Early childhood education research for non-poor people by mattsteinglass
August 26, 2008, 8:36 am
Filed under: Education

There’s been a teaching staff switchover at the generally great Dutch-language afterschool program we send our kids to (subsidized and certified by the Dutch Overseas Education Foundation), and the new teachers have established what looks to me like a very dubious schedule: one three-hour lesson per week for each group of kids. It’s pretty hard for me to imagine my four-year-old son concentrating on a lesson plan for three hours straight, or retaining much from one week to the next. My six-year-old daughter has been in the program since she was 4, with 1.5-hour lessons twice a week, and she’s now reading well above grade level in Dutch, so that seems like the more logical schedule to me. And I remember when I was in elementary school, the classes you had irregularly — science class, which would show up unpredictably every week or two, it seemed — just devolved into vague playtime; you could barely remember anything you’d learned there in the previous class.

So I went out looking for scholarly research on the ideal length and frequency of instruction for early childhood education programs. And I can’t find anything. The National Institute of Childhood Health and Development has been producing research since the early ’90s based on a big longitudinal study of child care and preschool programs called SECCYD, but the study and the papers authored around it seem to concentrate overwhelmingly on things like whether child care harms mother-child attachment, whether quality child care can boost cognitive attainment or improve behavior for poor kids, etc. I can find research on early childhood intervention to remediate autism. But nothing so far on how long and how frequent classes should be for cognitive results in 4-year-olds. The research all seems to be oriented towards what Foucault would probably call “deviant” categories, people we find in some way problematic.

I even asked someone who teaches at the famous Banks School for advice, but what she came up with was references to Piaget and Vygotsky. Which is great. But on this particular issue, it shouldn’t be too hard to get some solid quantitative data. There are a lot of issues for which good quantitative data isn’t possible, but cognitive effects of different lengths/frequencies of instruction doesn’t seem like one of those issues.

I was kind of wondering whether this is suggestive of a problem with the early childhood education and care debate in the US, that we tend to discuss it in the context of how to fix all those pesky poor people, or as a possible threat of some kind to “our” (rich people’s) kids’ sanity. At this stage, having your kids in some form of child care and early childhood education from 3 years old seems to me to be the norm for middle-class people and up. Maybe we ought to drop these debates that problematize the whole issue, and start concentrating on ideal methods instead. As for the social justice question, it should just be one of whether it’s fair to poor 3-year-olds to put them at a disadvantage against rich 3-year-olds.


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