The Good School NPR coverage of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve by Peg Tyre. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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The Good School

How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve

by Peg Tyre

The Good School

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Excerpt: The Good School

IN THE EARLY years of parenting, it seemed to Mai and Rush Ogden that the thorny questions never stopped coming. Of course, breast is best but is a sometimes bottle okay, too? Is Dr. Ferber a demigod sent to earth to preserve the sanity of new parents or a demon aiming to break the sacred bonds between parent and child? And what is the best way to lay down a time-out--one that hits the sweet spot between ineffectual finger wagging and Shock and Awe? When their son, Ian, turned three, the challenges of keeping him well fed, clean, dry, and safe gave way to long discussions about how to educate him. They weren't the only ones. The Ogdens realized that many of the thoughtful, well-educated couples they socialized with near their home in the Bay Area had become fixated on which preschool their child would attend. Neither Mai, a graphic designer, nor Rush, a mechanical engineer, who are both in their early forties, had attended preschool themselves. Mai set out to become an informed consumer. Already, Mai had found thatparenting demanded that she balance short- and long-term concerns for her child. And choosing a preschool seemed to Mai to be a significant brushstroke in the Big Picture.

After talking to friends and a few weeks of virtual research, Mai had a short list of schools--four in all--that she wanted to visit. "There were several different kinds of schools but the one I was most drawn to marketed itself as a highly progressive program that stressed plenty of play. The Web site listed words like developmentally friendly and promised to teach kids what they were interested in," she recalled. After a series of school visits, Mai and Rush felt like they were pretty much back where they started. "I wanted to like the school that billed itself as progressive but to me it looked really disorganized. They made a huge deal about having a chicken for a class pet and growing food in their garden and then eating it--and that's all very nice--but the kids looked stressed out and the classrooms, which were filled with toys, were more like a messy playroom than a place for learning." To their surprise, the program they liked the best was a highly structured one that stressed academics. Children sat behind desks that were arranged in rows and faced the teacher's desk and a chalkboard. "It looked like an elementary school," says Mai.

Back home, the couple ran the tuition and fees for each program through their family budget; the prices were variable but one cost $15,000 a year and that was for a half day. They tried to figure out their best option. "It was a really hard, pressure-filled process," says Mai. "In the end, I realized that for all the research I'd done, and hours spent on school tours, I really didn't know what I was looking for or even the smartest questions to ask."

What kind of preschool should you choose for your child? It is a decision with big consequences. For many children, preschoolwill be their first opportunity to spend regular time with people who are not family. And, understandably, parents want to ensure that their child makes the transition easily. No one in their right mind believes that getting into a particular preschool (even the very best one in your town) will make a child a shoo-in for the Ivy League. Sorry to say, raising academically successful children isn't going to be that simple. And having a bad experience the first time out does not mean your child is doomed for school failure. Preschool, though, is the first footfall on a long and winding path toward becoming a well-educated adult. All parents want to do what they can to make sure that first step is a steady one.

If it feels like many of your friends are thinking, talking--okay, maybe even obsessing about this--it's because they are. A lot of middle-class kids now attend preschool. In 2009, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, 47 percent of all four-year-olds, roughly 3.7 million kids, attended some sort of preschool programming ranging from the federally funded Head Start, to state-supported preschools, to community-based for-profits, nonprofits, and faith-based classes in church basements. Even as the Great Recession plays havoc with family budgets, the number of children attending preschool is growing. In moneyed urban areas--Manhattan, Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas, and the Gold Coast of Chicago--and in affluent suburbs, places where the population of advanced degree holders is most dense, getting into the right preschool has become a competitive sport. And along with that level of anxiety come the predictable excesses. Remember the name Jack Grubman? In 2003, court documents revealed that Grubman, then one of the nation's leading telecom stock analysts, upped the rating of AT&T, a stock he was supposed to be monitoring, as a favor to Wall Street tycoon Sanford Weill after Weill donated $1 million toa prestigious Manhattan preschool to pave the way for Grubman's kids to gain admission. In the end, Grubman lost his job. No word whether his kids learned a lot at preschool that year.

Wealthy parents without those kinds of rich and powerful friends have turned to hiring preschool admissions consultants. Often retired preschool directors themselves or college admissions counselors making money in the "off-season," they charge anxious moms and dads between $500 and $12,000 to steer their toddler's acceptance into the right program.

Not all preschool anxiety is quite this cartoonish. But even well-grounded parents can get sucked into the madness that surrounds landing a spot in an affordable, high-quality preschool for their child. Michelle Howell, thirty-six, a marketing consultant, and her husband, Chris Miller, forty, who is in sales, applied to a number of preschools in their Austin, Texas, neighborhood when Michelle was pregnant with their daughter, Sydney.

They thought they had the game beat when she was accepted to one when she was just an infant. But then, as Sydney grew, both her parents saw that she would benefit from interaction with other children before she was three years old--the age that their preschool of choice began. So they applied to a short list of twos programs. Their first-choice preschool program accepted Sydney to their wait list--and asked the wait list families to come to the school on a particular day at 7:00 a.m. Chris was traveling and Michelle's nanny starts at 7:30, but Michelle asked her to come early. "I figured I wouldn't be the first one to arrive," said Michelle. "But when I got there I found a couple of parents in chairs with blankets." One father showed up at midnight with a lawn chair, an extra sweater, and a cooler, as if he were waiting for tickets to go on sale for the Super Bowl. Three moms had gotten there at 2:00 a.m. Michelle and Chris were shut out. Their second-choice program also accepted Sydney to the waitlist, but in the end the program's twenty-six spots for twos were filled by siblings of already-enrolled students.

Grandparents, watching their competent, usually rational sons and daughters grow bewildered and frustrated over preschool choices, are often confused. "I don't understand the stress," said Barbara Cohen, sixty-four, of Margate, New Jersey, who has watched her daughters, Dana, thirty-nine, and Stephanie, thirty-five, agonize over finding good preschools for Barbara's four grandchildren. "I think (my daughters) are getting caught up in a cycle: their friends are doing research and it's like a contagious condition. They stress more than necessary. They second-guess themselves. They question it. They rehash it." Back when she was a young mother, Barbara says, it seemed like there were fewer choices. She sent her children to the Jewish Y. "And that was it."

