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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Universal Preschool Cookie-Cutter Pressure: Head Start’s Troubling Framework

There is no such thing as a “developmentally appropriate curriculum” for three- and four-year-olds. Common sense should tell us that. 

~Dr. Peter Gray, The Case Against Preschool in Psychology Today.

Universal preschool might better be called daycare, a program for young children to socialize, have free play, and experience lovely learning-rich experiences before school. It might help parents who’ve had a difficult time during the pandemic. But the term school needs examining along with its association to Head Start’s standards.

President Biden has said:

Research shows when a young child goes to school, not daycare, they’re far more likely to graduate from high school, and go to college or something after high school.

This standardization worries a lot of early childhood experts who believe daycare is a better term.

It also seems likely that universal preschool might emulate Head Start, a preschool program started under the Johnson administration in 1965 to lift poor children out of poverty.

Parents and teachers are raising concerns about universal preschool and what it will mean to young and poor children. Much gap closing talk is also circulating, reminiscent of NCLB and Race to the Top.

And they’re examining the strict standards that have become a reality with Head Start and their performance standards.

Head Start: How You’ve Changed! 

In the beginning, Head Start provided quality childcare and included helping with parent involvement, good nutrition, social services, mental health services, and health services. But this has changed over the years.

In Head Start’s Value Lies in Care, Not Academic Training, Boston College research professor and early childhood advocate Dr. Peter Gray looks at preschool studies. He considers the old Head Start compared to the new Head Start.

Gray states:

. . .my hypothesis is that in more recent times Head Start has been affected by the national obsession with academic training so that more such training is going on in the program at the expense of some of the other benefits that the program has traditionally offered.

This is easy to observe. Today, Head Start has collected much information about early child development, but, it isn’t easy to see how children get past so many expectations.

Head Start has become micromanaged, children must reach standards, and childhood is no longer for the meek of heart.

The Interactive Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five is described as A guide to what children should know and do in five central developmental domains: skillsmeasurement, and outcomes.

Programs inform intentional teaching practices, and the curriculum is aligned to domains, sub-domains, goals, developmental progressions, and indicators.

It’s all a rat race to get children to perform better at higher academic levels. Children must align their behavior to the standards.

A recent commenter on this blog familiar with a current Head Start program stated:

I can share that in the Head Start and public school preschool programs where I’ve worked and observed for fieldwork, 3-5-year-old children are daily expected to perform developmentally inappropriate tasks (ie sit for direct instruction for 10 mins or more at a time, multiple times a day), and are criticized or punished for not being able to meet the teachers demands. They have limited free play time and limited choices, which the teacher might take away at their own whim (“dramatic play is closed today!” one teacher would crow when the students “weren’t listening”). They are made to sit in place doing worksheets and handwriting practice “because they need to get ready for kindergarten”, and they experience low-quality interactions with teachers (lots of scolding and yelling, little connection btw kids and teachers, virtually no affection). The classrooms are crowded and chaotic, with 20 students at a time, and the overarching concern is “school readiness” and not a developmentally appropriate program.

We cannot just expand free preschool through zoned programs associated with public schools unless there is a guarantee of child-centered public preschool equipped to meet the children’s needs. Obsession with standards, testing, and “rigor” has already taken the play, outdoor recess, and focus on social-emotional learning out of kindergarten, and this will only trickle down farther to preschool if it is universally tied to the k-12 public system.

Parents need good childcare where children can play and wonder and feel nurtured and cared for in an environment that respects them as children, recognizing the pressures that their parents are under in society.

In fairness, I have heard from teachers who describe their Head Start programs as being very different and child-friendly.

Dr. Gray noted that daycare is a better term than preschool. I agree.

Children don’t need molding to fit in the future workforce. Children who face so much early pressure will not likely care about school or learning as time goes by.

Educators and parents must resist the notion that children need school so early. Instead, they must focus on creating joyful havens for children, places where their play and socializing lead to hope and joy of learning on their terms.

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...