How to pick a pre-school in less than an hour

For parents, the bottom line for picking a pre-school for your child is simple: Watch closely what's happening in the classroom, pick a pre-school that you wish you had gone to, and your child will do just fine.
For parents, the bottom line for picking a pre-school for your child is simple: Watch closely what's happening in the classroom, pick a pre-school that you wish you had gone to, and your child will do just fine.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

As soon as I walked into Ms Celia Rojas' pre-kindergarten class in Union City, New Jersey, I was sucked in by the hum of activity. Art plastered the walls, plants were hanging from the ceiling, and in every nook there was something to seize a child's imagination.

Some children were doing cut-outs of paper clothing and others were at an easel, painting. A bunch of children were solving puzzles on a computer, while another group was building a pink cardboard chair, which they called "A Chair for My Mother". In the reading corner, a girl was learning about how, when the wasp larva hatches, it eats the spider. Three classmates were playing dress-up, trying on old felt hats and checking out themselves in the mirror.

The teacher was everywhere - praising children, offering suggestions when they were stumped and, sometimes, peacemaking. Two boys were peering at insects through a microscope when they started fighting over who got to look next. Ms Rojas deftly diverted them. "How many parts does an insect body have?" she asked. The boys knew: "Three parts - the antenna, abdomen and legs."

"How about an insect salad - would you want to eat it?" she inquired. "Ugh," the boys chorused. "Why not - are they bad for you?" she asked. The boys thought about it. "Maybe if you chopped them up they'd be OK," one volunteered.

At that moment I wished that I was a four-year-old and could join the festivities.

But most pre-kindergarten classrooms look entirely different. After surveying pre-schools nationwide, Dr Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, concluded that "superficial task demands, including giving directions and assigning routine tasks, predominate over children's involvement in appropriate conceptual or class-based activities".

A pre-school in Chicago that I visited a few years earlier boasted that it was certified by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the pre-kindergarten equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal. But it didn't merit that encomium. A big room that might once have been a storeroom had been split into mini-classrooms separated by chest-high partitions. Noise reverberated throughout the building.

"Stay within the lines," a teacher commanded a three-year-old boy. "You're not tracing the triangle." After he started colouring, she returned, exasperated. "You weren't paying attention during circle time. Only colour the triangles, not the circle or the heart." The teacher turned to me. "I like the kids when they stay within the lines and colour beautiful," she said. In another class, children were told to paint the bottom section of a pyramid. The directions were the same: Stay within the lines. It turned out that the children were painting the food pyramid, but they didn't know that's what they were doing.

What I saw made me wish that I could round up a passel of children and make a run for safety. Professor of education Deborah Stipek at Stanford makes the point more bluntly: "What I see in a lot of pre-schools is much worse than colouring between the lines. It's teachers yelling at kids all day."

These two pre-kindergartens serve very different populations, but perhaps not the ones you might expect. The "stay within the lines" pre-school enrols mainly middle class youngsters, whose parents pay to send them there, while Ms Rojas' classroom is in a public school in a poor immigrant community.

Though I've spent many hours in these classrooms, I'm no expert. What I witnessed should be obvious to any mum or dad. That's why, even if you are an anxiety-ridden parent, you can rapidly determine whether you want to send your child to a particular pre-school. You may also be able to save a boatload of money, since public pre-schools are often as good as their US$30,000 (S$42,600) alternatives.

When you walk through the door of a pre-kindergarten, check out the walls - they should be festooned with children's projects, and not, as is too often the case, plastered with posters that are calculated to please adults and mounted too high for four-year-olds to see. Look around. There should be lots of different things for children to do.

If the children say hello, and quickly return to what they have been doing, that's a good sign, for it suggests that they're developing social skills. But if they mob you, you have your answer: This isn't the place for your child. You might consider yourself to be a fascinating person, but you shouldn't be more interesting than whatever activity these three- and four-year-olds are engaged in.

Is the class pin-drop silent? I've talked with well-to-do parents who equate obedience with quality, but unless you want your child in boot camp, that's unhealthy. (Of course, running wild isn't a good thing either; that stored-up energy belongs on the playground.) Children should be quiet, if a bit squirmy, during circle time when they are gathered around their teacher. But mostly they should be engaging one another, because that's when most learning occurs. Their teacher should be talking with them, not at them.

And if the classroom looks like a healthy mix of children from different backgrounds, that's all to the good. Children learn a lot from their classmates, and those with different experiences have much to contribute to one another.

That's it, more or less. If you have a chance to talk briefly with the teacher, ask her how she decides to spend time with one group or another. Inquire about how she handles children who haven't fully learnt how, as the argot goes, to use their words, "take turns" or "share". While the answer matters, you mostly want to make sure she has really thought about those things. Winging it doesn't make for good teaching.

I imagine many readers believe that I've committed heresy. To them, Montessori or HighScope, Reggio Emilia or Waldorf, or some other school of pre-kindergarten pedagogy embodies the Holy Grail. But there's no reason to believe that they are better than the others.

The key is how well a particular model of teaching is being carried out. A class can be a joy when the teacher truly understands how properly to use, say, the HighScope approach, which has the children decide what they want to do that day, then tackle the chosen project and later review what they've learnt. But these techniques are devilishly hard to pull off. When done badly the result is a mighty mess. That's why the school district in the first example allows the best teachers to design a curriculum that, while borrowing from well-vetted approaches, makes the most sense for their children.

For parents, the bottom line is simple: Watch closely what's happening in the classroom, pick a pre-school that you wish you had gone to, and your child will do just fine.


•The writer is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'How to pick a pre-school in less than an hour'. Print Edition | Subscribe