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November 25, 2008

Hart & Risley Turned Inside Out

400px-WrightflyerIn Clayton Christensen's book, "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Transform Education," I have finally come to the dreaded chapter on early childhood. In chapter six, Christensen says flat out that America shouldn't invest in voluntary preschool because it won't work. He then uses one of the most important studies of early language learning, Hart and Risley's "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children," to argue that pre-k is too little too late to help kids' language development. The only supportive evidence he sites is this study. I doubt Hart and Risley would agree that preschool should not be funded because kids make the most gains in language development from 0-3 years old.
Christensen states:

"Rather than funding programs that hire people to substitute for parents who aren't succeeding at preschool talk, quite possibly we might have a greater impact if we taught children how to be parents before they become parents."

I actually agree with the above statement that some prevention, especially parenting courses at the middle school level in health classes, would help prevent some language delays in all children. But, the reality is that Hart and Risley's study, published in 1995, did not account for the current economic environment. It was also completed before welfare reforms, which required poor parents to work. At the time, teaching poor parents how to talk to their children may have been the only intervention needed, but now, that would not be enough. What Hart and Risley do not say, and what Chirstensen takes for granted, is that it is too late for a child who is 3 or 4 years old to gain language at a rapid pace.

This is why Head Start has, for approximately 40 years, included parent involvement and parent literacy training in its comprehensive services offered and required of parents. In fact, our program recently received an Early Reading First grant through VCU to implement, as part of a holistic literacy program, family literacy strategies based on Hart and Risley's work. To say that children learn most from 0-3 is not the same as saying kids don't learn from 3-5. Shouldn't poor kids have the chance to catch-up even if they do start out behind?


Thanks for your post! I actually think what we said in the book has been misinterpreted slightly. Clearly children can accelerate their learning and overcome early problems with the right intervention; why would we have written a book that focuses so much on high school in particular otherwise?

And it is entirely possible one could create a pre-school experience that addresses the root causes of why so many young children struggle; the problem is that many if not most models of pre-school currently out there right now that would be funded by universal pre-K government programs do not address these root causes by engaging with children in the correct ways. They are in many, but certainly not all!, cases not even designed in such a way that they could not do so at scale either. Investing in these sorts of pre-school experiences will not result in the outcomes we desire is all we meant. That doesn't mean per se that we shouldn't seek better ways to correct for this or to fund those interventions that do attack the root cause effectively and efficiently!

I taught pre-K for three years in Newark, New Jersey where I saw both the reality that kids are often already far behind when they come to school and the potential to put those same kids on a fundamentally different life trajectory with effective, outcomes oriented early childhood education. I agree that many existing programs fail to seize the opportunity to reach kids during a critical stage in their development, but I also think that high quality ECE is a possible and necessary part of comprehensive education reform. ECE, like K-12, needs greater accountability. We need to ensure money goes to models that work. State pre-K programs and Head Start have both shortcomings and prospects. I hope the federal government can work on identifying positive elements of both and use those lessons to provide incentives for the development of programs that build on those lessons. Strong parents start with kids who have a strong start in school. Teachers who work with children and families to foster development in all domains can ensure children have the foundation of skills and attitudes needed to be productive members of society.

Michael, I appreciate your close following of the affects of your work with Christensen and Johnson. It shows a real passion for your work and commitment to your ideas.
I really don't think I misunderstood or misinterpreted your ideas, especially as they relate to policy implications.

There are several statements about pre-k policy in your book.

"a groundswell is mounting among politicians and policy makers in favor of universal prekindergarten as a mechanism for boosting the chances of scholastic success for children who otherwise would be under prepared for school. As we discuss later, we have concluded that such programs are an ineffective mechanism for addressing the challenge of better preparing children for school."

"we simply hope to inform our readers about one of the many important sets of findings emerging from this research and to help those who devise policy and allocate resources in public education to spend money where it has maximum impact and not waste it on programs that will fail."

In the chapter you say that parenting classes should be offered in High School, (too late if you ask me) and compare the decision to fund these classes or fund pre-k as an either/or situation. Your book uses funding parenting education against the idea of funding preschool, both of which could have promising outcomes.

You clearly have not researched the benefits
of pre-k with an eye to seeing how they are working or spent time in a high quality pre-k classroom. If, in your book the characters had been able to attend pre-k maybe their stories would have been different. Sam, in your book is a boy who is struggling in school but whose father is able to communicate complex ideas to him through real life experiences. He is a smart kid who doesn't learn the same way as Stephanie. I agree that schools are failing Sam. It is a funny coincidence but Pre-K Now has a character named Sam too. If Sam had experienced high quality pre-k perhaps he would have been able to be successful as we both hope he could be.

Please check out this link for more info on the benefits of pre-k: http://preknow.org/advocate/factsheets/benefits.cfm

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