The following post was written by New Profit Managing Partner Aaron Lieberman, a pioneer in early learning who co-founded Jumpstart and Acelero Learning (New Profit portfolio organizations).
Kathleen McNerney recently aired a story on WBUR that suggested kindergarteners in a Boston-area school district are now “hating” school because school leaders have tried to introduce more rigid and academic approaches to student learning and achievement into their classrooms. The story documents two dozen kindergarten teachers raising concerns about how they feel kindergarten is now overly structured. The Washington Post then reported that over 400 parents signed a letter supporting the teachers, and just like that, a new front in the education wars broke out.
In many respects, this development is exactly what anyone who has been involved with early education has long feared. When presenting about the need for high-quality pre-k as a way to help bridge the opportunity gap in America, I often share with audiences how most young children jump out of bed eager to get to pre-school, which is such a contrast with many kids in middle school and beyond who dread going to school. What is lost in between? Lots of hands-on activities and opportunity for “self-initiated” play— where the learner (i.e. the preschooler) gets to choose what they want to do.
The core contention raised in McNerney’s article is that rigorous instructional strategies designed to reduce educational inequities must be traded off against more open-ended, play-based learning activities. Recent research on high-quality pre-k shows just the opposite.
Over the course of the last decade, a consensus has emerged from rigorous studies of pre-k that increased educational rigor and open-ended, hands-on learning can (and should) co-exist side by side. In 2017, the Brookings Institution issued a report clearly detailing the positive impact that a more challenging curriculum can have on young learners, as long as it’s implemented in a child-focused, developmentally appropriate environment.
This is a really important finding, because in most pre-k classrooms where low-income children are served, study after study has shown the biggest problem is too little instruction, rather than too much. Eighty percent of programs serving low-income children implement a curriculum that relies on the teacher to design and develop each week’s lesson plan. While this is a good idea in theory, in actual fact the results of this somewhat ad-hoc approach have been repeatedly shown to provide no additional benefit. By contrast, a recent EdWeek article from last October shows that when teachers are supported with a scaffolded, content-rich curriculum, participating children make greater gains.
Getting this combination correct is a key focus of New Profit and The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care’s evolving collaboration to support the scale up of high-quality early childhood support organizations (ECSOs) throughout the commonwealth. This fall, these organizations will start to recruit local early childhood education programs as their partners to help implement this balanced approach to early childhood education. We will be diligent to make sure these efforts include lots of self-initiated learning choices and rigorous instructional strategies for teachers.
Importantly, in years three and four of this effort, we will be supporting a comprehensive evaluation effort designed to be able to capture outcomes at the child level. Our goal is to conclusively demonstrate that hands on learning and rigorous instruction are not mutually exclusive—indeed they are interdependent and key drivers of success.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. After all, many kids learn to love “school” by attending high-quality pre-k programs well before they ever set foot in a kindergarten classroom.