The Weighted Task of Pre-K Teaching

September 05, 2017

By Suzanne Bouffard


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.”