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Evaluating Pre-K Programs

Universal pre-K is finally catching on across the country since Oklahoma passed one of the first state-funded such programs for all 4-year-olds in 1998.  Because it is home of the largest school district in the U.S., New York City is attracting particular attention ("The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K," The New York Times, Oct. 22). 

For those who have taught only older children, it's hard to know what a quality pre-K classroom looks like.  But research shows that teacher-directed instruction is given too much emphasis. Allowing children to play has a far greater payoff.  It helps children develop cognitively, linguistically, socially and emotionally. In other words, free play is not the opposite of learning.  On the contrary, it is "nature's way of teaching children the big lessons they need for a happy, productive life" ("Child's Play Is About More Than Games," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 27).

But let's not romanticize play.  Children quickly learn that life is not fair.  Some children are selected last for a game.  Some children are assertive and dominate others. That's where teachers are most needed.  They can help make sense of what transpires on the playground.

Since the first five years of children's lives are crucial, anything that can be done to give them a head start on learning is an opportunity that must not be squandered. The key is to provide high-quality programs, with well-trained teachers working with small groups of children.  To do so is not cheap.  But I believe that early education offers great promise.

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