Pre-K has changed. Can teachers keep up? (quotes Deborah Stipek) December 08 2014

Earlier this fall, I visited Emma Markarian’s prekindergarten classroom in the Bronx to see some 4-year-olds in action. The 15 preschoolers spread out to different activity centers across the classroom. In the block area, the youngsters learned essential math skills (including what it means to add or subtract a block from a structure), physical science skills (balance, height, and weight), and literacy skills (they label and describe all of their structures, like castles and skyscrapers)—all through play. Markarian flitted between centers, asking probing questions. “That’s a tall building? Is it taller than you? Do we need to add or take away to make this building shorter than Jacob?”

At a time when the pre-K debate is often framed as play versus study, Markarian offers evidence of an elusive middle ground: Her formal training in her native Russia was infused with the conviction that young children learn most easily and naturally through purposeful play, a precept she puts into practice every day in her sunny, busy classroom. 

As public prekindergarten expands in New York City and other parts of the country, teachers face competing tensions: On the one hand, there’s new pressure to teach more challenging academic material at younger and younger ages. On the other, there’s mounting concern about the wisdom of shoehorning kindergarten and even first-grade content into the preschool years. Today’s pre-K instructors, for instance, feel much more compelled to teach children their numbers up to 100 or how to begin sounding out words than they used to.

Increasingly, early education experts agree that the best solution is to follow Markarian’s model: Mold and challenge young minds, but do it through purposeful play. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

“That kind of teaching is much more difficult, and it takes a lot of training,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor of education at Stanford University. It’s much easier to lecture and pass out worksheets or to let kids engage in nonpurposeful and disorganized play—simply ensuring “they don’t beat each other over the head with blocks,” she says. “Really effective teaching is both playful and organized.”

Indeed, the success of countless new and growing prekindergarten programs could hinge largely on a single factor: our capacity and willingness to train more instructors in the science of teaching through play.

The issue is complicated by the fact that early childhood educators are a wildly diverse group: Some prekindergarten teachers work in traditional public schools where they earn the same pay and benefits as other teachers and receive much of the same training; others work in private child care centers that require only a high school diploma, pay as little as $7 or $8 an hour, and offer virtually no professional development.

On one extreme, child care workers attend what Sara Mead, a senior associate with Bellwether Education Partners (and one-time Slate contributor), describes as “one-shot workshops” where they might learn about CPR and first aid or other child safety skills that have little to do with education. On the other extreme, prekindergarten teachers work in traditional schools with extensive professional development and support.

But only the best training programs of any kind help pre-K instructors learn how to teach complex academic skills through play, says Mead. “Most people don’t know how to do that,” she says. “And most programs aren’t teaching them to do that.”

There have been some promising new initiatives, including growth in “job-embedded coaching” programs, where instructional coaches observe early education instructors’ teaching and then offer feedback. These programs, which range considerably in their funding and size, are uniquely positioned to address the diverse needs of a diverse workforce, since feedback is tailored to individuals. The same coach might focus on very different skills with a 21-year-old high school graduate earning minimum wage, who might need to be encouraged to teach any formal academic skills. A 20-year teaching veteran making the switch to preschool, on the other hand, might need to be reminded that 4-year-olds should not be taught like 10-year-olds. The coaching programs are often limited in duration and scope, however, and rely on private grants for survival.

A new foundation-funded coaching program in Detroit sends seasoned early education instructors into classrooms of all types (including charter schools, traditional schools, and independent day care centers) to mentor teachers. At one of the sessions I observed in early October, coach Alicia Williams encouraged Tanisha Tinsley, an instructor at the Village of Shining Stars day care center, to talk more to her toddlers during their daily routines—an important step toward teaching them language.

While the children napped one afternoon, Williams asked Tinsley to practice changing a child’s diaper, exhorting her to narrate each step along the way.

“It’s not rote instruction, but you are still instructing because you are giving them language,” Williams said. “You are teaching even with that diaper change.”

Tinsley’s teaching situation is obviously very different from Emma Markarian’s. Pretty much the only thing that early education teachers share is increased performance pressure: Pre-K teachers at traditional public schools know that if too many of their young graduates can’t pass state standardized tests by the age of 7 or 8, the whole school could be slapped with a “failing” label and staff could lose their jobs. And many teachers at independent day care centers know that if they don’t make the grade on a growing number of so-called quality rating systems developed by different states, they could lose crucial state and federal funding.

In Louisiana, where I covered education for seven years, all publicly funded child care, Head Start, and pre-K programs will soon have to track their students’ progress starting in infancy. For very young children, that usually means watching to make sure they are reaching developmental milestones, like being able to make eye contact or hold a crayon.

Not all of the new pressure comes from expanded testing or accountability, however. There’s also a growing recognition among early education experts that young children can and should be challenged more academically.

“For a long time there was this notion that literacy or math instruction at a young age was not developmentally appropriate,” said Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia. “As a field, there’s been a big mind-shift. The question now is not whether to teach it, but how to teach it.”

Bassok’s own research suggests many early elementary teachers are struggling with the shift. In “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? The Changing Nature of Kindergarten in the Age of Accountability,” Bassok and her co-author found that in 2006 kindergarten teachers spent far more time—25 percent more, on average—teaching reading and literacy than they did in 1999. In fact, the kindergarteners of 2006 spent more time on reading than on math, science, social studies, music, and art combined. There is no national data that allows researchers to look at the same shifts across preschool classrooms. However, Bassok says anecdotal evidence from teachers and parents suggests pre-K instructors have made similar changes. 

Bassok says that contemporary kindergarten teachers are far less likely to teach the basics through dramatic play, science areas, art areas, or sand tables set up in their classrooms, and they are far more likely to spend time on teacher-directed whole class activities, like lecturing and handing out worksheets.

Many parents, particularly those from low-income communities, have told me that they want their young children to have homework and worksheets from an early age because they believe it will help them get ahead. But, as Stanford professor Stipek says, young children learn best by doing. Stipek visited one pre-K classroom where the children were drilled in number recitations and could count to 10 from memory. But hands-on activities were less common. And when Stipek put some pennies down on a table and asked how many pennies there were, the children had no clue. They knew their numbers, but not what they meant.

Sarah Carr is editor of the Teacher Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of Hope Against Hope, about New Orleans schools after Katrina.