The crazy world of hyper-competitive pre-k education (continued)

Exhibit # 3438239:

Fancy preschools in Silicon Valley abound. There’s Action Day Primary Plus, ranked the area’s No. 1 preschool by Bay Area Parent, whose “Tiny Tot” dance classes, weekend sports programs, and other activities “promote enjoyment and confidence through movement.” There’s Galileo Preschool, “which provides an innovative, project-based learning environment for children” and a curriculum that includes everything from American Sign Language to community service. Or there’s the Children’s World Bilingual Montessori School, where kids are exposed to both English and Mandarin on a daily basis as they learn the decimal system, Chinese culture, gardening, and more. The sticker price for enrolling full time in one of these preschools? $1,365, $1,320, and $1,200 a month, respectively.

These price tags are hardly surprising; private preschool is really, really expensive almost anywhere you go. But they mean that even in the nation’s tech hub, where the poverty rate is significantly lower than the U.S. average, the young children of lower-income parents often miss out on the benefits of early-learning opportunities. According to a recent report from the Urban Institute, Silicon Valley tends to mirror the rest of the United States when it comes to early-education inequality. About three quarters of 3-year-olds from poorer families aren’t enrolled in preschool, but a majority of their wealthier counterparts are. Among 4-year-olds from lower-income families, nearly 40 percent don’t attend preschool, compared to only a fourth of upper-income families. “Even in a place of incredible wealth, we’re finding similar gaps,” said Erica Greenberg, one of the study’s authors.

While the return on investment of prekindergarten education is widely debated, researchers tend to agree that high-quality early-learning experiences are most beneficial for children who are poor or speak English as a second language. These programs often provide stimulating environments that the kids may not otherwise get at home: opportunities to develop broad vocabularies, fine-tune motor skills, and eat more nutritious meals, for example.

I believe in liberty. If you want to spend $20,000 a year to give your precious baby something you believe will help her develop her full potential, go ahead and do it.

But you shouldn't.

Measuring the success of a tiny tot program based on criteria that make sense to adults is great for one thing: Making parents feel good about dropping so much money on a fancy pre-school. Will it actually help the kids? The evidence is far from conclusive, especially when you consider that children of well-educated and affluent parents tend to do well regardless. They are healthy, they learn good vocabularies early, they learn to read, count and write early, and so on.

On the other hand, while I am no socialist, I also believe there is a need for some form of part-time pre-school for children who come from less-advantaged homes. Children of parents who do not speak very good English, for instance, benefit from pre-k programs that teach basic literacy skills. Children who are neglected by their parents benefit from the attention of kind, attentive adults. Children who aren't fed properly at home benefit from the meals they get at daycare, and so on. Enough to justify a public, early-childhood education program? Probably not - at least not everywhere. But you know, there certainly is a strong case to be made for helping some of those children who are struggling in home situations that are far from ideal.

And what about normal, middle-class parents who want to do the best for their children? Save your money, I say, and instead of sending your toddlers to a fancy school try spending time with them. You can teach them their basic pre-k stuff (and much more) while developing a great, healthy relationship with those important small humans in your life. Read to them, play with them, take them into the world with you, help them discover who they are. It's one of the hardest jobs I've ever done, but it's also by far the most rewarding.

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