A recent piece by Jenny Anderson, in the NY Times, tells the story of a Manhattan mom who sued her daughter’s $19,000-a-year preschool for failing to adequately prepare her daughter for the test to get into New York City’s hypercompetitive private schools. The mom was Nicole Imprescia, the school was York Avenue Preschool, and the test is known as the E.R.B.
Imprescia accused the school of not being “a school at all, but just one big playroom.” Without visiting the school I wouldn’t be able to speak directly to that claim. However, as a father who has been touring potential preschools in San Francisco, I have noticed a general trend toward “learning through play,” where schools set up various play areas, equipped with toys and games, and allow children to migrate to the activity that most interests them. Every preschool I have visited appeared like a big playroom. Furthermore, I have no problem with this. We’re talking about 3-5 year-olds. At this age, children are learning phenomenal amounts of skills and knowledge through exploration and experimentation, through emulation and through play-acting. If this mom is expecting homework, rote test-prep and teacher-centered Dick and Jane, she is not only barking up the wrong tree, her obsession with getting her precious daughter into the “right” school may end up harming her daughter’s social and cognitive development.
Anderson says that preschools like York Avenue Preschool are part of a mini-industry that includes consultants and vendors of test preparation materials. These corporate sharks exploit privileged parents’ fears that their children will get stuck in an inner city public school and corrupted by the nasty habits of poor black and Latino kids and their lazy, incompetent teachers. This fear and the sharks’ greed translate into child abuse for thousands of toddlers, whose art explorations and play-learning are replaced with lessons on bubbling-in and sitting still. Ultimately, for these high-powered toddlers, preschool becomes the new third grade, forcing them to grow up much more quickly and robbing them of their innocence and natural curiosity.
It seems that dragon moms like Imprescia do indeed expect their preschool aged children to be doing high level academic work. Her lawsuit said things like, “It is no secret that getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school,” and “Studies have shown entry into a good nursery school guarantees more income than entry into an average school.” I’m not sure which studies she is quoting, but it is important to point out that correlation does not equal causation. If a “good” preschool is defined as expensive and elite, then a more logical explanation for the correlation between preschool and later success is that social privilege causes both. After all, privileged parents are the ones most likely to send their kids to these elite schools, and they are also more able to provide good diets and healthcare, supplemental enrichment activities during the summer and a lower stress lifestyle, factors that play a significant role in children’s academic success.
York Avenue Preschool may indeed be a lousy school. However, that is not really the point here. All children deserve good schools and all children deserve to be adequately housed, fed and cared for. Those who are financially well-off generally get all these things. Their children start kindergarten (and even preschool) with a substantial academic head start as a result of their economic privilege and this achievement gap grows over time, even if they wind up at a mediocre school with mediocre teachers. Forcing toddlers to learn competitively and to succumb to tedious and controlling regiments of homework and test preparation will simply stifle their curiosity and make them prematurely obsessive-compulsive or depressed.