Barbara Cohen is right. There are more choices than ever before. What she may not realize is that for parents today, it pays to be particular.


When you visit a preschool, it's hard to see past the endearing and hopeful aspects of nearly any program. Four-year-old human beings--small, active, frank, wide-eyed, and endlessly curious--seem almost by design to fascinate and delight us. To the untrained eye, all but the most troubled programs look like reasonably happy places. What we know, though, is that all preschools are not created equal. There is good data to suggest that our gauzy and trusting perceptions of preschool can hide a troubling reality: there are badly run preschools or badly run classrooms within an otherwise acceptable preschool.

In his work at the Child Study Center in New Haven,Connecticut, Walter Gilliam, a Yale University professor of child psychiatry and psychology, collects data from 3,898 preschools nationwide. In 2004, following a hunch, he added a few questions to the annual survey he sends to preschools, querying them about their expulsion rates. The results he collected shocked him--and later, the nation. It turns out that there are a whole lot of children who experience preschool--which should be a joyous phase of exploration and expanding horizons--as a dark time indeed. When he analyzed his data, he found that children in preschool are three times more likely to get expelled than children in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Expulsion rates were lowest in preschool classrooms in public schools and Head Start, and highest in faith-affiliated centers, for-profit child care, and other community-based child care settings.

Mark and Stacy Ambrose, thirty-five and thirty-two, respectively, who live outside of Nashville, Tennessee, didn't know kids could get expelled from preschool until it happened to their daughter. They were thrilled when their daughter, Marcella, entered the fours program run by an exclusive private school in their area. Stacy and Mark, who owns a chain of dry-cleaning businesses, weren't ready to commit to paying for private school from pre-K to year twelve. That decision depended on the economy, the profits from Mark's business, and if and when Stacy, a lawyer turned stay-at-home mom, went back to work. But they figured that enrolling their daughter in preschool at the school would give them a leg up in the competitive admissions process. Which made it all the more surprising when Marcella, who was initially thrilled at the idea of school, began to balk at going in the morning. "She's a spirited child and has strong ideas about how she wants to play, but she's a wonderful kid. We couldn't figure out what was wrong," says Stacy.

To get to the bottom of the problem, Stacy started staying lateafter drop-off, finding ways to "volunteer" in the classroom, and arriving for pickup time early. The teacher, she noticed, emphasized a great deal of quiet--sometimes even silent--seatwork. Each class had indoor and outdoor playtime, but Marcella's teacher spent nearly a half an hour marshaling the children for the two-minute walk to the outdoor play space. "I could hear the teacher barking commands all the time like 'line up,' 'walk in twos,' 'don't talk,' 'sit down,' 'don't fidget,' 'play quietly,'" says Stacy. "By the end of the day, Marcella seemed like a bottle of shaken-up soda, ready to fizzle over!"

While Stacy says she never observed the teacher yelling directly at Marcella, the teacher seemed frustrated with her child's unwillingness to follow her constant commands. Stacy worried that Marcella's behavior was becoming the focus of the class. Stacy asked for a meeting with the teacher, got nowhere, and then had a meeting with the preschool head, who told them that Marcella had trouble following directions, a trait the couple rarely encountered at home.

As weeks went on, the Ambroses' cheerful, happy daughter turned mopey and miserable. She argued with other children. One day, she even bit another child in class--something she hadn't done since she was a toddler in diapers. The preschool head called Stacy in and asked her to withdraw Marcella. "I couldn't believe my ears. She was getting kicked out! We were devastated," said Stacy. "It was horrible to think that she had failed at her first foray into formal learning."

At their best, preschools can improve kids' social skills and have some positive effect on children's academic achievement, at least in the early years of their education (the long-lasting effects are less clear). Many policy makers believe that preschool is a crucial part of a strategy to close the achievement gap between poor kids and middle-class kids by making sure that children from homes where reading and math are not emphasized get enough early learning tobe ready for kindergarten. What often remains unacknowledged, however, is evidence that suggests that for some kids, preschool has a distinct downside. In a 2005 analysis, researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that kindergartners who had attended thirty or more hours of preschool every week were less motivated and more aggressive in class. Probably not the outcome parents were hoping for when they camped out overnight to make sure their child got a spot in a coveted program.

How do you determine which preschools to put on your short list? The first and most obvious step is checking out the Web site. But you may not get the best information there. For starters, some preschool programs can claim to be a certain kind of school and are actually certified as purveyors of that approach. Others can claim to be and aren't. For example, a preschool that calls itself a Waldorf school or a Rudolph Steiner program is evaluated by a governing body that measures that school against specific standards and practices. On the other hand, a school can call itself a Montessori program, and many do, without knowing a single thing about the educational philosophy developed by Dr. Maria Montessori.

The cursory "school tour" is often not that much more helpful. A smiling representative from the school describes a program as "developmentally appropriate," "play-based," "progressive," or "hands-on," and that seems reasonable enough when you are surrounded by other nodding parents. But when you are sitting alone in your car in the parking lot, you end up asking yourself, What does it really mean? How can we judge a program whose stated aim is to "improve school readiness"? It sounds good, but what the Ogdens at the start of this chapter discovered is that those terms can mean radically different things in different places. For example, preschools that claim to teach "reading readiness" run the gamut: a classroom wherechildren are exposed to pictures of letters posted above the blackboard or a program where they are seated at a desk twice a day filling out phonics worksheets. Yet those different approaches to reading readiness could have a significant impact on your child.

In the pages that follow, you'll learn how to look beyond the boilerplate description to figure out what makes a quality preschool. First, we'll look at how ideas about early education have evolved. The preschool programs available to your son or daughter are a result of some deeply held--and in some ways deeply conflicting--views on childhood and childhood learning. It's helpful to know where some of these ideas come from before you can evaluate the three most important things about a preschool: the quality of the teacher, the quality of curriculum, and whether the school is delivering instruction in a way that is thoughtful, deliberate, and appropriate for your child.

