The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Why Doesn’t Learning Last?

on February 28, 2016

Today’s post was stimulated by an article in the January 27 issue of Education Week that reviewed the research on various approaches to helping children get a head start in school that would set them on the road to success. What intrigued me most about the research referred to was the fact that none of the programs seemed to help students in the long term. I couldn’t resist the temptation to explain my own theory of why that happens.

The article I read, “Studies Explore Reasons Behind Fade-Out Effect” alluded to several studies that failed to find any lasting positive results from early programs designed to help children succeed academically.  In the short term those programs appeared to help students make significant academic gains.  But when they were followed over time, the gains disappeared, often right after the students had left their special programs.

Researchers in all areas seem to be befuddled and disturbed by those findings.  With pre-kindergarten classes now springing up all over the country, what if they are a waste of time, money and effort?  As a result of the widespread uncertainty, several institutions are pushing for additional and more precise research on the question. For example, the Institute of Education Sciences is offering $26 million in grants to create a network of teams focused on identifying ways to sustain preschool growth throughout the following grades.

I must admit that there was not enough information in the article to allow me to identify the problems or suggest solutions.  I have to guess at what is meant by the “gains that faded out over time.”  For one particular study, IQ is mentioned and for others a wide range of areas is named: “skills, beliefs, and behaviors.” Yet, it appears that the research studies used “academic achievement,” measured by some type of testing, as the sole criterion. If so, not only students’ “beliefs” and “behavior” were not examined, but also their self-confidence, enthusiasm for learning, positive feelings about school, curiosity, and persistence.

In the end, I felt I had to return to the evidence of the Perry Preschool Project of the 1960s and the Abecedarian Program of the 1970s and my own professional experience.  Researchers in those two preschool programs followed students’ progress up to age 35 or 40 and were more interested in several other results than in K-12 achievement, such as high school and college completion, adult job status and income, criminal involvement, child bearing age, and need for public assistance.  In all those areas the people who had participated in early childhood programs were doing significantly better as adults than those in the control groups.  Although some of the data has been questioned, it’s hard to discount the fact that the majority of poor African American children who participated in those programs received long lasting benefits from them.

Does that mean that one positive school experience in which  you are encouraged, valued, given choices, and submerged in meaningful learning positively affects the rest of your life?  I think so.  Although my own experience as a teacher and a principal did not involve creating any special pre-school programs or doing any formal tracking of students after they left my oversight, I saw that when kids were regularly treated as smart, caring and important people they learned how to be that kind of person from then on, even  when they had a few bad experiences later on.

I believe that all schools can do through all grades for all students. pretty much what the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Program did for pre-schoolers.  But it takes a different kind of teaching and treatment than those being advocated today. Although I have no doubt that “All children can learn,” to bring that about requires that the education establishment abandon its obsession with raising test scores. You can’t quantify the expanse of the human mind or the human spirit, but you can nourish them.






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