The American Enterprise Institute hosted a panel yesterday on the (lack of) evidence for preschool’s effectiveness. The discussion was lively and informative, but one seemingly innocuous comment by a panelist left me troubled. Timothy Bartik, an economist with the Upjohn Institute, argued that we should err on the side of “overinvesting” in preschool because the returns might turn out to be tremendous. He acknowledged the cost of funding programs that prove to be ineffective, but he seemed to regard the wasted money as the only potential downside.
But what about the downside of imposing needlessly stressful instruction and testing on young children? Case in point: Last week the New York Times posted an undercover video taken at a charter school run by Success Academy, which prides itself on superior test scores. The video shows one of Success Academy’s designated “model teachers” tearing up a paper and screaming at a first-grader for failing to solve a math problem. The child is sent to the “calm-down chair,” even though it’s obvious that the only person in the room who needs to calm down is the teacher.
The incident fuels the perception that parts of the American education system have grown ruthlessly obsessed with test scores as the be-all and end-all of schooling, even for the youngest children. The “model teacher” may have wrenched higher performance out of her students through fear and intimidation, and she was not alone according to the Times:
Several of the current and former staff members interviewed said that the network’s culture encouraged teachers to make students fear them in order to motivate them. Carly Ginsberg, 22, who taught for about six months last year at Success Academy Prospect Heights, said teachers ripped up the papers of children as young as kindergarten as the principal or assistant principal watched. She once witnessed a girl’s humiliation as the principal mocked her low test score to another adult in front of the child.
In one instance, the lead kindergarten teacher in her classroom made a girl who had stumbled reciting a math problem cry so hard that she vomited. Ms. Ginsberg resigned in December because she was so uncomfortable with the school’s approach. “It felt like I was witnessing child abuse,” she said, adding, “If this were my kindergarten experience, I would be traumatized.”
Perhaps these anecdotes are uncommon and exaggerated. But when we push testing at younger and younger ages, and make school funding and teacher salaries contingent on test scores, and set up charter schools with high scores as their chief selling point, how could we not expect ugly incidents such as those described above? It seems inevitable.
Preschool contributes to the problem. Advocates increasingly see it not only as remediation for the most disadvantaged children, but also as an opportunity to simply get kids into the school system earlier. At the AEI event, both Bartik and Georgetown professor Bill Gormley stated that children from middle-class families — not just poor kids — have much to gain from preschool. Gormley even suggested that preschool effects fade out because kindergarten has become too basic for kids who attended preschool. The unstated implication was that everyone should attend preschool, and kindergarteners should learn more advanced topics. Where does this end?
Despite the slight ease-up on testing in the new federal law that replaces No Child Left Behind, I fear that some in the education policy community do not take seriously the stress imposed on young children. “Overinvesting” in their education does have a real downside.