By the end of this chapter, you'll have enough information to slice through the jargon on the Web site and look past the admissions director's sales pitch. You'll be able to fire off some meaningful questions during your school tour. You'll be able to analyze the underlying assumptions that the school is making about the kids they serve--and better figure out if it is a good fit for your family. By the time your child is ready to start preschool, you're still going to be filled with joy, hopefulness, anxiety, and a whale-size case of the oh-my-gosh-where-is-the-time-going nostalgia. But you'll also know a little bit more about what your child is getting into when she says good-bye and heads into her first classroom.


Early education only became a large-scale enterprise in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and then, mostly for the poor. Inthose days, the custom was for young children from well-to-do families to remain in the care of nannies, nurses, and eventually tutors. But as more working-class adults in Europe sought jobs in factories, it became imperative to school poor kids--or at least keep them safe so their parents could earn a wage. Although we have few complete accounts of those first European nursery schools, many seem to have been grim affairs. The teachers didn't get any special training. The day was focused on what was called habit training and revolved around teaching the kids how to dress properly, do chores, say their prayers, and become literate enough to read a Psalter and sign their name. As anyone who has taken a course in European history knows, as cities grew, so did concerns about the degrading effects of the increase in population, poverty, disease, and pollution. Romanticism, which prized the natural over the mechanical and the intuitive over the logical, sprang up in response to those deep concerns created by a rapidly industrializing society. Romanticism, which held the free and untrammeled spirit of the child in great esteem, inspired not just some great poetry and paintings but also some interesting new thinking about nursery schools as well. Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and separately, in neighboring Germany, naturalist turned educator Friedrich Froebel, created schools that explicitly rejected the notion that poor children had to be "trained." Instead, the mission of their schools was to protect a child's spontaneous and creative spirit from the pressures of adult life. Classes should take place, the two educational philosophers believed, among trees and grass and birds. Students should handle tools and equipment made of natural materials. Pestalozzi allowed his students to play freely in the woods near his school with the expectation that his charges' innate curiosity would eventually fuel their appetite for formal learning. In Germany, Froebel, who became famous for coining the term kindergarten, wanted children toexpress what he called their activity drive--a thirst for exploration and learning--through play.

When European ideas about educating young children were imported to the United States by a handful of Lady Bountiful-type philanthropists, the tension between preschools that trained a child for adult life and preschools that purported to nourish a child's creativity and spirit came along with it. Those first American nursery schools were founded with a missionary zeal that owed more to the former than the latter. The kids who attended them were the three-and four-year-olds of poor and, it was tacitly understood at the time, morally inferior immigrant parents. The role of the school was to improve their habits in life so they could grow up and be better workers. Although some nursery schools taught basic reading and math, explicit academic instruction for young children was suspect. Scientific experts claimed that providing instruction to young children was downright dangerous and could lead to a kind of mental wasting. Back in 1838, Amariah Brigham, the director of the Hartford Insane Asylum, and an influential writer and speaker on social issues, warned that "mental excitement" brought on by early learning led to a disease called "precocity." Early learning, Brigham wrote, would "only serve to bring forth beautiful, but premature flowers, which are destined to wither away without producing fruit." Decades later, popular literature was still filled with Brigham's cautionary children--pale, bookish, and highly verbal youngsters who lacked the physical strength and stamina of their ruddy-cheeked playmates--and often succumbed to an early death.

In 1930, only .09 percent of sixteen million potential students--some very wealthy, most very poor--attended nursery school. In the 1950s, 84 percent of four-years-olds were still spending their days at home. Early childhood education was administered by mothers, family members, and neighbors, and, if families were rich enough, by nannies.

The post-World War II generation turned tradition on its ear. In 1965, the federal government started Head Start, which its founders promised would close what most policy makers were coming to realize was a yawning achievement gap between black and white children. Head Start became popular in poor communities, and soon middle-class women took note. Their massive shift into the workforce, which had begun as a trickle in the early 1970s, rapidly turned into a stampede. In the early 1970s, 60 percent of all mothers with school-age children stayed home--by the mid-1990s, 70 percent of women with school-age children were earning wages. In those early decades of the feminist movement, dads had not yet integrated child care into their job description. Harried, doing-it-all moms were fresh out of ideas about what to do with the kids when they were on the job. Preschools were a good option. In keeping with the times, most championed a "play-based" and "progressive" approach, which, ironically, often resembled the ideas espoused in turn-of-the-century Europe.

By 1990, preschool had become so common that in all kinds of communities it was considered the standard entry point into the American education system. What poor kids should be doing in preschool became the subject of a highly politicized debate. Conservatives, whose views were encapsulated in the 1994 book The Bell Curve, written by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, had long argued that human intelligence is fixed at birth and invulnerable to change. Poor kids--especially black and Latino poor kids--lag behind middle-class kids in school, they argue, because they don't have the raw material to perform any better. Liberal educators countered that instead of less preschool, poor kids needed better-quality programs. They pointed to experiments like the High Scope program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, which in the 1960s and 1970s provided high-qualitypreschool and, in the case of Abecedarian, wrap-around social interventions for poor kids and their families and then tracked the progress of the children as they grew into adults. Results from those studies began filtering out in the 1980s. In both projects, children who were randomly assigned to high-quality preschool did better in school (at least initially) and, later, made more money, got a better education, and were less likely to commit crimes than the kids from their community who didn't get the same intervention.

Around that time, new technology used in the burgeoning field of neuroscience was turning up some interesting data that dealt a near-fatal blow to the intelligence-is-innate faction and amplified the drumbeat for more academics in early learning, which reverberates to this day. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allowed scientists to "see" for the first time what was happening inside a child's working brain. And it was not what they expected. Many people had assumed that children were socially and physically active but intellectually dormant, waking up to learning as they aged. The fMRIs "showed" that our children's brains were on fire--burning glucose at a furious rate and laying down new neural pathways and pruning others. Stimulation enhanced brain activity in children--and, many believed, could enhance mental capacity. In April 1997, Hillary and Bill Clinton hosted the White House conference "Early Childhood Development and Learning: What New Research on the Brain Tells Us About Our Youngest Children" to convince elected representatives that early stimulation encouraged neurological growth and therefore that preschool programs that served poor kids should not be slashed. Journalists from television networks and major newspapers and newsweeklies broadened the message and it came out something like this: early academic learning is crucial in order to ensure that all children reach their full potential. The more the better.

