Four-year-old John Kaykay is a serious and quiet boy—“my thoughtful one,” his dad calls him. When the official greeters at the front door of the McClure early-childhood center in Tulsa welcome him with their clipboards and electric cheer—“Good morning, John! How are you today?”—he just slowly nods his small chin in their direction. When he gets to Christie Housley’s large, sunny classroom, he focuses intensely on signing in, writing the four letters of his name with a crayon as his dad crouches behind him. When he’s asked the question of the day—“Do you like music?”—he pauses for a minute before putting his magnetic nameplate in the “no” section.
John’s third day of pre-kindergarten will be filled with more questions. Since yesterday was the 20th and tomorrow is the 22nd, what day is today? Can he pick out the card with the number 21 written on it? If the colors go pink, blue, pink, blue, what comes next in the pattern? How many of his friends are in school today? Can he think of a word that rhymes with dog?
Historically, Americans have operated on the assumption that kids will just somehow pick up such essentials along the way to “real” school. But, with concerns mounting over rising dropout rates and grim earning prospects for poorly educated Americans, the matter of when and under what circumstances we begin to teach children is of growing importance. Guided by research that shows that most of the wiring for future academic accomplishment happens in the first five years of life, education experts have been exploring how to get our children off to a better, and earlier, start. Many point to France and some of the Scandinavian countries, where almost all three- and four-year-olds participate in good, public preschool.