At a charter preschool in Washington, DC’s Ward 8, I saw three children happily playing at a trough-like table filled with water, eyedroppers, and waterwheel toys. When I asked what they were doing and why, their answers were vague. “We’re squeezing water,” a little girl said, but she and her classmates didn’t notice what was happening when they put water in the top of the watermills. They were surprised when I pointed out that the water made the wheels move down below.

Nearby, an outgoing little boy held up a football-sized structure he had made with interlocking plastic links. When I asked him what it was, he told me it was a ring for his mom to wear—one made out of water, he explained, when I inquired what it consisted of. “How do you make a ring out of water?” I asked him. “You put it in water and it makes a rainbow!” he explained, and then with barely a beat, he added, “I know two words that start with D: ‘dog’ and ‘duck.’”

Book cover of The Most Important Year
Penguin Random House

Anyone who has spent time with young children knows that they are masters of the non sequitur, and that they love to show off what they know. Yet the little boy’s focus on letters—and his confusion about the purpose of his activity—closely mirrored the patterns I saw in the curriculum and teaching at this school. He had internalized that when an adult interacts with him, she wants to know, above all else, if he knows his letters and vocabulary.

More than 1.5 million American children are enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs, and the number is growing every year as states and cities allocate funding to boost children’s school readiness and support working parents. But the quality of those programs is incredibly varied despite the fact that experts know more than ever before about the kinds of classrooms that ensure children are academically, socially, and emotionally well-adjusted. There is a big debate raging about the educational needs of little children, one that is entangled with larger questions about poverty and equity. The debate doesn’t center on whether the United States should support disadvantaged children to get ready for school, but how. Do children at risk of falling on the losing end of achievement gaps need a strict focus on the basics, or do they need the more holistic, learn-to-love-learning approach that middle-class parents tend to clamor for? It’s a thorny question, and parents and teachers sometimes fall on surprising sides of the spectrum.

In the two years I spent visiting preschool classrooms, I saw a huge range in quality and instructional approaches. There were programs in poor neighborhoods where children delighted in learning vocabulary from field trips to historical sites, and classrooms in affluent places that were fancier than some colleges. The programs that left me with the starkest impression were those that used a strict, basics-only approach, where teachers lectured at children and the children parroted back what they said. These programs are more common in low-income neighborhoods than they are in more-affluent ones, according to research and my own reporting. At the D.C. school where I met the children playing with water, 4-year-olds spent much of the day in groups of three or four, listening to a lesson tailored to their skills as measured by a standardized test. At the end of each lesson, they had to take a three-question quiz about what they had learned. If they all “passed,” they would complete a new lesson the next day; if one of them “failed,” a teacher explained, they all had to repeat the same lesson the next day. Five times a year, the children take a standardized test to measure their progress and assess what they know, using computerized tasks and teacher-dictated questions. I was struck more by what the children didn’t know. I observed one little boy as he hesitantly guessed the answers to a three-question quiz about rhyming, and then walked away relieved but clearly confused.

Low-income preschoolers and children of color are more likely to get the kind of skill-and-drill instruction I saw at that school than are their higher-income peers, according to a study by Rachel Valentino, an education-policy researcher from Stanford. Across programs in 11 states, including New Jersey, Georgia, and Wisconsin, African American and poor children experienced more time in didactic instruction than white and non-poor children, while white and non-poor children spent more time in interactive instruction. Teachers had less back-and-forth or “elaborated” conversations with black students than they did with their white ones. African American, Hispanic, and poor children spent more time doing individual tasks like worksheets and computer time and spent less time on free-choice activities. They also spent more time on basics like letters and sounds, and even on fundamental things like toileting and cleanup.

Valentino’s data suggest that the main factor driving the difference are teachers’ beliefs about how children learn and should be taught. In her study, poor children and children of color were more likely than their more-affluent, white peers to have teachers who believed in an adult-centered, top-down approach to child-rearing. The study didn’t look at whether this direct instruction was problematic or beneficial, but separate research on the question is mixed. On the one hand, many studies have found that children from all backgrounds benefit from guided play and rich conversation, especially when it comes to outcomes like vocabulary and problem-solving. On the other hand, some find that low-income children do better in discrete math and reading skills when they have either individualized or whole-group direct instruction in preschool. It’s worth noting, however, that the latter studies have only looked at a narrow set of achievements, mostly test scores.

“We tend to use such discrete measures of success,” Valentino told me. “Direct instruction is a really good way to improve test scores and technical skills in the short term, but it’s not at all clear that is the right thing in the long term. There could be other negative consequences.”

One of the downsides to the basics-only approach is that it is focused on children’s deficits—on making up for what children lack rather than building on what they have and opening up new areas for exploration. In a report called “Being Black Is Not a Risk Factor: A Strengths-​Based Look at the State of the Black Child,” the psychology scholar Wade Boykin describes this approach as “the stance of benevolent pathology.” Despite best intentions, he argues, education reformers often view poor and minority children as the victims of life experiences that threaten their ability to learn and succeed in school, a frame that cries out for remediation. For achievement gaps to be genuinely and permanently narrowed, he concludes, educators ought to build on the assets and valuable life experiences of low-income children and students of color, recognizing that those assets sometimes look different than those enjoyed by white, middle class families. Focusing on children’s strengths includes engaging them in topics and activities that interest them and actually connect to their lives, unlike a random list of words. When children are engaged, they learn material more deeply, apply it to their lives, and seek out more knowledge. Those skills make them more successful not just on tests, but in real life.

When I asked the early-childhood literacy expert Judy Schickedanz about the argument for basic-skills-only instruction, she framed it as one that focuses on achievement gaps—the disparities in how children from different backgrounds perform academically—rather than opportunity gaps—the disparities in access to quality schools and resources. “If we say, ‘well, direct instruction is better than they would be getting elsewhere,’ then we’re not talking about real opportunity.” In today’s knowledge economy, giving children the opportunity to enter (or stay in) the middle class means ensuring that they have abilities like curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking.

After I observed the classroom with the small group lessons, I asked the principal about the school’s instructional approach. “Our kids are lacking in exposure to so many things that we need to start with very discrete skills,” she told me, clearly concerned that the low-income children in her care wouldn’t learn fundamental skills any other way than with repeated instruction and drilling (despite research evidence to the contrary).

Many parents at the school seemed to agree. Low-income families are often perceived by teachers as not caring about education, but the families I met chose the intensely structured pre-k program specifically because they care deeply about their children’s education. One parent told me that she wanted her son to have any opportunity to get ahead in school because “there are stereotypes people put on African American males, and I don’t want that to happen to him. I want him to be known not for sports but for his brain.” The grandmother of another child told me she was impressed with the school because the staff teach how to recognize “four and five letter words like ‘night’” whereas her grandson’s traditional public-school pre-k classroom was teaching only “simple words like ‘stop’ and ‘go.’” Her satisfaction is understandable—it’s logical for a parent to think that more is better, especially when that parent is getting constant messages about how important it is for children to be “ready for kindergarten.” The question, though, is what it really means to be ready. Is knowing how to count to 100 and identify vowels enough to set a 4-year-old on a path to educational success?

In D.C. and across the country, parents, educators, and policymakers are grappling with those kinds of questions—and getting the right answers has much bigger implications than passing a standardized test.


This article has been adapted from Suzanne Bouffard’s new book, The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children.