Middle-class parents heard it loud and clear, and their interest set off an unprecedented marketing juggernaut. Whether it was a semester of pricey Gymboree classes, a Baby Einstein tape, a black-and-white "stim" mobile to hang over the crib, or a fill-in-the-blank workbook for three-year-olds--marketers told parents that these were essential tools children must have to meet their potential. By 2004, the market for so-called learning-and-exploration toys--which didn't even exist in 1980--rose to $510 million a year. The extraordinary growth has continued. In 2011, the worldwide market for "edutainment" toys--which now includes electronic "learning toys"--is expected to top $5 billion.

Any lingering doubts parents had about "precocity" went out the window. The more learning you could bring to your children early on, parents were told, the better off they'd be. Parents began to demand more academic-type learning in preschool. As the new decade dawned, many preschool classrooms began to look like scaled-down versions of fourth grade. Some divided the preschooler's day into academic subjects--just like high school. Others made "reading chapter books" their stated (if wildly aspirational) goal.

Some early childhood educators, particularly in affluent communities, vowed to resist the hype. Let the marketing geniuses play to parenting anxieties. Instead, they translated the old ideas of Froebel and Pestalozzi for a new hip generation, arguing that the toddlers who were allowed to play freely and explore the world today would develop into tomorrow's creative and intellectually curious students.

At the end of the twentieth century, the federal government released into this divided world a set of important reports based on new research on early learning. The findings of "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children" and "The Reading Panel" were unequivocal: the central building blocks of literacy must be laiddown before kindergarten. For the highly academic camp, this directive only added to their flash-card frenzy. The naturalistic play-based preschools took it as a matter of pride to ignore these findings. Reading instruction and even pre-literacy skills, the preschool operators cautioned, might be okay for children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds but middle-class parents risked their children becoming "hothouse kids" or "burning out" if they entered them in the academic rat race too soon.

Is it any wonder that young parents, most of whom want to send their children to preschool, are confused? They have good questions, for example: How much formal teaching and academics should preschoolers get? If they get too much, could they burn out? If they get too little, could they be left behind by their high-achieving peers? What does early learning really look like? It's hard to get good answers. Here's one place to start: when you are trying to find a good preschool, do what your mother always said--pay attention to the teacher.


The grown-up standing in the center of your child's very first classroom is going to be the key to your child's experience. Schools create the best possible environment for your child when they train their teachers well and hold on to the good ones for as long as possible. That's not always easy. It's an important job. But it's also a tiring job, and the pay is low. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median salary for preschool teachers is $23,070--but 10 percent of them made less than $16,030. It's not surprising that in many schools, the turnover is high.

You're not just looking for a school with decent teacher longevity, but also one with plenty of teachers to go around. According to theNational Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers in New Jersey, preschool classes should have at least one adult per ten children, with an ideal class size of fifteen to eighteen kids.

When Mary Jane Webster, principal of the Barnum School, the preschool program for the public schools in Taunton, Massachusetts, sets out to hire a new teacher for her program, she has a long and detailed checklist. With the economy in the doldrums, Webster has an abundance of applicants.

The qualities she looks for? "A sense of humor, enthusiasm, and energy and focus," she says. "I'm looking for a preschool teacher who stands in the shower each morning and thinks about how she can connect with each and every child in her class and help them learn," says Webster.

How much do interactions between teacher and student matter? It turns out, a great deal.

Jen McIntyre, age forty, a stay-at-home mother of two, and her husband, Paul, age thirty-six, an attorney, sensed something was amiss shortly after they enrolled their daughters Eleanor and Ingrid in a nearby private preschool in Philadelphia. The school marketed the fact that it did not buy into the "rat race" mentality of early schooling, with all the "test, test, test." "I felt like the school would let my kids have an academic experience but also protect their childhood," says Jen. From what she could tell, the preschool provided the kind of warm and nurturing environment that Jen had enjoyed when she herself had attended preschool. She also liked that the children were in mixed-age groups. But after a few weeks, Jen began to wonder if the school was in some sort of tumult. Jen reflects on what she saw. "The teachers in both my girls' classrooms seemed like they were strained--and remote from the children. Eleanor's teacher seemed particularly disconnected from Eleanor," says Jen. "I was so concerned that I mentioned it to other parents, who confessed thatthey had the same concerns." The mixed-age group, which had appealed to Jen, turned out to be large--about thirty kids and two teachers. The dynamics of the group devolved as the year went on. "The teacher didn't seem to care what was age-appropriate for the children. She took a kind of 'let's see what happens' approach." What happened was this: one of the older kids began to behave aggressively toward her daughter Eleanor. Jen started to fret.

"I was so worried about Eleanor psychologically--I felt like she was bullied by older kids and neglected in the classroom." It was worse for Eleanor's younger sister, Ingrid. Her teacher was cold and harsh. "Ingrid responded by being very defiant," which only seemed to make the relationship between her little daughter and her teacher worse.

Study after study shows that early child-teacher relationships are key. In 2001, researchers found that children who had good relationships with their preschool teachers entered kindergarten with happy, positive feelings about school. Those positive feelings made it possible for them to make new friends more easily, gain peer acceptance, and form a warm bond with their kindergarten teacher. These favorable relationships in turn predicted high achievement throughout elementary school. The same study reveals that the inverse is also true. Negative relationships between a child and teacher in preschool can cast a pall over the teacher-child relationships in kindergarten and set the stage for academic and behavioral problems through eighth grade. Poor early teacher-student relationships can turn even gifted kids off to school: researchers found that poor-quality teacher-child relationships in the early years hurt kids' achievement even when the study controlled for IQ.

What should you look for when you meet your child's potential preschool teacher? The American Psychological Association has some specific suggestions: a teacher should show pleasure and enjoymentof her students; interact with them in a responsive and respectful manner; offer students assistance in a timely way; help them reflect on their thinking and learning; demonstrate knowledge about students' backgrounds, interests, and emotional and academic strengths; and seldom express aggravation and irritation with students. In short, your child's first teacher is going to have to be one of those highly tolerant and relentlessly positive people who can be kind to your child on the days when it is sunny and your child is laughing and ready to learn, and on stormy days, too, when your young scholar is upset, overtired, and cranky.

