Obama should focus on parenting, not preschools

Education | Janie B. Cheaney

Obama should focus on parenting, not preschools

President Obama visits a Head Start classroom in Pennsylvania in 2011.
Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak (file)

Back when my daughter was in kindergarten, our family was anticipating a visit from Grandma and Grandpa. At my husband’s suggestion, I sent a note to school with my daughter, informing her teacher that she would be staying home for a few days in order to enjoy the grands. That evening, I got a call from the teacher asking me to reconsider. The K class had an important unit coming up: “We’re going to be learning the days of the week.” That made me doubt our homegrown wisdom, but when I told my husband about the call, he looked puzzled and asked, “Can’t you teach her the days of the week?”

Our daughter stayed home that week. Three years later she came home for good when we started homeschooling.

I tell this little story on myself as a way of showing how the education establishment, even with good intentions, bamboozles parents. It’s not new. My mother told me how when my sisters and I were starting school in the 1950s, parents were advised not to attempt any academic teaching—they were to leave that to the professionals. So when the president of the United States announced plans for universal preschool, his assumptions seemed self-evident. “Study after study shows the achievement gap starts out very young,” he said in Decatur, Ga., last week. “If they already have a lot fewer vocabulary words, if they don’t know their numbers and shapes, if they don’t have the capacity for focus, they’re gonna be behind that first day.”

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To paraphrase my husband, can’t parents teach numbers and shapes and vocabulary words? Might the home be a better place to learn to focus, rather than a classroom packed with fidgety kids? The largest study ever done of the Head Start program (a study that was government-funded) determined that any gains made by preschoolers in the program were wiped out by the third grade.

For President Obama, there’s no such thing as the largest study ever done of Head Start, or else he believes that if one government program fails to meet expectations, what must be needed is a bigger government program. The three points of his proposed pre-K plan are 1) providing pre-K schooling to all 4-year-olds, even those well above the poverty line; 2) expanding Early Head Start to provide education, child care, parental education, and health services to poor children ages 0-3; and 3) funding more Nurse Family Partnerships, which send nurses into homes with children 0-2 to evaluate and advise parents.

This time around, it’s not just conservatives who are skeptical. An editorial in USA Today (by the staff, not a guest writer) cited the Head Start study and asked what an expanded preschool program would accomplish in a nation of broken families. Like most federal education initiatives, the president’s plan stresses cognitive development, but that’s only one part of a child’s overall well-being. Security, morality, manual dexterity, and relationship are equally important, and those are all better taught one-on-one. If the feds are serious about giving kids a head start, how about starting where they are and establishing classes (not in-home visits) for teaching parents how to parent?

Yes, I know they’ll do a lousy job of it. But at least they’ll take the problem home, where it belongs.

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