The stethoscopes and bandages come out in the classroom when the children start playing hospital.
After attempts at resuscitation fail, the patient – a girl stretched out on the floor – is declared dead, and the funeral begins. Other children surround her with boxes; one boy sets out pretend candles, someone mentions zombies, another child begins casting a spell and one child talks about a séance.
“I’m going to let you know that you only have five more minutes to be dead,” a teacher, Kenneth Sherman, tells the class as the session winds down.
The children, ages 3 to 5, are students in one of the state’s most unusual preschools – a fulltime class for 3-to-5 year olds that also serves as a lab for the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, a 45-year-old nonprofit that, while little known to the general public in Michigan, is famous in education circles around the world for its preschool curriculum development, research and training.
It’s also unusual because its preschool classroom for children as young as 3 is relatively rare in Michigan, according to a report on policy options for supporting children from birth to age 3, released last fall by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan and Public Sector Consultants (CRC-PSC), two Lansing-based research organizations.
Children who start preschool by age 3 have been shown by a variety of national studies to achieve higher scores in vocabulary, reading and math. Yet a handful of other studies raised questions about benefits of 3-year-old preschool, including some that found that poor-quality programs can have a negative effect on children, the CRC-PSC report said.
There is growing bipartisan interest in educating and developing the minds of children well before kindergarten. Universal preschool has emerged as a major policy initiative among public officials ranging from President Obama and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, to Gov. Rick Snyder and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and likely presidential candidate, though the focus is mostly on educating 4-year-olds.
Two years ago, Snyder and a Republican-led legislature approved the nation’s largest expansion of high-quality preschool for 4 year olds through the Great Start Readiness Program. The state’s $65-million annual investment followed a 2012 Bridge report, “Michigan’s forgotten 4-year-olds,” which revealed that nearly 30,000 Michigan 4-year-olds who qualified for free preschool were being excluded from the program, largely due to lack of state funding.
Among 3-year-olds, only 1-in-4 of at-risk children in Michigan are enrolled in preschool. The CRC-PSC report estimates more than 48,000 at-risk children this age could benefit from earlier pre-K, but their families can’t afford private preschool programs.
The report estimated it would cost $175 million a year to cover all at-risk 3-year-olds in Michigan, assuming an annual cost of $3,625 for each child (the per-child rate of the program for 4-year-olds). That’s more than double what the state approved to expand preschool for 4-year-olds.
The estimated cost is higher for 3-year-olds because there are far fewer 3-year-olds currently enrolled in pre-kindergarten education
Susan Broman, deputy superintendent for the Office of Great Start, which consolidates early childhood programs and resources, said the state should look at providing learning to 3-year-olds, but the top priority now is to serve all of Michigan’s 4-year-olds.
Asked if there was anything percolating in Lansing that touched upon preschool for 3-year-olds, she said: “Not that I’m aware of. There’s nothing in the governor’s budget to expand to 3-year-olds.”
Many studies show gains
Internationally, the United States ranks 28th of 38 affluent countries in the percentage of 4-year-olds in an early childhood education program, with 78 percent enrolled. The U.S. ranks 25th out of 36 countries in enrollment of 3-year-olds, with 50 percent in school, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Belgium and France enroll almost all of their 3-year-olds in preschool; China plans to increase access to 80 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds by 2020; in South Korea, 82% of three-year-olds are in school.
“Most 3-year-olds in industrial nations around the world are in preschool,” said Highscope President Cheryl Polk, who believes 3-year-olds in Michigan should be enrolled, too.
“The capacity for the growth and development and the capacity for these small groups of children – I’m saying small groups – not classes of 40 or 50 – is really phenomenal.”
Research on the effectiveness on a second year of preschool -- for 3-year-olds-- is more limited than on a first year of preschool -- for age 4 -- but data suggest that two years of preschool can provide a boost to low-income and other at-risk children in preparing them for kindergarten.
The CRC-PSC report cites a Stanford University study of early education programs which found that the largest developmental gains were in children who entered a program at ages 2 or 3, regardless of income level.
“These children showed significantly more gains than those starting at age four,” the Stanford evaluation said, and this was true “for cognitive gains in both reading and math.”
Getting early gains from at-risk children is considered especially important because studies show children from low-income families, or from adverse situations, or with parents of low-educational attainment lag behind their peers by the time they enter kindergarten, gaps that typically grow in later grades.
The CRC-PSC study also noted, however, that not all studies support a second year of preschool. A handful of international studies question the benefits of 3-year-old preschool. These studies found that some children showed no statistically significant achievement gains over comparison groups of children began preschool at age 4.
A lab for the world
Teachers, students, researchers and educational administrators visit HighScope in Ypsilanti to get an up-close view of how it puts its education theories into practice.
Susan Cress, an associate professor of early childhood education at Indiana University’s South Bend campus, drove to HighScope in February to observe the demonstration preschool as part of research she is conducting.
“HighScope has a national reputation, and Ypsilanti is where it all started,” Cress said. “It’s a play-based curriculum where they have integrated things like literacy and math, social studies in terms of social relationships and conflict resolution and all that into the sequence of their day.”
HighScope was established in 1970 by the late David P. Weikart, who had worked as an administrator for the Ypsilanti Public Schools.