And as for Jen McIntyre? To her relief, her children are bouncing back. She decided to change preschools, and when she attended the next round of Open Houses, she made sure to observe teachers in the classroom. She says, "I was so naive. I really had no experience in choosing a school. I didn't really know what I should look for. I was looking at schools more superficially than I ever would now."

The teacher or teachers in a good preschool classroom also need to talk a great deal and to talk very clearly. One of the very best things a preschool experience can give your child is an opportunity to speak, hear, and sing words.

Why the emphasis on spoken language? The more children are spoken to, the more they themselves speak. And the more they speak, the greater their vocabularies. The greater their vocabularies, the better their reading fluency and reading comprehension is likely to be. We'll talk about reading in more depth in chapter 4, but the central concept is that in general, the more words your child speaks, hears, and comprehends, the more readily she will understand those words when she encounters them in print.

We have two behavioral scientists, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, to thank for a big chunk of our understanding of just how important the spoken word is to the cognitive development of children.In fact, parents have a lot to thank Hart and Risley for. In the 1960s, Hart, Risley, and another famous child behavior expert of his day, Montrose Wolf, worked with the University of Kansas to set up a preschool intervention program in a high-poverty neighborhood in Kansas City. The three of them cooked up a practice of allowing kids space to cool down--what has become known to every parent as the time-out. But they did more than change the way parents dealt with their ornery children. In the early 1990s, the two researchers were connected to a preschool that served kids from poor and working-class families in Kansas City. The kids in their program, like most poor and working-class kids, used fewer words, had smaller vocabularies, and did less well in school than children from middle-class communities. So Hart and Risley set out to build the children's vocabularies. They asked teachers both from the poor preschool and from a preschool nearby that was attended by professors' kids to take students on field trips--to a bank, for instance--and then had the teachers hold discussions about banking, tellers, deposit slips, and cash cards. A trip to the zoo was followed by a discussion of fur and scales, animal families and habitats. Then Hart and Risley measured the poorer kids' vocabulary growth and compared it to the vocabulary growth for middle-class students. The experiences seemed to be expanding for both groups. But they found that the wealthier a child, the greater his rate of word acquisition. Hart and Risley saw that while preschool teachers could teach underprivileged kids more words, they could not seem to accelerate their rate of acquisition. This meant that no matter how many trips the teachers took these kids on--to banks, to zoos, to country fairs, and to the park--the poor kids could never catch up.

Hart and Risley wanted to know more. What is the turning point that sets certain four-year-olds on a path to become pint-sized connoisseurs of language and keeps others tethered to a small,restrictive vocabulary? And when exactly does it happen? To find the answers, Hart and Risley selected forty-two families of newborns from across the economic spectrum. They spent the next two and a half years observing what was said to them in their homes. Starting when the children were seven to nine months old, the researchers observed, recorded, transcribed, coded, charted, and analyzed nearly every utterance between the parents and child until the child turned three. In all, they recorded more than thirteen hundred hours of casual interaction between parents and their children. The familial tableaux in wealthy households and the poor ones were parallel: parents from all walks of life nurtured their children, played with them, talked to them, disciplined them, taught them manners, instructed them on how to dress and how to use the toilet.

But there were important differences. What they found was partially what they expected to find: the wealthier and more educated families spoke more to their children. The results that staggered Hart and Risley, and later the world of educational researchers, was the differential between the professional work and poor families. Using the data they collected in those homes, Hart and Risley projected that in the first four years of life, children in a professional family would have heard or spoken 45 million words. Working class kids would have heard 26 million words. Welfare families? A mere 13 million.

But there's more: all parents used similar imperatives and prohibitions--as you might expect, parents from every walk of life say, "Come here," and "Stop that," and "Don't put your fingers in your nose," to their kids. But the wealthier the parents were, the more extraneous talking the parents did with their kids--asking open-ended question like "What do you think will happen?" or "What are you doing?" and discussing feelings, presenting activities, and describing past events. The combination of lots of words and a general willingness on the part of these parents to use language in a descriptive,consoling, productive, and connecting way, pushed down the gas pedal on their kids' rate of word acquisition. It is a priceless gift. Six years later, Hart and Risley looked at twenty-nine of the forty-two children again to see if the rate of vocabulary growth would predict performance in school. It did. The three-year-old test subjects who had the highest rates of vocabulary growth turned into third graders with the strongest language skills and highest reading comprehension.

Good preschools know that critical skills are developed through speaking, listening, and open-ended conversation in the home, and are eager to provide more of it during the school day. Well-run preschools that serve underprivileged kids know they could be fighting against a deficit. But those who enroll students from middle-class families know, too, that technology may be turning Hart and Risley's research on its head. Children in affluent families now "play" on screens instead of talking with parents, caregivers, or others. Leapster is the so-called educational toy de jour. Parents who once narrated the view as they pushed their children in a stroller now push the stroller silently with telltale white wires hanging from their ears. Instead of listening to a parent describe the attributes of a neighbor's dog and cawing "dawg!" or "woof," or exclaiming "soft fur!" toddlers are likely to be occupied flicking through apps on Mom's iPhone. Quality time between parents and toddlers is often punctuated by Mom and Dad whipping out their BlackBerry and sending a text or four or five, a habit that further reduces opportunities for children to overhear and engage in conversations. Middle-class kids may not be acquiring the same number of words that Hart and Risley once predicted. And their reading comprehension rates may in time reflect it. Good preschools need to put a huge emphasis on learning new words by hiring teachers who have good vocabularies, love to tell stories, and are excited to introduce children to an array of new words (and ideas!) every day.


1. Look for teachers who are responsive to and respectful of their little students. Teachers should seem to know each child well--and be familiar with their strengths and background.

2. Beware the crabby preschool teacher. Preschool is no place for sarcasm, sharp tones, or any version of tough love. Yes, supervising a gaggle of four-year-olds could bring a strong man to his knees. But preschool teachers should take obvious pleasure in their young scholars.

