In a new study by UC Berkeley and Stanford, researchers found that all children, not just children from low socio-economic households, benefit cognitively from attending preschool. Children in universal preschools made gains in language and mathematics regardless of their social class. Some of the researchers in the study, however, indicate that there is a dark cloud over the findings. Their concerns stem from the fact that preschool did not do much toward closing the gap between low income children and middle and high income children. Their second concern, and the one that casts the largest shadow on the study, is that attending preschool seems to have a negative effect on social development.
Considering the first concern, I am not sure much can be done to close the gap between the economic classes. We can't withhold preschool education from middle and high income children so that the lower income children can catch up. Many low socio-economic children have little support from home. Those struggling families fight just to put food on the table and have little time to provide educational help to their children. These families often lack resources and skill, not desire, to be a positive influence in their child's life. As long as these social conditions remain the same, it will be difficult for school systems to provide enough support to help the child "catch up." I applaud Head Start programs that are making every effort to find children at a young age so that they may influence the family longer than just one year.
The concern regarding negative effects of social development, does not seem to be credible to me. There was no effort made in the study to monitor the quality of the programs that were part of the study. Without monitoring the preschool setting, it is impossible to make an assumption that all preschool provides poor social and emotional development. I think the key is in preparing the early childhood educators (see my previous posts). In all my travels and workshops, I find that many preschool teachers lack skills in teaching social emotional strategies. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, found in their studies that training teachers in social emotional strategies helped children develop those very skills.
My conclusion from the study is that we should be thrilled that children are making cognitive gains. At the same time we should work on providing as much support as possible for low-income families and provide social emotional training for preschool teachers and caregivers.