When I was in the third grade, a group of moms initiated a battle to have the kindergarten and first-grade students share their classroom and teacher with the preschool students. Our town was lacking in the preschool department. This was justifiable since Panther Junction had a population of about 130 people in total. We had neither grocery store nor hospital, but the moms had bigger concerns. They marched up to the school board shrieking their complaints like pro-education banshees. The rest of us continued driving the four hours to the HEB to buy our food in bulk like doomsday preppers. When someone fell off the monkey bars and broke their wrist, parents would travel the two hours to the hospital, the child crying in the backseat with a makeshift splint made out of an old GoGurt box. But we needed a preschool. The mom that led the rest of the preschool parents with an iron fist bellowed, “If Carson doesn’t go to preschool, how is he supposed to compete in the global market?”
I did not go to a real preschool. I stayed at home eating raisins and finger painting like a drifter. While Carson took practice SATs from the comfort of his Fisher-Price bouncer, I played outside. Did this set me behind somehow? Am I one preschool education short of success?
I used to not think so. Then, I brought up the subject to my friends.
“You didn’t go to preschool?!”
They were confused. One guy thought that preschool was mandatory and that I had broken some kind of public education law. I feared my intelligence was never unlocked and was left to fester in my developing brain until it died. I took it upon myself to investigate what I would have learned in preschool.
I found that many experts believe in a so-called sleeper effect. Social and academic abilities learned in preschool go through an incubation period the same way that the common cold does, only to show up in the host around four or five years later when they are in an elementary school classroom. A study conducted by the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins found that the third-grade students who had attended preschool did better on standardized tests than the children who did not.
I looked up the most pretentious, expensive, highly rated preschools I could find. When I called up a school I will refer to as Pint-Sized Princeton, I learned that asking questions as a journalist is not helpful since the preschool will not reap any of the benefits. I realized I would have to pose as a parent with money to give.
I found a preschool in California that I will call Small Stanford. My roommate and I christened my fictional two-year-old child Estella, fittingly named after the character in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I put on my best-concerned parent persona and made the call.
Upon asking about the curriculum, I found out that the children attending were as young as two years five months. The admissions worker said that the school was competitive, not because some two-year-olds were not smart enough to get in, but because of the masses of parents (like myself) who applied. In an effort to steer the conversation back to academics, I asked what skills Estella would have after attending Small Stanford. The admissions worker sounded borderline disgusted.
“Skills?” she repeated.
“Yes. Will she learn mathematics, the alphabet, and potentially Spanish? I just don’t know what I should expect. Estella is my first child,” I said honestly.
The worker explained that while Small Stanford did teach the bare bones of counting and letter sounds, it was more developmental than academic. A stronger focus was placed on a child’s ability to interact with others than on the properties of a nonagon. I thanked the worker for assuaging my fears.
“Wonderful. My book club friends said that if Estella didn’t go to preschool she would never be able to compete in the global market,” I exclaimed. I could hear the worker rolling her eyes.
“She should be fine.”
Small Stanford, an expensive and highly rated preschool, was more concerned with fostering a love of learning and a healthy social environment. My childhood was ripe with social interactions with my sisters and the other kids living in my neighborhood. My parents always made a point of making everyday education enjoyable. While I am sure that some great preschools do teach advanced concepts to three-year-olds, some great ones also give kids the same things my parents gave me.