Can early education start too early?

Students raise their hand in La’Tris Sykes kindergarten class at Lincoln Park Elementary School (Michael Spooneybarger/ Studer Community Institute)

There was a time when children didn’t go to preschool, and the few who did spent a good portion of their days cutting and pasting and playing games.

Nowadays, preschool has become the norm, and early learning that promotes a serious approach to preparing children for kindergarten has become more popular than ever.

But the increasing attention on early education is raising considerable debate about how early is too early for kids to start school.

Experts on early childhood education have reached a broad but hardly unanimous consensus about what best helps the youngest children learn. And most of those experts assume that what’s done in those earliest years has profound effects for the rest of their lives.

Early learning and kindergarten readiness, to be sure, are critical indicators for a child’s future success in school and in life, so says the experts and research.

One of the 16 key metrics measured in the Studer Community Institute’s Metro Dashboard is kindergarten readiness. The Dashboard, created in collaboration with the University of West Florida, is a snapshot of the community’s economic, educational and social well-being

In 2015, nearly a third of children — or 34 percent — entering kindergarten in Escambia County aren’t prepared for school.

In Santa Rosa County, 19 percent of children didn’t score ready for school, while nearly 30 percent failed to meet requirements statewide.

Study after study indicates that children who enter school with early skills, such as basic knowledge of math and reading, are more likely than their peers to experience later academic success.

It’s not hard to find political and public support early education on local and national levels.

President Barack Obama talked about it in a State of the Union message and has called for a boost in birth-to-5 education programs. Florida is among 40 states in the past 10 years to start state-funded preschool programs, serving about one-quarter of 4-year-olds.

The added focus is based on the general agreement among researchers that early education is much more important than people used to think. Some of the results of that can be found in day care centers and pre-kindergarten programs across the state and nation.

But there is rising debate in education circles about how early is too early for children to start school.

In “The New Preschool is Crushing Kids,” Ericka Christakis maintains that young children are working more in preschool, but learning less.

“Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their ‘work’ before they can go play,” Chrisakis wrote in The Atlantic. “And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow – is it possible? — less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations.”

The author pointed to a new study out of Vanderbilt University with surprising findings: children benefited greatly from Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten programs initially, but those gains wear off by the end of third grade. Researchers also found that students who did not attend pre-K quickly caught up to the students who did attend pre-K.

The study raised questions about the effectiveness of Tennessee’s pre-L programs, which were widely expanded in 2005.

The researchers told New York magazine, Chrisakis says, too much attention on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured teaching were likely the problems. Children who had been subjected to the same tasks over and over year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

“The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening,” Chrisakis said. “We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them.”

The demand for early childhood learning and education programs continues to increase not only in response to the increasing call for out-of-home child care but also in recognition of the importance of educational experiences during the early years.

The key will be in finding the proper balance between instructional learning and the social and emotional develop that lays the foundation for later school success.