Policymakers have largely ignored the teacher-child relationship–arguing that they are more concerned with tangible outcomes not how teachers teach or children learn. As for researchers, they have been of little help since they have a hard time identifying metrics that capture the quality of that child-teacher relationship and its links to socializing children and subsequent academic and non-academic effects  on adult behavior. Without quantitative measures to capture the impact of the   teacher-child  relationship, policymakers skip over it and grab at what can be reduced to numbers; that all-important relationship is missing-in-action when policymakers make decisions. And that is unfortunate.

In the current climate of test-driven standards and coercive accountability, policymakers and researchers depend far too much upon test scores and not whether what is measured captures the cognitive and social-psychological habits young children acquire and the all-important relationship they have with their teachers. If there are no measures, then these important outcomes do not exist.

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Thanks to Susan Ohanian for finding the above cartoon

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Cartoons on Preschool

Recently, I posted two pieces on preschools. In writing those pieces, I began collecting cartoons.  Cartoonists exaggerate key ideas–thus, the humor–driving the national passion for starting school earlier and earlier, collecting credentials in the race to get into college, pushing toddlers up the ladder of financial success, and giving Mommy and Daddy a break from racing around. Often, they poke at the pretentiousness of middle- and upper-middle class parents seeking the edge for their three year-old. So here they are in a monthly feature of my blog.* Enjoy!

an A in finger painting

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*For earlier monthly posts featuring cartoons, see: “Digital Kids in School,” “Testing,” “Blaming Is So American,”  “Accountability in Action,” “Charter Schools,” and “Age-graded Schools,” Students and Teachers, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Digital Teachers, Addiction to Electronic DevicesTesting, Testing, and Testing, Business and Schools, Common Core Standards, Problems and Dilemmas, Digital Natives (2),  Online Courses,  , Students and Teachers Again, “Doctors and Teachers,” and Parent/teacher conferences.

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