3. Look for preschool teachers who talk, talk, talk, and create opportunities for students to do the same.


There are skills in pre-literacy and early math that children need to be developing and refining in the preschool years to ensure they'll do well in school later on. Don't panic. They aren't complicated. But they are crucial. Many preschools are well aware of them. But some are not.

Everyone knows we need to read to our children early and often. And your child's preschool teacher should be doing the same. How much is too much? There doesn't seem to be an upward limit--although children have limited attention spans. When it comes to reading to children, the bulk of the research concludes: the more the better. Reading to preschool children increases that all-important rate of word acquisition by surrounding them with English language sounds. It helps even more if your child's preschool teacher pointsout words as she reads so kids get the idea that those black marks on the page actually stand for the words that the teacher is saying and ideas they are hearing. It can be puzzling--to literate teachers and parents the concept of the printed word seems obvious. But for some kids, even kids with teachers and parents who read to them a lot, the idea that symbols represent ideas comes slowly.

Your child's preschool teacher should also be making a very big deal about the alphabet song and those twenty-six characters. In several classic studies, fluent letter-naming is shown to be a good predictor of reading achievement, not just in kindergarten or first grade, but right through the seventh grade. There are several reasons for this, but among the most important, recognizing letters makes it easier to figure out letter sounds--which you'll see in chapter 4 turns out to be one of the giant steps in the sometimes-laborious process of learning to read. Preschool teachers should also be helping kids identify colors, reciting numbers in sequence, teaching them to understand the concept of numbers, even naming animals. Your child's ability to look at a picture of a cow and quickly and accurately come up with the name of that farmyard bovine helps teachers make sure some complicated brain functions they'll need for reading are already online.

Researchers tell us that one of the fundamental differences between kids who learn to read well and kids who don't is this: the former can discern individual words in sentences and sounds within those words. Kids who are likely to struggle have a hard time hearing different words in a sentence and struggle to hear the cah as an individual and distinct sound in the word cat. It has nothing to do with intelligence. The ability to discern sound seems to reflect some basic differences in neurological wiring. But those skills can and should be strengthened throughout your child's preschool experience.

It sounds complicated, but in practice it's not exactly brainsurgery. First off, children need to hear that sentences can be broken into sound chunks--words--and later, even smaller sound chunks, what in many cases turn out to be syllables. Singing lyrics and tapping out the beats for words turns out to be a painless way to build those skills.

Not all at once, but definitely by the final year of preschool, children should understand that sound chunks of words can be switched around at will. Most children get infectious pleasure from the sound manipulation that goes into the nonsense rhyme "Hickory, dickory, dock. A mouse ran up the clock." In linguistic terms, they are, in fact, doing something sophisticated and crucial--splitting the first sound from the rest of the word and substituting another sound.

Do you really have to pay attention to what, at the end of the day, boils down to your child's ability to sing nursery rhymes? Yeah, I'm afraid you do. The ability to hear and manipulate sounds, which reading experts call phonological awareness, is essential for school success, and for many kids it is a learned skill. In one test conducted in the late 1980s over the course of a preschool year, children in the treatment group engaged in a variety of games and activities: nursery rhymes, rhymed stories, investigation of word length, clapping and dancing to syllabic rhythms, solving puzzles posed by an imaginary troll who spoke only in a syllable-by-syllable manner. Kids in the control group had a regular preschool experience. At the end of the year, they could all identify the initial word sound (that buh is the beginning sound of the word bat) and final word sound (that tuh is the last sound of the word bat). The treatment group could rhyme better--they'd had a lot of practice--but neither the control group nor the treatment group showed a clear advantage in learning to read. In grade one, the kids who got "treated" with rhyme games and the syllable-talking troll tested better in word recognition and spelling. By second grade, the treated kids dominated the control group in wordrecognition and spelling. Three years after the troll had spoken his last, the treatment group read better than the control group and their rate of improvement was not waning but picking up speed.

Too often, reading experts say, children do not get this simple kind of training in preschool. They enter kindergarten behind other kids who have been taught it or picked it up spontaneously. Absent an opportunity to practice it, kids who don't have it are retained in kindergarten--too often with another teacher who doesn't offer enough practice, either. In study after study, most kids given an opportunity to build a weak phonological sensitivity into a strong one can do it. But if they don't get that chance, they often struggle profoundly throughout their school years.

There is less consensus among researchers about how to prepare children to be successful in math. But what is becoming clear is that we ignore our children's early math education at their peril. In chapter 5 I'm going to delve into some of the most innovative thinking about how we develop a numbers sense and why certain kids seem to warm to math more than others. When your child is preschool age, what you need to know is this: there is no need to wait until children are older and are able to think and speak in more abstract ways to introduce math concepts. A certain kind of math ability seems to be innate in all of us and has been measured days after birth. Although we all have different levels of inborn math sense, a child's agility in math depends on prior experience. And one experience in math builds on another. In the years before preschool, you should be spending a lot of time counting fingers and toes, Cheerios, streetlights, teddy bears, and blocks. Preschools and parents need to work together to reinforce concepts like greater than and less than and bigger and smaller. Preschools should be reinforcing the number concept (as in "How much is three?") and introducing measurement. There is growing evidence to suggest that early math exposure is keyto helping our children succeed in mathematics all through school. Don't like math? Shhh. As you'll read in chapter 5, your negative or fearful attitude toward math could hurt your child's chances of success.


1. During a typical preschool day, teachers should be reading to children. And not just once in a while.

2. Numbers. Letters. Colors. Farm animals. Your child should be naming them all. Repeatedly.

3. Paging Dr. Seuss! Rhyming is critical. Song lyrics, poetry, and rhyming games are good, too.

4. Math knowledge builds on math knowledge. Time to start talking about bigger than and smaller than, first, second, third, and last. Number games, sorting, and measurement.


