Mixed Signals on Quality for Preschoolers

A couple of fine new studies attest to the importance of quality instruction for preschoolers—and the dizzying (“stunning” says one research team) range of bad-to-excellent offerings in today’s early childhood programs and centers. “There is no evidence whatsoever,” we read, “that the average preschool program produces benefits in line with what the beset programs produce.” The problem is that the input-based measures long used as proxies for quality by the early-childhood community—teacher credentials, child-teacher ratios, etc.—do not explain much of the variance. It’s reminiscent of the situation in K-12 education before the Coleman Report. What turns out to matter considerably more are the actual behavior of pre-school teachers and the nature of their interactions with their wee charges. What’s more, a couple of very different approaches to preschool-teacher development and evaluation—one based at the University of Virginia, the other at the University of Texas—both offer sophisticated and well-documented paths to quality instruction.

Very promising, yes? Now, open the Wall Street Journal’s recent spread on “The Turf War for Tots” and learn there that Hollywood is trying to jettison the time-tested cognitively-based “Sesame Street” approach to pre-school television in favor of Disney-style entertainments and faddish “social” skills. Why this matters is that most little kids spend a lot more time watching TV than in preschool. If the Journal’’s data (drawn from Nielsen) are to be believed, two-to-five-year-olds average thirty-two plus hours of television per week. What’s on the tube probably matters more for their development than what happens in preschool. But “Disney Junior,” says the Journal, soon to become a 24-hour cable channel in its own right, will “focus on feel-good stories rather than core curricula.”


—Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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