I just got an email asking me to sign a petition to better fund early childhood education. I have to admit, though, that talk of early childhood education always raises mixed emotions with me. On the one hand, how could I not want to give disadvantaged youth the opportunity for quality early childhood education. And there is good research on the both how it can make a difference and on the real lack of it for many children.
But there is the rub. What is quality early childhood education? Over the past decade we have seen kindergarten turn into first grade. A place of worksheets and formal direct instruction. A place where children quickly learn whether they are “good” or “poor” students. Where they are put in the “fast” or the “slow” group.
Yes research study after research study, as well as comparisons to other countries have shown that earlier is not better. Countries that start formal teaching of literacy later tend to actually do better at literacy over the years. Comparative studies of developmental early education versus formal instruction has shown similar results–developmental forms that do not stress formal teaching leads to better lasting results.
But when I hear of expanded early education, I see that in this country what that likely may mean is early formal instruction, early sorting kids into those who are seen as good at school and those who are not, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, and taking away a time that should be for children to explore their world, and learn to socialize, and play.
If early childhood education means a time when kids received supported opportunities to be involved in play, in exploration of materials, exposure to wonderful stories and print, to interact with playmates in a safe and supportive environment, I am all for it.
If it means starting “first grade” at 3 or 4, then might we doing more harm then good?
So it is with such fears that I hear talk of expanded early childhood education.