In 1962, Weikart collaborated with other educators to create the ongoing Perry Preschool Study, widely regarded as a landmark study. Following a group of 123 children living in poverty and at risk of failing in school, HighScope divided the 3- and 4-year-olds into two groups, with one group receiving two years of high-quality preschool, and the other receiving none. By age 14, the students in the preschool group were performing more than a year ahead of the control group in academic achievement. By age 40, those who had received the preschool education had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes and were more likely to have graduated from high school than those with no preschool.
The study results also showed that the upfront costs of high-quality preschool lead to long-term savings for taxpayers: for every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education, society saves $16 in the cost of special education, public assistance, unemployment benefits and crime and incarceration.
Polk, the president, is an expert in early childhood education who came to HighScope in late 2013 from San Francisco, where she was executive director of the Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund. In an interview, she noted that Washtenaw County was also the site of groundbreaking research into understanding parent-child relationships by a team headed by the late Selma Fraiberg, a Detroit-born social worker who worked at the University of Michigan in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“This was at the beginning of the current infant mental health movement,” Polk said.
The HighScope philosophy stresses “active participatory learning” through hands-on experiences with people, objects, events and ideas; meeting children wherever they are in their development and structuring classes around the children’s interests.
“Children are likely to learn if they are interested in it,” Polk said. “You want children to be active learners, active, engaged. You want them to choose, so we give them options.
“Sometimes teachers think about things, and they have a great plan, but kids want to do something else. We have to follow the children’s lead.”
A window into young minds
The observation classroom is located in a small building behind the HighScope headquarters, the 114-year-old Hutchinson House mansion that sits on a hill at Forest Avenue and River Street in Ypsilanti. The classroom is wired with four cameras and eight area microphones. Both teachers are also miked, and the sounds and images are piped into an adjoining room and shown on a large screen.
Polly Neil, an early childhood specialist, serves as a sort of director, sitting at a sophisticated console in the visitors’ room, choosing the images and explaining what’s going on. The children are not aware they are being observed, and have no contact with the adults next door.
On a recent Friday two dozen observers – mostly pre-school teachers and educators – watched on the screen as the children and their parents arrived and sat on the carpet, reading and talking with Sherman and fellow teacher Holly Delgado. Parents are welcome to stay as long as they want.
The children come from the community, and some of their parents receive state subsidies. They buzzed with excitement. One announced: “I have a virus!”
Noting only half of the 16 students are present, Sherman said, “I notice there aren’t very many people here. I wonder why there aren’t so many people here?” It was an open-ended question, designed to get the children thinking, that was typical of the way the children were quizzed throughout the morning session.
The spacious classroom was equipped with countless toys, books and supplies, a sand and water table and was sectioned into areas titled music, arts, house, block and book.
The HighScope day is broken up into several segments, including “plan-do-review,” a 10–15-minute period during which children meet in small groups with an adult and plan what they want to do during work time; a 45–60-minute work time for carrying out their plans; and another 10–15-minute small-group time for reviewing and recalling with an adult and other children what they’ve done and learned.
Involving the children to help plan their day is a HighScope hallmark.
“If you can start planning your day at 3, by 13, you’ll have it down pat, right?” Polk said.
The children never stopped moving: They blinked their eyes in unison; jumped into hoops; tossed bean bags; spoke into walkie-talkies; made birthday-party invites; banged rhythm sticks; built furniture out of blocks; searched for “bad guys;” guessed which letters were missing on the message boards; sang songs; ate a snack of Cheez-It crackers, milk and pears, and played with ice, colored water and salt.
Some students spent time stretching sticky tape around one section of the class. Sherman asked them about the length of one portion of tape, then stepped it off.
“This is really long,” he said. “I wonder how long it is? I wonder how we can figure out how long it is,” Sherman continued, as he stepped off the distance. “It took me eight steps to go from here to there.”
The children also argued at times, but the teachers gently resolved the conflicts by asking the students for their suggestions on what to do.
“Chloe, I heard Corduroy say this is for him,” Sherman said as two kids bickered. “I’m wondering what the problem is?”
Carrie Hernandez, HighScope’s director of marketing and communications, said the idea is to let the children settle disputes themselves.
“So when they get out on the basketball court as teenagers they have the skill set to negotiate,” she said.
After the children left for the day with their parents, Sherman and Delgado planned the next class in front of the observers, and answered questions.
They recalled what had engaged the children today and devised related activities for the next day – letting the kids, in essence, sketch out their lessons.
The topic of extended play around death and burial arose. Some observers were surprised the teachers allowed the children to prolong an activity on what some might consider a morbid topic for kids.
“I wanted to know what they thought about death and burial and the funeral,” Sherman said. “I wanted to go with what they were thinking.”
Delagdo said: “They’ve been having this whole zombie thing going for three months now. They don’t really know what a zombie is. It just becomes whatever their imaginations say it is. It’s this crazy, scary thing.”
The teachers decided to draw on the children’s interest in burials by planning to bury the first letters of the children’s names in the sand table the next day and call it “digging for buried treasure.”
“We’ll see where they take it to,” Sherman said. “We’ll see if the séance comes back again.
He added: “That’s the beauty of teaching preschool. You think it’s going to go one way and the kids take it in a whole another direction.”