What Does Preschool Achieve?
What fathers and mothers do at home with a young child contributes to learning. Parents can read books to their young children. Parents can teach their children to write their names. There is certainty that these activities help map a child's trajectory through formal schooling. It is therefore interesting to measure what preschool really does and how it relates to what parents do at home with a young child. There is a study that has attempted to answer these questions. "Do the Effects of Head Start Vary by Parental Preacademic Stimulation?", published in the journal Child Development, looks at thousands of children aged 3-4 years and examines the academic outcomes from the preschool academic program in the United States. Head Start is a federally funded preschool program that addresses the needs of children from low income families. The positive effects of Head Start are well known, but in this study, particular attention is likewise given to the academic support a child may be receiving from his or her parents:
There are three possible scenarios for the relationship between the benefits of preschool and what parents do at home. The first one is compensatory. In this picture, children who do not receive any support at home would benefit the most from the preschool program. Another possible relationship is one that is described by accumulated advantages. This happens when what happens in preschool is synergistic with what happens at home. Thus, with parental support, a child even benefits more from school. A third possible scenario is what the authors of the above study refer to as Goldilocks (not too hot, not too cold, just right). In this outcome, those who benefit the most are those who are receiving some support from home. This happens if the program expects something going on at home as well. It cannot be completely compensatory. The benefits also diminish if parents are doing so much already at home that the preschool program is simply a repeat. Here are the results (these figures are copied from Miller, E. B., Farkas, G., Vandell, D. L. and Duncan, G. J. (2014), Do the Effects of Head Start Vary by Parental Preacademic Stimulation?. Child Development, 85: 1385–1400. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12233.
In math, Head Start is clearly compensatory. Children whose parents do not provide learning activities at home benefit greatly in early math skills when enrolled in a preschool program like Head Start. A child can therefore learn early math solely from school. A child can also learn early math solely from home.
In reading, a "Goldilocks" scenario is observed. Reading skills and habits are not learned solely from school. These must be reinforced at home. What a child experiences inside a preschool must be supported by parents at home. Early literacy is achieved only with collaboration between school and home. What a school can achieve is limited if there is no support at home. On the other hand, a child whose parents provide ample support can learn how to read solely at home, without any preschool.
With vocabulary, there seems to be no pattern at all. However, as in the previous two measures, parental educational stimulation still has a positive effect.
Academically, preschool can indeed compensate in math and support in reading. Since the effects are much more evident with children who either receive low or medium support at home, this needs to be kept in mind. Parents who are able to provide academic stimulation to their children at home do not really need to send their children to preschool. On the other hand, preschool cannot completely replace what parents ought to do at home for their children to learn.
Of course, preschool does a lot more than helping parents educate their young. Preschool allows parents to work during the day and introduces young children to a social setting. It is this fact plus the added bonus of academic benefits that makes preschool an attractive endeavor for society.