Trust The Children

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Why Pre-School May Hurt Our Children

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Family Research Abstract of the Week: Is Preschool Really Necessary?
Is Preschool Really Necessary?

Even as the enrollment of children in kindergarten remains optional in most states, the daycare lobby and "early learning" advocates would like to make preschool universal or mandatory on the presumption that pre-K programs promote the "school readiness" of children. Yet a study by Lisa N. Hickman at the Ohio State University challenges their agenda, finding that children who attend daycare or preschool the year prior to kindergarten do not gain greater social or cognitive skills and in some measures end up lagging behind their peers who enjoy the attention of their parents exclusively.

Hickman looked at data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort, which began tracking more than 21,000 children who started kindergarten in the fall of 1998. Improving upon the methodology of existing early childhood studies, she conducted both cross-sectional as well as longitudinal tests, the latter of which more accurately isolate effects of various preschool experiences over time.

Her cross-sectional tests confirm some existing research that finds that children who are enrolled in daycare or preschool start kindergarten with significantly higher cognitive skills, although that advantage is cut in half in tests that control for family background characteristics. At the same time, her cross-sectional analysis also confirms that children who follow the more traditional pattern of parental care start kindergarten with significantly better social skills in three of four different measures in tests with and without controls. (But Read on!!!)

To test whether these patterns persist as the children move into higher grades, Hickman's longitudinal tests control for fall test scores in kindergarten and first grade. During kindergarten, whatever advantages daycare or preschool children enjoy in math and reading become statistically insignificant in tests with and without background controls. During the first grade, the daycare/ preschool children have significantly lower math scores (p<.05). In both grades, these children scored significantly lower in the "approaches to learning" measure, which measured teacher perception of student attentiveness and persistence, a reversal of what was found in the cross-sectional test.

The longitudinal model also reveals even more so than the cross-sectional analysis that daycare/ preschool children exhibit poorer social skills throughout kindergarten. Such children have worse self-control, have worse interpersonal skills, and externalize problems more than their peers under parental care (p<.001 for each coefficient in tests with and without background controls). The only social measure (internalizing problem behaviors) where these children outperformed their parental-care peers in the first model is now insignificant.

While these findings will not endear Hickman to the "early learning" crowd, they nonetheless suggest that something other than the welfare of children may be driving the current pre-K craze.

(Source: Lisa N. Hickman, "Who Should Care for Our Children? The Effects of Home Versus Center Care on Child Cognition and Social Adjustment," Journal of Family Issues 27 [May 2006]: 652-684.)

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