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To succeed in school, at-risk children need much more than a pre-K program

Pre-K education has long been seen as a potential silver bullet to help at-risk children excel in school. But new research is prompting second thoughts about its effectiveness for low-income kids.

In a recent policy briefing describing statewide pre-K programs in Tennessee, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of the Annie E. Casey Foundation report that by third grade, children who attended pre-K had worse attitudes toward school and poorer work habits than children who didn’t.

About 3,000 children were randomly assigned either to attend a pre-K classroom or to not participate, then data on both groups’ academic performance were taken from a state database.

The short-term impacts of the program, reported in 2013, looked good. Researchers found that children who attended preschool performed better than those who didn’t on end-of-year achievement tests and got higher ratings from their teachers when kindergarten began. Plus, teachers said that the pre-K children were better prepared for school, had better work skills, and were more positive about school (this is similar to results in other studies of pre-K programs).

However, the 2015 data, which included results of performance into the third grade, showed that the achievement-test advantage for children who attended the pre-K program had disappeared by the end of kindergarten (also similar to results in other studies).

Worse, by the end of first grade, their teachers rated pre-K program children as weaker in their work skills and less prepared for and more negative about school. Strikingly: At the end of both second grade and third grade, children who hadn’t participated in the program performed better on academic tests than children who had.

No one knows why, but factors could include that the activities the children experienced were not age-appropriate to their developmental needs — i.e. heavily dependent on structured direct instruction rather than on student-interest-based play. Or that students who had initially been ahead of peers got bored in waiting for them to catch up.

Obviously, more studies are needed to see what went “wrong” with the pre-K intervention, but this misses the forest for the trees.

Basically, children who need very early academic interventions tend to not have highly educated parents possessing expendable income with which to single-mindedly cultivate their children for an Ivy League degree from the moment of conception.

The word gap between what low-income and more-affluent 3-year-olds have heard stands at a mind-boggling 30 million words. And, however well-intentioned, full-time, high-quality pre-K is going to eventually fall short in the context of a life without home caregivers who know to talk to their babies, engage in questioning dialogue with their toddlers and read to early-grade kids every day.

I’ve taught first-graders and high school students and, within their groups, the struggling and the high achievers share similar qualities.

The academically successful students are much like other high performers throughout history: They exhibit self-control, have great amounts of curiosity and can focus on interests outside their own selves for sustained periods of time.

The students who struggle are much like most of the adults in today’s society: They have their faces glued to electronic devices and their headphones keep them closed off from their surrounding environments. They are curious only about whatever distraction can bring them pleasure for a few fleeting moments, and their interests revolve around how they are perceived by others, especially on social media.

These students learn such behaviors in the home and extra pre-K isn’t going to make much of a difference.

How can we expect children who, even as babies, are becoming inured to the dopamine-release of instant digital gratification, to develop the patience and curiosity necessary to succeed academically? And how can we ever hope to expect it of children who grow up in the chaotic, loud and stressful environments that typify poverty?

Pre-K interventions feel good, but what at-risk children really need are anti-poverty programs, parenting classes for their moms and dads, and a society that understands that the digital world is as much a challenge as it is an opportunity.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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