In preschool, delivering the right combination of learning and free play is critical. In some quarters, play is the thing. Parents who even ask whether preschools are preparing students for reading and providing lessons in early math are treated as overaggressive. "We don't push children here," one preschool head told me recently when I inquired whether her teacher knew the kinds of skills children needed to develop in order to read. "We don't believe in it." And at the other pole, highly academic preschools are not hard to find, either: chairs and desks are set up in rows, children are given worksheets, and there is hardly any space in the room or time in the day for exploration. Avoid the extremes. Strictly academic-type preschoolenvironments consistently produce kindergartners and first graders who know more. But their academic advantage fades by third grade. And there are suggestions that teaching preschoolers as if they are third graders can create problems for them later on. In a study conducted in the late 1960s as part of the HighScope Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, sixty-eight poor children were randomly assigned to three different kinds of programs: one where teachers focused on getting kids to provide correct answers to academic questions, another a play-based nursery school, and a third whose program mixed skill and play. Researchers showed that the academic approach initially prepared children better for kindergarten, but over time, the children who attended highly academic preschools reported more emotional problems, admitted more acts of "teen misconduct," and had lower academic aspirations than the kids who attended the playful learning program. They even found that kids who received direct instruction in preschool were much more likely to be arrested, although to the average observer the connection between stealing a car or assaulting your neighbor and the kind of preschool class you attended seems pretty thin. Another, smaller study on a different group of youngsters also suggested that highly academic preschools, while initially raising the academic achievement of all children, can depress it over time, and reduce the long-term achievement for certain kinds of kids, particularly boys.

The very best preschools display a more subtle kind of instruction, with teachers who work on three levels: they know what kids need to learn, they know how to break it down into manageable chunks, and they build these skills through fun activities that strengthen pre-math and pre-literacy-type learning.

Mary Jane Webster, that Massachusetts preschool principal whom we met when she was reviewing résumés, says the bestpreschool teachers turn out to be ones who are very smart. "There's a lot of things that you have to figure out. Preschool can be more difficult than the other grades because a lot of your teaching has to be embedded in other things. Understand that when you're playing with one child you're working on their vocabulary, and with another child that you're facilitating social skills and you're teaching it through indirect ways."

Margee Ready, director of St. Paul's preschool in Fairfield, Connecticut, says that once parents are shown the difference between academic-type learning and learning embedded in play, they often embrace it. Not long ago, a husband and wife made an appointment with her to discuss their worries that their son was lagging behind in his pre-reading skills. "They were deeply concerned that their son hates doing his flash cards," says Ready with a laugh. "So I told them, 'Don't do the flash cards!'"

Teachers at Ready's school use a game to help teach alphabet awareness. Her teachers make two sets of laminated cards, each one with a letter of the alphabet on it. Half the cards are spread on the floor. The other half are put in a deck and children select them randomly, then run down the length of the room and match it with one of the cards on the floor--shouting out the letter name the whole time.

"We know this kind of learning is better than flash cards," she says.

Skills-based play activities such as this need to be balanced with free play. In many preschools free play--where children are able to run, jump, build, play games, and put on costumes and pretend--is an increasingly rare commodity. In a study of three low-income, community-based child care centers, researchers found that in 1982 social pretend play for 4.5-year-olds accounted for about 41 percent of the school day. In 2002, social pretend play had dropped to 9 percent.

The epidemic of highly structured preschools, which edge out free time and imaginative play, has grown so widespread and so worrisome that doctors have begun to sound the alarm. In 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a position paper stressing the role of play in healthy child development, and specifically suggesting that families choose child care and early education programs that meet children's social and emotional developmental needs as well as prepare them to achieve academically.

Temple University psychology professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has watched the transition toward more academic preschools with growing unease. As the director of the Infant Language Laboratory and an author of eleven books on child development, she knows better than almost anyone else how kids learn. And she's worried about the way play is being neglected in preschool education. "In an effort to give children a head start on academic skills such as reading and mathematics, play is discouraged and didactic learning is being stressed," she says. "Play has become a four-letter word."


There's a playful preschool program called Tools of the Mind that is creating a big stir in early education circles. Its aim is to use play to help kids learn academic skills--the ones that lead to proficient reading and math. But even more critically, the program uses playful activities to help strengthen focus, self-regulation, and working memory--skills that social scientists now say may determine whether smart kids are successful in school or not. I've included it here because finding out about the ideas that are the foundation of Tools of the Mind expanded my view of what I thought of as an excellent preschool.

The fascination with the program comes, at least in part, from agrowing recognition that narrowly focused, academically driven education puts limits on young children. "After years of pouring millions of dollars and thousands of hours into getting our children to learn content--numbers and letters," says Tools of the Mind cofounder Deborah Leong, a professor at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, "we, as a society, are coming to a conclusion that it is not working. The kids who get the most intensive intervention are not showing long-term gains."

Intellectual ability without self-regulation, it turns out, is like a Porsche with a lawn mower motor. Flashy? You bet. But it's not going to take you very far. What we used to consider soft skills, like the ability to focus, to drown out distractions, to plan, and to persevere, are starting to seem like bedrock traits for sustained and lasting achievement. And research bears this out: kindergartners, for example, who show high levels of self-regulation do better in school than kids who know a lot of letter and numbers or who have a high IQ.

We've known this for a while. In the now famous marshmallow experiment, Columbia University professor Walter Mischel showed the impact of one of those so-called executive function skills on school performance. Back in the late 1960s, while a professor at Stanford University, Mischel tested 653 four- and-five-year-olds--many of them children of Stanford professors who attended nursery school in nearby Palo Alto. He was trying to determine their baseline levels of self-control. A researcher brought each child into a room, let them play with some toys, and then seated them at a desk with two marshmallows and a bell. The researcher gave the child an option. The researcher explained that he was planning to leave the room. The child could (a) wait until he returned, at which time she could eat two marshmallows, or else (b) ring the bell and the scientist would reenter the room, but the bell ringer would only be allowed to eat one marshmallow, not two.

Kids reacted in different ways. Some could not wait more than a few minutes. Others could wait fifteen minutes or longer. Of the kids who could wait, many used strategies like covering their eyes or distracting themselves so they didn't think about eating the marshmallow. When Mischel and his team followed up on the kids--at fifteen and again at eighteen--they found that the kids who could wait did better on their SATs--210 points better--than the fast bell ringers. And their parents described them as less stressed, less rattled by frustration, and more able to plan for the future.

