Preschool: Much Less Than You Wanted To Know

Re­sponse to (Scott Alexan­der): Preschool: Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Pre­vi­ously (Here): The Case Against Ed­u­ca­tion, The Case Against Ed­u­ca­tion: Foun­da­tions, The Case Against Ed­u­ca­tion: Split­ting the Ed­u­ca­tion Premium Pie and Con­sid­er­ing IQ

I see Scott’s anal­y­sis of preschool as bury­ing the lead.

I see his anal­y­sis as as­sum­ing there ex­ists a black box called ‘preschool’ one can choose whether to send chil­dren to. Then, we have to de­cide whether or not this thing has value. Since stud­ies are the way one figures out if things are true, we look at a wide va­ri­ety of stud­ies, slog through their prob­lems and of­ten seem­ingly con­tra­dic­tory re­sults, and see if any­thing good emerges.

The re­sult of that anal­y­sis, to me, was that it was pos­si­ble preschool had pos­i­tive long term effects on things like high school grad­u­a­tion rates. It was also pos­si­ble that it did not have such an effect if you prop­erly con­trol­led for things, or that the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent was effec­tively mostly ‘give poor fam­i­lies time and money’ via a place to park their kids, rather than any benefits from preschool it­self. Scott puts it at 60% that preschool has a small pos­i­tive effect, whether or not it is worth it and whether or not it’s mainly giv­ing fam­i­lies money, and 40% it is use­less even though it is giv­ing them money. Which would kind of be an epic fail.

There was one clear con­sis­tent re­sult, how­ever: Preschool gives an aca­demic boost, then that aca­demic boost fades away within a few years. Every­one agrees this oc­curs.

Let us think about what this means.

This means that preschool is (pre­sum­ably) spend­ing sub­stan­tial re­sources teach­ing chil­dren ‘aca­demics,’ and even as mea­sured by fu­ture achieve­ment in those same aca­demics, this has zero long term effect. Zippo. Zilch. Not a thing.

Maybe you should stop do­ing that, then?

This seems to be say­ing some­thing im­por­tant – that when you force four year olds to learn to read or add, that you don’t achieve any per­ma­nent benefits to their math or read­ing abil­ity, which strongly im­plies you’re not helping them in other ways ei­ther. That’s not a re­sult about preschool. That’s a re­sult about de­vel­op­ing brains and how they learn, and sug­gest­ing we should fo­cus on other skills and let­ting them be kids. Spend­ing early time you will never get back on ‘aca­demic’ skills is a waste, pre­sum­ably be­cause it’s so hor­ribly in­effi­cient and we’ll end up re-teach­ing the same stuff any­way.

This seems un­likely to be some­thing that stops hap­pen­ing on a birth­day. If there is ac­tual zero effect at four years old, what does that im­ply about do­ing it at five years old? What about six? How much of our early child ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem is do­ing it all wrong?

Go­ing back to preschool, we do not have a black box. We have adults in a room with chil­dren. They can do a va­ri­ety of things, and differ­ent lo­ca­tions in­deed do choose differ­ent buck­ets of ac­tivity. One would hope that learn­ing one of your main cat­e­gories of ac­tivity isn’t ac­com­plish­ing any­thing, would at least shift ad­vo­cates to sup­port differ­ent types of ac­tivity. It seems kind of crazy to in­stead find differ­ent out­comes and then ad­vo­cate for do­ing the same thing any­way. If time was spent learn­ing in non-aca­demic ways, and gain­ing ex­pe­rience so­cial­iz­ing in var­i­ous ways, that would at least be a non-falsified the­ory of some­thing that might help.