The Pressure Is On in Preschool!

By Judy Molland

Public School Reform Efforts Push Pre-K to Step Up the Pace

Preschool isn’t what it used to be. Joining the picture books, puppets, crayons and dollhouses in a pre-kindergarten classroom these days are carefully planned strategies to teach kids reading, math and even science skills.

The research supporting this trend toward academics is certainly there. “Several studies over the past decade have proved conclusively that young children can handle much more sophisticated and complicated learning than we’ve given them credit for,” says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, which supports early childhood education initiatives by providing objective, nonpartisan information. “And we owe it to our youngsters to promote that learning.”

As one example, Barnett cites Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers, which documents the growing evidence from recent child-development research that young children are capable learners and should be provided with rich language environments and quality cognitive stimulation.

Early Learners?
Read about new research
that reveals that kids can learn more -- and learn it sooner than we ever thought!

But aside from this growing research, early childhood educators are also responding to the needs of elementary schools that are trying to meet the stepped-up achievement requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

The annual standardized testing that NCLB requires for public school students – and uses to measure improvements in public schools – doesn’t begin until third grade. But early childhood educators are feeling pressure to get their young charges ready for the kindergarten of the 21st century – one that is much more academic in nature than it used to be – so that eventually they’ll be prepared for those yearly standardized tests in reading, math, science and social studies.

That’s because NCLB dictates serious consequences for schools in which students are not doing well. Schools deemed as “in need of improvement,” because of low standardized test scores and other factors, are put on “watch lists.” States can drastically restructure – or even shut down – a school that doesn’t show improvement over three consecutive years.

“It’s a trickle-down effect,” says Marilou Hyson, associate executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “It used to be that kindergarten prepared children for learning, but now kindergarten has become first grade, and children need to have specific academic skills before they get to kindergarten. That’s what pre-K is there for.”

What Is Pre-K?

Experts are increasingly using the term “pre-kindergarten,” rather than preschool, to describe a high-quality program that gets children ready for kindergarten. Pre-K programs generally have certified teachers and educational standards that mesh with a school system’s K-12 standards, explains Libby Doggett, executive director of the Trust for Early Education, an organization that promotes high-quality, voluntary pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds. And while this notion of pre-K might sound a bit alarming to some, Doggett believes it is a good thing.

“NCLB has brought pre-kindergarten into focus because people realize that you can’t start when children are in kindergarten or first grade, to be ready for the third-grade tests,” she says. “We are expecting children to come out of pre-kindergarten knowing their letters and sounds, being able to write their names, and recognize the difference between upper- and lower-case letters.”

Is this really happening amid the blocks, dollhouses and play kitchens that crowd the floors of today’s preschools? Helene Reisman, early childhood director at Children’s Pre-School Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y., echoes many of her peers when she says that early childhood education is changing – with a greater push toward academics.

Nap No More?
Does more academics in preschool mean no more naptime?

Academics vs. the Whole Child

All this talk of learning and academics may seem to fly in the face of research from just a few years ago, which indicated that a child’s social and emotional development – the cornerstone of the traditional preschool experience – matters much more than an early focus on academics.

But Barnett says that experts now recognize the importance of striking a balance at the preschool level.

“Adequate education for young children can occur only in the context of good physical care and warm affective relationships,” Barnett says. “Neither loving children nor teaching them are, in and of themselves, sufficient for optimal development; thinking and feeling work in tandem.”

Many early childhood educators agree. Early learning programs can help children develop the knowledge and literacy skills important for school while still focusing on their social and emotional needs in a flexible environment. Indeed, Leslie Banta, director of Eureka Learning Center in San Francisco, notes that the children who succeed in academics are the ones who have positive relationships with their teachers and fellow students.

Head Start

Still, the question of how early and how much to push academics is one of the ongoing issues around Head Start, the federal program currently serving the needs of preschool children and their low-income families.

Congress has to reauthorize Head Start next year, and many people are concerned that its comprehensive nature could be undermined. The program has always been lauded for taking both an educational and a social and health well-being approach to the nation’s youngest children and their families.

In recent years, Head Start has been caught in a tug-of-war between those who want to make sure it continues to deliver a wide range of services, and those who want to strengthen its educational focus in order to give children the academic skills they need for school.

