Pre-K plan rests on faulty premise

Letter to the Editor

By DR. LENORA FULANI | 2/20/2014, 3:45 p.m.
Pre-K, and the call to create a dedicated tax-based funding scheme for it, rests on the assumption that we must ...
Dr. Lenora Fulani

Last week, I testified at a joint hearing of the Education and Women’s Issues committees of the New York City Council on Resolution 0002-2014, which supports the de Blasio administration’s universal pre-K and expanded after-school plan.

Though I have frequently appeared in City Council chambers as a political activist and independent reformer, this time I went as a developmental psychologist with advanced degrees from the CUNY system and with an extensive research background at Rockefeller University, the Laboratory for Human Cognition and the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy. I was also there as a co-founder of the All Stars Project Inc., the constellation of privately funded after-school development programs that serve more than 10,000 inner-city youth and adults each year, among them Operation Conversation: Cops and Kids, a program I direct in an official partnership with the New York City Police Department.

My testimony was not for or against Resolution 0002-2014, though I am a supporter of early childhood education and, like most developmental psychologists, I recognize the positive effects of high-quality pre-K experiences on all children. Instead, I aimed to call attention to the defects in the science underlying the premise that pre-K is the most effective and necessary intervention into the long-term development of poor kids, and to express my deep concern that the current initiative miseducates the public about this.

In my statement, I pointed out the following:

Pre-K, and the call to create a dedicated tax-based funding scheme for it, rests on the assumption that we must grab the opportunity to educate low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, because once they get older (and most especially once they become teenagers), any developmental disparities with more well-to-do kids become uncorrectable. Why? Because—so the traditional educational and psychological dogma goes—human development can only take place before age 5.

This assumption is dangerous and untrue. It’sangerous because it dictates certain policy directions and preempts others. It’s untrue because the premise and methodology of the research cited in Resolution 0002-2014 dates back 50 years, and there is far more current and innovative research that defies the finding that development is essentially over by the time you hit kindergarten.

We have found—as have researchers and practitioners from Stanford University, Columbia University, Rutgers University, Southern Methodist University and many other forward-looking institutions—that development can be ignited or re-ignited at any age if the proper tools and approaches, such as performance, play, and becoming more cosmopolitan, are used. This is not simply an abstract discovery reserved for rarified discussions among academics. It has serious public policy implications.

In New York City, there are hundreds of thousands of poor kids, mainly of color, between the ages of 14 and 19. They are in desperate need of developmental opportunities and they are well past the age of pre-K. In large measure, I’m afraid, they are being written off or swept under the rug by advocates of a public policy that focuses on pre-K while failing to address the developmental challenges of middle school kids and their families. To ignore the newest, most cutting-edge discoveries that recognize the human capacity to develop and create at all ages in favor of high-profile, easy-to-digest, politically symbolic initiatives that rest on incomplete, out-of-date and, frankly, narrow-minded and anti-human forms of social science, would represent a significant failure on the part of the City Council.