In the early 1990s, I was taken aback to overhear my 3-year-old son insisting to his 6-year-old cousin that he went to “ABC school,” not to day care, as she condescendingly referred to it. (He was spending a few sociable hours a week at a children’s center chosen because it was around the corner.) I had no idea where he got that term, or when he decided his educational credentials needed upgrading. And, given that alphabet drills weren’t in fact part of the program, I wasn’t sure what he was really boasting about.

But with universal prekindergarten (UPK) emerging as a campaign issue, it’s now clear to me that he was a kid ahead of his time. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have recently joined a chorus of early-childhood-education advocates, governors, foundations and social activists who have been promoting the cause in notably wonky, rather than warm and cuddly, terms. Calling for an overhaul of the current patchwork of uneven preschool programs, UPK proponents invoke neuroscientific evidence of brain growth rather than child-care needs. They cite the long-term economic benefits of an early investment in boosting “cognitive skills” and “school readiness,” especially for low-income children. There is little mention of, say, pretend play in the pitch for government-subsidized pre-K, which supporters argue should be affordable and available (though not necessarily mandatory) for all.

The hardheaded rhetoric conveys an important message: expanding access to early education is serious business, not baby stuff. The universal-preschool mission, too often dismissed as nanny-state meddling, capitalizes on the inclusive No Child Left Behind drive to close the K-12 achievement gap: the moment is ripe to reach downward to the post-diaper and pre-backpack stage, where disparities between white and minority students start. Yet aligning with an ethos of no-nonsense academics inspires uneasiness among UPK crusaders themselves, as the Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller points out in “Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle Over Early Education.” After all, for your bouncy 4-year-old — “wild and wonderful” is the epithet one classic parenting book applies to the age — how much ABC school do you really want?**

It is a vexed question for liberal universalists, since the answer tends to vary by, among other things, economic class. In families at the well-educated top of the heap, where books and big vocabularies abound, parents have long gravitated to the “whole child” end of the pedagogical spectrum, as David Kirp notes in his recent manifesto for the cause, “The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics.” For their offspring, already steeped in ABC stuff, they generally favor an emphasis on individualized exploration and creative classroom collaboration to promote social and emotional growth. That entails having well-trained teachers at hand to comment and facilitate, like attentive parents, rather than overtly direct. Not cheap, it’s what many child experts consider developmentally correct.

Yet such solicitously child-centered expertise doesn’t always sit so comfortably with families on the lower end of the income ladder or from other cultures. There, child-rearing styles tend to be considerably less chatty than the middle-class norm, Fuller and others note, and parents often expect more work than play in school. Bolstering kids’ deference to adults, not just boosting kids’ confidence, is also valued in many families. Early reading and math readiness often counts most of all, and teachers hold the key. It’s an invitation to “direct instruction,” which appeals to school administrators eager for a cost-effective jump-start on “skilling” for the No Child Left Behind testing that starts in third grade.

Nobody wants a two-tiered system, which isn’t likely to narrow the achievement gap, or a rigid one-size-fits-all system, either. But the UPK mission is an impetus to notice that at each end of the spectrum there are pedagogical lessons the other end wouldn’t get otherwise and that everyone could benefit from. Kirp and others pragmatically hope that in a universal system that includes well-off families, there would be built-in demand for a developmentally sensitive preschool, which is arguably icing on the cake for the affluent but especially beneficial for those who lag behind. Those parents’ political clout, moreover, would make budgets harder to cut.

But the ABC side of the preschool spectrum — a more didactic emphasis on school readiness — also deserves its due, and not just because government financing may not always match liberal dreams. It helps give poor kids a cognitive boost early on, some research suggests, and it’s what their parents generally look to the classroom to deliver. For progressive purists, the bossiness may be a turnoff. Yet just as exposure to whole-child solicitude can benefit everybody, not least low-income kids and their families, surely so can a dose of the get-with-the-program ethos, unfamiliar though it may feel to the more affluent. Lessons in listening up and following routines deliver their own dividends. They can help convey a sense of belonging and fairness — and patience — that all kids need, not least the luckiest among them.

In retrospect, that’s what I think my son meant by “ABC school”: the challenges that felt important to him were learning not to cry when he was dropped off, not to bite other children, to wait his turn and to endure terrifying fire drills. They aren’t ingredients of future brilliance but maybe of something more important — a spirit of resilience.

Ann Hulbert, a contributing writer, is the author of “Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children.”

Source: New York Times, United States