The Early Education Racket
If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need preschool.
This is not to say that parents who have money can do anything they want and their kids will be fine. We all know plenty of horrible adults who were once rich kids. But as Tucker-Drob puts it, upper-middle-class parents do “tend to be choosing between all very good options.”
So if preschool doesn’t really matter for advantaged kids, then the type of preschool matters even less. Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Catholic school? Might as well flip a coin. Some approaches may, of course, be a better fit for certain personalities: Waldorf schools, which teach through imitation and imagination and don’t ever give tests, might mesh well with artistic children (and anti-vaxers, since Waldorf schools have an astoundingly low vaccination rate); the Reggio Emilia approach is a project-based philosophy in which children spend days, weeks, or even months exploring a particular topic, like seashells; and the Montessori method teaches skills through the use of special manipulative materials, perhaps good for an engineer-to-be (though I’m not sure any parent knows what kind of to-be their kid is at age 3).
Some new research does suggest that certain Montessori schools could provide an academic edge over conventional preschools, even among advantaged children. Research on Montessori is overall a mixed bag—some research suggests kids do better in them, while other research suggests the opposite. So last year, Angeline Lillard, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia, conducted a study to try to tease out the truth. Montessori schools can be parsed into two types: classical Montessori and what Lillard calls “supplemented” Montessori. The classical approach strictly abides by the founder’s rules, only allowing certain types of materials in the classroom and grouping kids of different ages together. Supplemented Montessori, which is far more common in the United States, typically separates children according to age and augments traditional tool-based Montessori learning with activities like pretend play and direct instruction.
When Lillard compared the test scores of children from advantaged families who spent a school year in conventional preschools with those who spent a year in the two types of Montessori schools, she found that children in the classical Montessori programs fared much better than both the other groups. At the end of the school year, they exhibited better working memory, planning, reading, and vocabulary skills, and they displayed a better understanding of fairness and willingness to share. Past studies of Montessori programs have not distinguished between classical and supplemented approaches, which could explain why results from them have been so mixed. But no one yet knows whether these advantages last, and indeed, some research suggests that the academic “edge” some kids get from preschool fades over time. (There are similar arguments over the lasting effects of Head Start; programs across the country differ drastically, so it’s hard to tell why some seem to help and some don’t.)
So what’s a type-A parent to do? If you’re providing your child with a stimulating environment at home—and if you’ve read this far, you probably are—don’t stress about preschool. Hell, skip the whole damn circus if you want. (My husband is going to quote me on this later.) Or apply, but if little Aiden doesn’t get into his (er, your) first choice, don’t fret. Instead, take to heart the blunt, reassuring words of social psychologist Richard Nisbett, co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan. When I asked him how important it is to send your child to the best preschool, he told me that as far as he knows (and he seems to know a lot), “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.”
In addition to the sources already mentioned, The Kids would like to thank Karen Quinn, author of Testing for Kindergarten, and Carolyn Daoust of St. Mary's College of California.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. and is DoubleX’s parenting advice columnist. Follow her on Twitter.