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Learning at its Best

How important is the level of academic rigor in your child’s preschool?

In the news today, a New York City mother is suing her child’s preschool for a refund of the $19,000 tuition check she wrote at the start of the school year. The story goes:

The suit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, notes that “getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school” and says the Upper East Side school promised [the mother] it would “prepare her daughter for the ERB, an exam required for admission into nearly all the elite private elementary schools.”

But “it became obvious [those] promises were a complete fraud,” the suit says. “Indeed, the school proved not to be a school at all but just one big playroom.”

The suit claims: “Studies have shown entry into a good nursery school guarantees more income than entry into an average school.”

* * *

I’ve never seen this study. In fact, I have my doubts about any researcher who claims to have data that can “guarantee” how much money a four-year-old will make 20 years into the future, controlling for all possible variables so as to correlate income with high quality preschool.

It’s easy to laugh at something so outlandish, but, regrettably, there is a very real dark side to this story. The truth is, there are countless parents who have come to believe that their child’s future hinges on the outcome of an entrance test into kindergarten. This belief can do real harm to children who, if you listen to the advice of experts in human development, need love, play, and connection—essentially, they need preschool to be just one big playroom—more than academic training in their youngest years.

* * *

If you want real data about the importance of getting an Ivy League education, check out this excerpt from a paper by the Brookings Institution:

The researchers Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale began investigating this question [Does getting into a highly selective college really matter?], and in 1999 produced a study that dropped a bomb on the notion of elite-college attendance as essential to success later in life.

Krueger, a Princeton economist, and Dale, affiliated with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, began by comparing students who entered Ivy League and similar schools in 1976 with students who entered less prestigious colleges the same year. They found, for instance, that by 1995 Yale graduates were earning 30 percent more than Tulane graduates, which seemed to support the assumption that attending an elite college smoothes one’s path in life.

But maybe the kids who got into Yale were simply more talented or hardworking than those who got into Tulane. To adjust for this, Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, “moderately selective” school. It turned out that such students had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income “varied little, no matter which type of college they attended.”

In other words, the student, not the school, was responsible for the success.

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5 thoughts on “How important is the level of academic rigor in your child’s preschool?

  1. Hey Steve, Thank you for highlighting another outlandish NYT article on education. The Times loves these, as it whips its attainment-oriented audience into a frenzy of “isn’t it awful?” at the same time as “I wonder if that Mom’s kid is going to beat out my kid?” That shadow lives in every piece of their reporting, and it goes to their zone.

    I’m troubled by your reference to the Krueger and Dale report because it seems to assume a kind of entity theory about kids: they are “smart” or not based on some kind of determinable set of characteristics that are unchanging over time. You know, we know, that’s an old-fashioned and outdated view of human ability, and how much you want it (persistence, self-discipline) matter hugely, along with your ambition (often determined by social class). Social class is such an immense determinant of educational attainment and income (see Karabel’s The Chosen) that it trumps all.

    So to me, when I see kids (or researchers) at highly selective or even moderately selective colleges believing that they got there because of their “smarts,” I think, school largely acts as a mechanism to privilege the already privileged, with some notable exceptions. Is that what you’re saying? I’m not clear.


    Posted by Kirsten | October 28, 2011, 6:24 am
  2. Hey Steve,

    Thanks for this post. I have family, a niece and nephew, in NYC whose parents absolutely believe in the myth. Luckily, their $16,000 preschool tuitions, plus some rigorous pre-K test prep did the trick, and they are now blessed to be paying $26,000/yr to attend highly selective private schools, which, if all goes according to plan should gain them entrance into the $40,000+ yr college of their choice. How many hundreds of thousands will have spent by the time they are proud unemployed or under-employed BA- degree-holders? Maybe with a bit of diligence they’ll be able to continue their education into grad school for another 3-10 years. Then they should really have the tools needed to make a difference in the world, don’t you think? At that point, they’ll likely be so acculturated into the system that I have my doubts about the likelihood that they could have any kind of perspective on the institutions that have helped to reify their privilege.

    At my small independent school, we have recently been invited to begin talks facilitated by the local school district to “align” our preschool with state standards and goals. I guess this is part of the RttT agenda? From a recent Huffington Post article: “Assessments are one component of the $500 million Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge…”

    So far I have politely declined the opportunity to “align” our three year olds with anyone or anything. If pushed, I am prepared to be a little less polite.


    Posted by Paul Freedman | October 28, 2011, 12:58 pm
  3. Hey Kirsten,

    Thanks for this response. My interpretation of the Krueger and Dale study has nothing to do with inherent “smarts.” The insight I take away from this data is that the same skills sets that determine whether or not a student can gain entrance into elite universities—determination, the ability to set a goal and achieve it over time, the ability to overcome obstacles, written communication, producing a body of high quality work over time—are the same skill sets that allow people to achieve success in their careers. The actual education at elite universities, it seems, does not offer competitive advantages when compared with the education at moderately selective universities (even factoring in things like networking with other high achieving individuals and having the university’s brand on one’s resume).

    My contention is that the skills we should be supporting students in learning should be things like determination, the ability to set a goal and achieve it over time, the ability to overcome obstacles, written communication, and producing a body of high quality work over time. At PSCS, we feel like the best way to do that is by helping kids plug into things they’re passionate about. So a kid who is passionate about skateboarding is going to be better served by going deep with that activity than trying to force him to memorize facts about European History in preparation for an AP exam. He’s more likely to stick with it and achieve something meaningful if he’s engaged in something that truly matters to him. Taking AP classes seems to be the path to the Ivy League, but the Ivy League isn’t necessarily the path to a satisfying, successful life; these other skills are.

    On a side note, I love this analysis: “The Times loves these, as it whips its attainment-oriented audience into a frenzy of ‘isn’t it awful?’ at the same time as ‘I wonder if that Mom’s kid is going to beat out my kid?’ That shadow lives in every piece of their reporting, and it goes to their zone.” I’d never peeled back that layer, but I think it’s brilliant—and a spot on analysis.

    Posted by stevemiranda | October 28, 2011, 1:36 pm
  4. I’ve heard parent competition conversations about potty training. If you’re kid isn’t taking a leak by two, they’ll be screwed up for life. (Poor Micah, he’ll never get trigonometric proofs since he was two and a half when he started potty training) So, it literally becomes a pissing contest before a child enters pre-school. That’s what the Tiger Mom achievement-oriented philosophy expounds.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | October 28, 2011, 3:52 pm
  5. I’ve heard that kind of talk before as well. Poor kids! And this competitive-mindedness is frequently nurtured and expanded upon in school—sort of keeps the engines of traditional schooling running in some ways, doesn’t it? The ultimate prize for likeminded parents: your kid’s admission into a university that other people’s kids didn’t get into. And the purpose of that diploma: money and/or status.

    Here’s John T. Gatto discussing that Krueger/Dale study:

    Posted by mindyfitch | October 29, 2011, 1:14 am

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