Debate Magazine

How Important is the Level of Academic Rigor in Your Child’s Preschool?

By Stevemiranda

In the news today, a New York City mother is suing her child’s preschool for a refund of the $19,000 tuition check she wrote at the start of the school year. The story goes:

The suit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, notes that “getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school” and says the Upper East Side school promised [the mother] it would “prepare her daughter for the ERB, an exam required for admission into nearly all the elite private elementary schools.”

But “it became obvious [those] promises were a complete fraud,” the suit says. “Indeed, the school proved not to be a school at all but just one big playroom.”

The suit claims: “Studies have shown entry into a good nursery school guarantees more income than entry into an average school.”

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I’ve never seen this study. In fact, I have my doubts about any researcher who claims to have data that can “guarantee” how much money a four-year-old will make 20 years into the future, controlling for all possible variables so as to correlate income with high quality preschool.

It’s easy to laugh at something so outlandish, but, regrettably, there is a very real dark side to this story. The truth is, there are countless parents who have come to believe that their child’s future hinges on the outcome of an entrance test into kindergarten. This belief can do real harm to children who, if you listen to the advice of experts in human development, need love, play, and connection—essentially, they need preschool to be just one big playroom—more than academic training in their youngest years.

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If you want real data about the importance of getting an Ivy League education, check out this excerpt from a paper by the Brookings Institution:

The researchers Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale began investigating this question [Does getting into a highly selective college really matter?], and in 1999 produced a study that dropped a bomb on the notion of elite-college attendance as essential to success later in life.

Krueger, a Princeton economist, and Dale, affiliated with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, began by comparing students who entered Ivy League and similar schools in 1976 with students who entered less prestigious colleges the same year. They found, for instance, that by 1995 Yale graduates were earning 30 percent more than Tulane graduates, which seemed to support the assumption that attending an elite college smoothes one’s path in life.

But maybe the kids who got into Yale were simply more talented or hardworking than those who got into Tulane. To adjust for this, Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, “moderately selective” school. It turned out that such students had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income “varied little, no matter which type of college they attended.”

In other words, the student, not the school, was responsible for the success.

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