The NAEYC’s Hyson expresses the concern of many educators: “One of the things that has made Head Start so valuable is that it has included a wide array of services and family support, recognizing that in order to be successful, children need more than just learning the alphabet.”

Supporters of a proposal to revamp Head Start into a program geared primarily toward early learning disagree. They argue that without a stronger focus on academics, the program is not adequately preparing children for the challenges of kindergarten.  And still others are frustrated that the question of choosing between these two alternatives is even being raised.

“These concerns are understandable, but there is no reason why attention to young children’s intellectual skills needs to come at the cost of health care and opportunities to develop socially and emotionally,” says Deborah Stipek, dean of the School of Education at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

Education Standards in Preschool

The focus on the importance of early learning has led to the development of standards in many states for what young children should know and be able to do by the time they enter kindergarten. Most include giving kids the most fundamental basics of reading and math, although Doggett hastens to add that the average age for kids to start reading proficiently is still around the third grade. That’s why most standardized reading tests don’t test any lower than third grade.

Still, children cannot be expected to read until they have reading readiness skills in place. As more rigorous standards become the norm for preschool, 40 states are now funding pre-K programs, among them California, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, Washington and Texas, and each state has developed its own standards in the quest to ensure a high-quality curriculum.

California’s Department of Education, for instance, recommends teaching preschoolers:

• reading awareness (reading a book the right side up and front to back, for example);

• numbers sense,

• identifying objects that are the same or different, and

• phonemic awareness.

Paying for Improvements

States vary in their approach to public preschool programs. The majority target certain children. For example, in order for a child to be eligible to attend a state-funded preschool, his family’s income must be below a certain level. Oklahoma and Georgia are the only states that currently make pre-K available to all children, regardless of family income. Several states that offer preschool to children from low-income families hope to eventually expand the offering to include more children.

This academic year, according to The Trust for Early Education, 15 states, including California and Colorado, have increased their funding for pre-kindergarten. Seventeen states, including New York and Texas, did not increase spending on pre-K, and seven states, including Washington, actually decreased their budgets. In Massachusetts, there was no increase, but the state has approved a plan for universal, high-quality early education and childcare to go into effect in July 2005. One state has not yet passed a budget and 10 states offer no state-funded pre-K at all.

Standards for the Youngest

With all the attention being paid to preschoolers, can new learning standards for infants and toddlers be far behind?

Actually, some states are already developing early learning guidelines for the very youngest of children. At this stage, though, there is a much greater emphasis on working with the whole family, not just the child.

Early Head Start, for example, which began in 1999, works to promote healthy prenatal outcomes for pregnant women, enhance the development of very young children and promote healthy family functioning. Early learning educators say that young children are engaged in all kinds of activities that promote development but are fun at the same time.

“Children learn through a lot of different activities, including songs, drama, art and crafts. They are learning and they don’t even know it!” explains Helen Beck, director of Just Wee Too, a preschool for 2- to 5-year-olds in Bayview, N.Y.

Universal Preschool?

There’s little doubt among many educators that something approaching voluntary universal early childhood education, a feature of other wealthy industrialized nations, is on the horizon.

Earlier this year, the National Institute for Early Education Research noted that many families have already seen the need for a preschool education for their children. According to “Preschool Policy Matters,” a report issued by the institute in April, “enrollment trends indicate the nation is quickly moving toward universal preschool, whether we plan it or not.”

Starting public school at age 3? The idea seems to be fast approaching, particularly as educators try to ensure that the nation’s youngest children are better prepared for the increasingly rigorous standards awaiting them in elementary school and beyond.


National Association for the Education of Young Children –  – The nation’s largest and most influential organization of early-childhood educators is dedicated to improving the quality of programs for children from birth through third grade. The Web site offers articles, information and links useful to both parents and educators.

The Trust for Early  - Provides detailed information on pre-kindergarten’s potential to improve outcomes for America’s young children.

Books & Reports

Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers, by Barbara Bowman, Suzanne Donovan and M. Susan Burns, National Academies Press, 2000.

From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development
, by Jack Shonkoff et al., National Academies Press, 2000.

“Preschool Policy Matters
,” a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research, 2004.

Judy Molland is an award-winning teacher and writer. A classroom instructor for over 20 years, she is also the author of two books.