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Does early-childhood education matter?
With universal pre-K on Biden’s legislative agenda, questions about the value of preschool are top of mind for Americans with any sort of policy bent.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that I am, and Montessorium is, extremely bullish about the value of early childhood education.
It may come as more of a surprise that I also think there is tremendous merit to the recent wave of measured skepticism about preschool that has entered The Discourse. The basic reason: not all preschool is created equal. The deeper reason: there are profound confusions about the current state of the art of early childhood education.
What we're reading:
The Heckman Curve (resource) — The basic policy research argument for pre-K was presented by Nobel laureate economist Jim Heckman some years ago: the return on investment on dollars spent in early education is a diminishing curve over time. In other words, early childhood has a greater return on investment than any later period. Heckman’s official website has a bunch of research and explainers that introduce this idea and the case for it.
Montessorians and other early childhood advocates cite this research a lot. I think it’s good research, and there’s a lot of truth to it—even given that it’s not particularly focused on pedagogy or development. But does it generalize, at a policy level, to the types of preschools that are most commonly going to be created by states?
Research Reveals Long-Term Harm of State Pre-K Program (article) — Peter Gray summarizes, in Psychology Today, some recent research (and surveys, in passing, some previous research) that shows circumstances under which pre-K is just bad for children. Children in control groups do better academically, have fewer learning disorders, and commit fewer disciplinary offenses.
Wow. What did the pre-K group programming look like? “The program provides a minimum of 5.5 hours of instructional time per day, five days per week.” A minimum of five and a half hours of standard instruction… for four-year-olds.
Pre-K is day care (essay) — Noah Smith does a good job of summarizing the bull and bear cases for the value of pre-K at a policy level. His basic conclusion is that pre-K is a good idea, but because it’s good to democratize daycare, not because it provides any real academic or social benefits overall. It can provide such benefits, especially social ones, he notes. But at scale, we see a regression to the mean.
Unfortunately, I think this is probably right. For people working in policy, the temptation is always to view education as an access problem. That is, how do we take something good and bring it to as many people as possible? But education is first and foremost an innovation problem. We have not figured education out. And of all the kinds of education we have not figured out, we have most definitely not figured out early childhood education.
There is a world of difference between typical daycare centers and excellent, developmentally-grounded early childhood programs. Even in the case of the latter, it’s still early days for articulating and systematizing what works, and operationalizing it to the point where it can effectively scale.
This is part of our work at Montessorium. It is not part of the work of Biden’s legislation. The net effect of that legislation will be to scale the average preschool program, and in so doing to cause even more regression to the mean.
An Association Between Montessori Education in Childhood and Adult Wellbeing (research article) — As a contrast, here’s a paper from Angeline Lillard et al. on the positive effects of Montessori on long-term wellbeing:
“A structural equation model that accounted for age, gender, race, childhood SES, and years in private school revealed that attending Montessori for at least two childhood years was associated with significantly higher adult wellbeing on all four factors [general wellbeing, engagement, social trust, and self-confidence]. A second analysis found that the difference in wellbeing between Montessori and conventional schools existed even among the subsample that had exclusively attended private schools. A third analysis found that the more years one attended Montessori, the higher one’s wellbeing as an adult.”
One further thought: as a parent or an educator—as opposed to a policymaker—you are not choosing to attend or to create the mean program. You are choosing a specific program, and that choice involves making judgments about the nature of education, childhood, and the needs of the specific individuals involved.
You don’t need to worry about regression to the mean. You need to worry about creating the best education and care possible. And there’s absolutely no reason for skepticism about your capacity to do so.
Matt Bateman, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Montessorium
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