Solving the pre-K mystery

ByNaomi Schaefer Riley (op-ed)
KIPP DC students in a preK class

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“Here, you can be the policeman.” Jenna (not her real name), a 4-year-old, hands me one of the dozen small figures spread in front of her, a black woman in a police uniform. “I’m going to be the doctor,” she says as she picks up another black woman dressed in a doctor’s coat. For the next few minutes, in her brightly lit busy classroom at LEAP Academy, a KIPP school in Southeast D.C., we go back and forth.

“Open your mouth please. Say Ahhh.”


“Okay, now I need to look in your ears. You have sick in both your ears!”

“Oh no? Both of them? Do you have medicine?”

“Yes, right here.”

“And now I need to look at your belly. You swallowed a necklace and I need to take it out. Now you have bleed everywhere and you need a band-aid.”

“Obviously,” I laugh. Fortunately she is too immersed in our characters’ conversation to notice my amusement.

If you ask any child development expert, this is exactly what Jenna should be doing. This kind of play-based learning has become the gold standard in recent years, as middle and upper-class parents send their children to preschools that emphasize less direct instruction, academic skills, and technology and more make-believe, time outside, and one-on-one interactions with teachers and peers. In addition to Montessori programs, there’s also Reggio Emilia, an early childhood approach developed in Italy in the aftermath of World War II, and there are Waldorf schools, which are now a popular option for Silicon Valley families trying to keep their kids away from screens, while at the same time ensuring their readiness for schools and sparking their imaginations.

Success at these schools is not measured by whether students can recognize letters at the age of 3 but by things like their “stamina for play.” When they begin, of course, most students just play on their own, but over time they learn to interact with others and to act out long scenes and games like the one described above. Their ability to immerse themselves, to communicate and negotiate with their peers, and to imagine new scenarios all demonstrate a certain level of development that many kids in other school settings are not achieving.

It is not that Jenna’s pre-K is neglecting academics. Each day the children are asked what they want to do that day when it comes time to go to different centers. They can draw a picture of themselves building with blocks or giving a doll a bath or playing with sand. And underneath they can try to write any letters or words they know to describe it. Teachers look at these papers to measure everything from students’ fine motor skills to their ability to speak well. (Students also tell the teachers about their pictures.) But these papers are also used to improve what’s called executive function—the ability to make a plan and follow through on it. There is a wide variation in each class in what the kids can do, but it is easy for parents and teachers to see progress.

The school day, 8-4, is rather long for kids this age, and they do nap for at least an hour. But the administration also thinks physical education and recess are of great importance. There is a large playground enclosed on three sides by the building, and the KIPP folks (the acronym comes from the Knowledge is Power Program) want to ensure kids who come from neighborhoods where violence is not infrequent and playing outside may not be feasible get ample time outside. Though it’s drizzling the day I visit, the kids still go outside.

Most pre-K programs, and especially most programs geared toward lower-income kids, have emphasized direct instruction—having the kids repeat letter sounds and even use math flash cards—and “seat work” more generally. The idea was that starting kids in school early would begin to make up for the educational gaps that appear later on. But the results have been disappointing. As child development researcher Erika Christakis wrote in a piece for the Atlantic called “The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids,” “even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions.”

Large-scale testing seems to bear this out. Christakis notes: “A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system [published in 2015] found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more ‘school readiness’ skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills.”

A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research actually found that watching Sesame Street was a more effective early-childhood intervention than Head Start. And much more reasonably priced too. Even if pre-K seems to give students a leg up, gains peter out by the middle of elementary school.

But these poor results have not stopped policymakers and politicians from pushing for universal pre-K programs. It is undoubtedly one of the more bizarre policy arguments that school systems, having failed to educate millions of kids during the 13 years they have them, just need another year in order to make things better. But that very argument has led cities like Washington to adopt a universal pre-K program, paying for all of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds to attend. New York too is moving in that direction, having adopted a program for 4-year-olds and promising one for 3-year-olds will spread city-wide within four years. The projected annual cost by 2020 is $180 million, just for the 3-year-olds. When I asked a professional mother recently about her daughter’s experience in pre-K on the Upper West Side, she shrugged. The girl didn’t learn anything, but mayor “Bill DeBlasio saved me $30,000 in private preschool tuition.”

As a recent paper from the Brookings Institution noted, “The proposition that expanding pre-K will improve later achievement for children from low-income families is premature. Premature as well is the presumption that solid research exists to guide the content and structure of pre-K programs.”

It’s not that there has never been a pre-K program that provided benefits to kids, but such high-quality classes are few and far between and no one so far has proved able to scale them up. If these city-wide programs are simply going to repeat the kind of curricula and use the same kind of teaching that they have done for years, this money is being spent on nothing more than baby-sitting. If Head Start is just a way to allow parents to have childcare while they work (or don’t), then we should acknowledge that and spend a lot less money on it. Head Start spending now surpasses $9 billion a year.

But if we are aiming for something better, it is worth examining KIPP’s story more closely.

The play-based structure that is being used at LEAP has only been in place for a couple of years. Stacie Kossoy, KIPP’s managing director of early childhood education in Washington, has told me that they decided to adopt a “research-based” model for the pre-K program, rather than letting teachers design the curriculum. KIPP has developed its own training program for early childhood teachers—the Capital Teaching Residency—in order to put its research to use.

Kossoy emphasizes that though KIPP’s pre-K is “aligned” with the goals and curricula of elementary school and higher grades, the administrators and teachers do not see it as “mini-kindergarten.” Though they do require kids to be potty-trained before arriving, they are still very young. Some are “nonverbal.” In other words, this is a completely different kind of teaching.

Which may be one reason that KIPP’s pre-K has not lived up to the expectations that have been created by its K-12 successes. A leader in getting kids not only into college but through it, KIPP has provided its students with an education that is leaps and bounds ahead of its traditional school competitors (KIPP’s network now counts more than 200 charter schools across the country). But when researchers from Mathematica tried to measure the effect of KIPP’s pre-K on a few hundred kids over the course of several years (before the new model was put into effect), the results were underwhelming.

In an August report, the authors found that “after five years, KIPP Pre-K combined, with KIPP early elementary school, has positive and statistically significant impacts on reading and math achievement .  .  . [and it] may also have a positive impact on students’ executive function.”

It’s important to note that this is looking at pre-K and the early grades together. Few people doubt that KIPP’s elementary schools are adding value. But the question is the value of pre-K, and there the results are murkier. “KIPP Pre-K may provide an additional benefit for reading achievement above and beyond KIPP elementary school. The KIPP impact on reading skills persists over time, but impacts on reading comprehension largely dissipate by grade 2.”

This is not nothing and it’s certainly better than the results that the vast majority of pre-K programs provide, but it also suggests how hard it is to move the needle with this population.

It’s possible that the play-based model will bring the kinds of success teachers and administrators have been hoping for. If so it could still be difficult to scale up—because of the high quality of teachers and kinds of training required, for example, to make unstructured play time productive and not chaotic—but KIPP has provide itself capable of such replication in the past. And unlike so many other pre-K programs, the leaders and teachers seem to aspire to more than keeping kids busy and collecting a paycheck.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, is the author of The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.