Scientists (and most parents) have observed that children seem to have different levels of self-regulation. In the last decade, some researchers have become convinced that self-regulation is like a muscle that can be strengthened.

The Tools of the Mind program provides opportunities to strengthen those skills. How does it work? In the last two years, the littlest learners in an old but well-maintained public school in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, have been on the cutting edge of preschool education. Under the watchful eyes of experienced trainers, and five teams of federal researchers studying the program, the teachers have been running kids through a series of Tools of the Mind activities aimed at teaching early literacy and numbers skills but, most critically, improving their self-control, extending their ability to hold directions in their mind (what psychologists call the working memory), and helping them harness their ability to focus.

On a bright autumn morning not long ago, the preschool classroom looked pretty much like any other standard classroom. There was no fancy technology or, in fact, any electronics at all save for a dusty television hanging, forgotten, from the wall. No stack of spanking new textbooks. Nothing to indicate that a revolutionary new kind of instruction was under way. Instead, sun poured in thewide windows onto four small tables with small chairs pushed around them. There was a multicolored rug surrounded by shelves loaded with books, blocks, and art supplies. One entire corner was given over to dramatic play.

Teachers build the children's self-regulatory skills by subtly shifting the way they move the children through familiar, everyday preschool-type tasks. For example, it is morning meeting time and the eighteen children and two teachers are naming the day and charting the weather just like kids in preschools all over the country. Unlike other preschools, where individual children might be encouraged to raise a hand and provide an answer to the teacher while others listen, the eighteen children in Tools of the Mind classes answer the question "What is the weather like today?" in a chorus of voices, all at the same time. There is a reason for this. "We don't believe children actually listen to each other very well. That's a skill that we need to help them build," says Amy Hornbeck, a former teacher turned Tools of the Mind researcher who now coordinates some of the Tools of the Mind programs for the state. "Early in the year, when one is answering, the others just space out. We don't want to give them that chance." Answering all at the same time forces them to keep their attention focused longer than they might--and at four years old, adding a few seconds on to a child's attention span can feel like a Herculean task.

Although it is autumn, and the students are still regarding one another with a degree of wariness, circle time is followed by what has already become a classroom favorite: freeze dancing. Eighteen four-year-olds dance to rock and roll while the teacher holds up a twenty-four-inch laminated card with a stick figure. This one has its stick arms turned up at a ninety-degree angle. After about sixty seconds of frenetic movement, the second teacher switches off the music and the children are supposed to raise up their arms to mirror the laminatedstick drawing. Some of the children, especially the ones who were in Tools of the Mind classrooms as three-year-olds, mimic the drawing exactly. Others seem unable to keep the arms-raised image in their minds, or if they can think of it, they might be struggling to adjust their bodies accordingly. The teachers help those kids by manually pushing their arms into the right position and then the music starts again. Hornbeck nods. "This is to help children regulate their bodies."

In another preschool classroom, children have culminated a period of storytelling about freckles by dotting a white dry eraser board with thick markers. When the teacher turns on the music, they say the word freckles and draw freckles. When the teacher turns it off, they cap their markers and raise them over their heads. Some kids can't make more than a dot or two before they begin scribbling aimlessly. The teacher reminds the students who are scribbling to go back to dot making, and, in a key bit of scaffolding, reminds them to murmur the word freckles as the marker hits the whiteboard. (In the Tools of the Mind program, teachers instruct children to use self-talk to stay focused and on task.) A few feet away, another student neutrally redirects one of the scribblers to "make freckles."

Later on, the same group of children will plan their play--drawing pictures of themselves. In one case, two boys decide to be road repairmen. After declaring their intention to inhabit that role, they go to dramatic play and begin to build roads with blocks. A few minutes into the game, the boys put all four hands on the same block and begin to tug. For a moment, it looks like a confrontation will break out. But the most aggressive-seeming boy quickly reverts to his fantasy role as road repair foreman. "Let's lay down that road there," he says. And the other boy, reminded that he is part of the crew, begins road construction again.

Planned, extended dramatic play--what Leong calls "mature play"--is where children learn the most. "In most preschools yousee children sampling activities, literally flipping from one thing to another. The opposite of this--mature play--is very different. Mature play is what most parents engaged in when they were young kids. They dressed up and played mommy, daddy, soldier, cowboy ... whatever. They played for hours and hours and days and days." In Tools classes, children adopt play scenarios with multiple roles and clearly defined rules, which they make up on their own and describe out loud to each other. (You're the shopper. I own the grocery store.) "If you ask six-year-old children to inhibit their movement, many will struggle to do it," says Leong. "But the same child, engaged in a fantasy scenario, can stop themselves from doing things that are not part of the role." Fantasy play, set up the right way, allows them to effortlessly flex their self-control. That strengthened self-control can then be brought to bear in other domains of life, including academics.

Tools of the Mind has been a revelation to Elizabeth Schwartz, a teacher with thirty-five years of experience. Starting was difficult. The training was thirty hours long. "There is a lot of preparation and a lot of rethinking that teachers need to do because Tools is not a new curriculum, it is a new way of thinking about learning," says Schwartz. The troubleshooters that Leong and her nonprofit group sent to help the teachers adapt Tools to their Hoboken classrooms helped. By the middle of the first year, Schwartz was a believer. In her classroom, the Tools of the Mind program reduced behavior problems, helped the children improve their focus, and transformed even rambunctious kids into capable, self-possessed students.

Researchers who are combing through every aspect of Tools of the Mind are coming up with impressive numbers that back up Schwartz's assessment. According to a paper published in 2007 in Science, the Tools of the Mind program has been effective in strengtheningthe executive functioning--skills that educational researchers recognize as fundamental to school success.


1. Preschoolers don't learn like third graders. All learning must be embedded in play.

2. Worksheets? Students sitting at desks or on the floor at circle time for prolonged periods? Ask more questions.

3. Free play is crucial. A good preschool weaves plenty of it into the school day.

4. Look for preschools that are thinking, talking, and developing classroom practices around enhancing the so-called soft skills in students--ones that set the stage for school success.

Copyright © 2011 by Peg Tyre All rights reserved.