Every parent wants their child to have the best life possible. Often, that means giving them the best education they can get, beginning with sending them to a good preschool.
It’s a reasonable approach, except for the fact it might be dead wrong.
A growing body of evidence suggests that preschool doesn’t offer kids anything they can’t get more easily — or more cheaply — through other means.
The sooner parents and policy makers take these findings seriously, experts argue, the quicker kids can start reaching their full potential.
For kids in need, money goes further than school
The most convincing evidence that kids don’t need preschool to succeed comes from a recent report by Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow in economics studies at the Brookings Institution. Whitehurst’s report analysed four major studies of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refund issued to low-income families based on their income levels and how many kids they have.
His research found that per dollar spent, kids tended to do better in their later years if their families received money directly, rather than if they went to preschool. Studies have shown that more money early on translates to better test scores, higher college entry rates, and even higher incomes as adults.
Security is the biggest mechanism at play, Whitehurst tells Business Insider. “If you’re bringing home $21,000 and the government gives you another $3,000, that can be a big deal,” he says. Additional funds free parents up to take more vacations, buy better cars, go to more museums, and generally do things that enrich kids’ lives but might otherwise cost too much.
In the US, the levelling effect of extra cash for low-income families is critical. Psychologists have known for years that gaps in childhood development widen over time. Small advantages turn into massive ones, even as early as preschool. If a wealthier kid goes to a school with more resources, a poorer child already has to play catch-up.
Instead of focusing on cash handouts, governments and politicians have instead tried to rectify this imbalance by supporting universal preschool as a way to give all kids the opportunity to start their education at the same time. “Just as kindergarten became the new first grade in a previous era, we now see pre-K becoming the new kindergarten,” Whitehurst says.
It may be a positive step, but one Northern European country has taken the opposite approach, rejecting formal early education altogether. And it’s working.
In Finland, books take a back seat to playtime
American parents might look upon the Finnish school system with horror: Kids in Finland don’t start their formal education until they’re 7 years old, many of them still illiterate. Compare that to the US, where kids typically begin kindergarten at age 4 or 5, preschool even younger, books already in hand.
The biggest difference between the two systems is what each expects from students. Preschool in the US is designed to build “student readiness” — the skill of being a student who can study and learn capably. Finland has preschool, too, but it’s effectively playtime.
Finnish preschool children learn how to play nice together, how to be fair, how to say “I’m sorry.” In both spontaneous and structured settings — think games of tag or teacher-guided activities to build teamwork — they fulfil their primary duty of being kids, moving fast and loose and making plenty of mistakes that turn into learning opportunities.
And unlike American preschool, Finland’s system is wholly paid for by the government, levelling the playing field in a way American preschools have yet to match.
The result: By age 15, Finnish students dominate in global tests of maths and science. The fact they waited a few years before learning what everyone else was studying only helped them.
There’s hope for American preschoolers yet
Just because America isn’t Finland doesn’t mean kids can’t reap the benefits of the Finnish model. Parents just have to know where to look. And that place might be “Sesame Street.”
In the 47-year run of “Sesame Street,” there have been more than 1,000 studies about the cognitive and social benefits of watching the show. Researchers have found that kids who watch “Sesame Street” enjoy up to 67% higher literacy scores by age 4, 40% better social skills, and 127% greater interest in eating vegetables than kids who don’t watch.
Ostensibly, these upsides are the entire point of “Sesame Street.” PBS crafted the show in 1969 as a more educational alternative to Saturday morning cartoons and junk food. Kids learn about culture, race, disability, and poverty. They learn acceptance and openness before bias or pickiness can creep their way in — all perks that preschool also tries to teach kids, except for the fact that “Sesame Street” can do it equally well, and in an environment where kids spend more time.
As economists Phillip Levine and Melissa Kearney note in a 2015 report on the benefits of “Sesame Street,” the show essentially functions like Khan Academy or MIT OpenCourseware, two of the biggest massive open online courses (MOOCs) that let people learn for free.
“In essence,” Levine and Kearney wrote, “Sesame Street was the first MOOC.”
The conversation at the top needs to change
Politicians may love talking about investing in education, but as Whitehurst and others have shown in their research, the better investment is in families.
Low-income kids reap immediate rewards when their parents have more resources and more time to spend with them. And for families that aren’t struggling, the Finnish model highlights how governments should empower parents to take a more relaxed approach to raising kids, rather than one that prioritises starting their academic career as early as possible.
Finns find success because they have embraced an old idea, not a new one. They let kids be kids. As long as a society can do that on equitable terms, the rest pretty much falls into place.