Bruce Fuller Weighs in, Again, on Pre-K for All: But Where Are the Real Experts?

Bruce Fuller has weighed in—yet again—on universal preschool. He’s had a lot to say over the past few years, as Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, has pursued a bold experiment to combat inequality in a “Tale of Two Cities.”

A professor at Berkeley’s graduate school of education, Fuller is well known for Standardized Childhood, his ten-year-old book that tackles the thorny questions of access and quality in early childhood education, while sticking it to proponents of preschool for all.  “Institutional liberals in pursuit of political legitimacy and public dollars” he called them—marching down a dangerous path, well trodden

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by an aging group of white men: Hollywood’s Rob Reiner, Warren Buffett in Omaha, Tulsa’s George Kaiser, and the Nobel laureate and economist, James Heckman, out of the University of Chicago, ancestral home of Milton Friedman, the 20th century’s foremost advocate of free markets.

Fuller was prescient in his critique.  He highlighted the standardizing of classroom philosophy, the bane of the  modern teacher. This was not a movement bubbling up from the grassroots, he wrote, rather one led by “earnest elites who work from within foundation offices, state governments, and universities.”  Fuller excluded himself from this set.

Yet he, too, played for a brief time with the big boys of capitalism. Nowhere in the index of his book do we find the World Bank, where, from 1984 to 1988, fresh out of graduate school, he served as a research sociologist in education and socioeconomic analysis, his work focused on the political and policy determinants of school expansion in Latin America.

I’ve long been haunted by early childhood’s Faustian pact. The workforce got a raw deal in exchange for legitimacy and investment.  And who could blame them for hoping? Here was a group of women—many of color and living on poverty wages, with the toxic stresses that plague their children,  struggling to get the credentials they needed as stewards of the next generation.  They were sidelined, afraid to speak out against the depredations of standards-based accountability lest they jeopardize fragile careers.  Advocates, too, saw an opportunity for advancing the field, and happily embraced their new political capital.

This week, the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology  published a study, led by Fuller, which found that preschoolers, including middle-class children, benefited from academic classrooms that emphasize language, pre-literacy, and math concepts.  The gains were sustained through kindergarten, and were especially strong for the average Black child attending at least 20 hours a week.  The title alone would make an early childhood educator cringe: “Do academic preschools yield stronger benefits? Cognitive emphasis, dosage, and early learning.”

The headline for Dana Goldstein’s piece in the New York Times reporting on Fuller’s latest paper was even worse: “Free Play or Flashcards: New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools.”    Eliza Shapiro’s Politico piece focused more on the philosophical, wonky debate about universality, about which Fuller, apparently, may be changing his mind.  How convenient, now that he’s anointed himself the expert on best practice in the early childhood classroom.

The Times editors—it is they, not the writer, who bear responsibility for the headline choice—obviously had not read Einstein Never Used Flashcards by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff.  Nor must they be familiar with the research on didactic teaching of Fuller’s Berkeley colleague, developmental scientist Alison Gopnik, author of The Gardener and the Carpenter.  Short story: this is not how children—or even adults—learn best.

Child-initiated, hands-on inquiry, with scaffolding by teachers and caregivers, nurtures critical thinking, imagination and creativity—essential skills for 21st-century life. Parents of privilege who can transcend their own anxieties about academic achievement routinely spend thousands of dollars to buy preschool and early elementary experiences for their children that integrate literacy, language, and math concepts into a richer, broader curriculum with art, music, exposure to nature, and ample time for play. Their kids are not sitting at desks filling in worksheets.  For children living in communities where resources are scarce, however, such opportunities are off limits.

Fuller’s study implies, but does not address head-on, the problem of fade-out, or the diminution of gains in children’s cognitive and social emotional development sustained over time.   Early childhood educators across the United States are grappling with this disconnect, which highlights the urgent need to look at practice over the continuum of prekindergarten through third grade.

They’re watching as five-year-olds, forced to endure readiness tests at the beginning of kindergarten, and read with fluency by the end, are turned off to school. They see the hyperactivity of first and second graders deprived  of recess and other forms of unstructured play. With the benchmarks  of the Common Core back-mapped from high school, high-stakes testing the rule of the day, and evaluation of teachers based on metrics that have been widely discredited, they’re challenged to adhere to what they know is best.

Also pressing are the demands of a growing number of children in poverty, those of color, kids on Native lands, and the sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants, for whom trauma, racial and cultural bias, or the social determinants of health and well-being, as the pediatricians refer to them, are all too present.

While great teaching—including high-quality interactions and attunement to social emotional needs—can, and does, change students’ trajectories, it is insufficient, one piece of a broader, more holistic strategy that requires greater investment in marginalized communities and a reckoning with the institutional barriers and systems that have maintained the status quo.

For teachers of young children, this debate is hardly academic.  Like their colleagues in the K-12 system, they are asked to compensate for America’s woeful neglect of its children.  As EarlyChildhoodEd @LiteracyCounts tweeted: “140 characters is not enough to express my thoughts  on this subject. *sigh*” Melissa Westbrook, a K-12 public education activist and blogger for the Seattle Schools Community Forum, was puzzled about why the “Times didn’t ask early childhood experts what they thought.”  Why, indeed.

Goldstein did interview Joan Almon, the founding director of the Alliance for Childhood, a former kindergarten teacher and the founder of the Baltimore Waldorf School, one of the field’s revered advocates for play.  But a new generation has taken up the cause, and is clamoring to speak up.

I worked with Fuller around the time that No Child Left Behind was enacted into law, on a child care research project for the National Conference of State Legislatures.  His curriculum vitae reflects a deep commitment to diverse families and to confronting the challenges of the formal institutions that serve them.

But he is not on the front lines of this struggle.  While Fuller has an intellectual understanding of teaching and learning, he cannot speak to the lived experience of early childhood teachers nor to the complexity of play, its centrality in human development and learning, and the kind of curriculum that will preserve it for our youngest students.

In the preface to Standardized Childhood, Fuller wrote that his aim was “not to push a single philosophy of the child’s inborn nature,” nor to suggest a uniform institution to advance children’s development.  He hoped to spark and inform an essential debate about how young children should be raised and taught within a pluralistic society and who should decide on the goals and means.

Fuller has made his case.  Now it’s time to cede the floor to the experts at the grassroots.  Our public collective intelligence, as Dewey told us, is the bedrock of democracy. Especially in these times, we ignore it at our risk.

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