President Obama said in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday that every child in the U.S. should get a high-quality preschool education. So, what makes a good preschool? We’ll discuss play-based versus more academic preschools, and what the latest research says is the best way to prepare a toddler for the world.

Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California
Joseph Tobin, educational anthropologist and an early childhood education specialist at the University of Georgia, and author of "Preschool in Three Cultures: Japan, China and the United States"
Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley and author of "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life"
Deborah Stipek, professor and former dean of Stanford University's Graduate School of Education

  • Pierrot Le Fou

    Create benchmarks…but the guest just said CA will be different than in implementation.

    “For every one of those studies, there is another study that counteracts those findings”…LOL, a study sponsored by a preschool or partisan is not equivalent to something from the Heritage foundation. Nice try lady

    “Investment in early years so we don’t get that fadeout” repeating a circular argument when the Heritage study just said preschool doesn’t improve 4th grade reading level.

    I guess if the lady just keeps repeating it, it might be true.

  • Pierrot Le Fou

    Basic science and preschool education is TWO different things.

    of course there is development in the early years. Preschool mandate is priming kids to do better, not growing the brain which happens irregardless of preschool

  • Pierrot Le Fou

    “no evidence of flash card helping” ok, we’ll just treat this as true with your disdainful tone

    ” we have models/studies from berkeley…. and we know this proves….” ok, but your guest just said with every finding, there is another study that counteracts that. FUNNY

  • Guest

    My daughter is in elementary school, for 6 hours a day. They teach almost nothing. We end up teaching her Math, Science and History at home. This preschool idea is just another plan to add more government workers to the payroll at taxpayers’ expense and ultimately will have no impact. High achieving students do so only due to parental involvement.

  • Pierrot Le Fou

    “not true…science shows IQ differences…are all equal” krasney is argiing about environment boosting learning in affluent backgrounds….the guest then shifts argument about kids are all born equal. OK….it doesn’t address Krasney’s argument

  • Pierrot Le Fou

    “basic skills…concept of numbers or names/sounds..” all you multilingual kids who speak Spanish/Arabic/Chinese, make sure your parents abstain from not speaking English…lol, because of the teachers don’t understand those concepts expressed in different languages, you’re lacking basic skills

    “flash card” the whipping boy of all these guests

  • Pierrot Le Fou

    “reading with children, very positive activity” ok, so why the tax dollars to support such a simple activity

    “literacy skills, reading comp based on reading books” – so what is the difference between taking them to a zoo rather than reading a book about the zoo? reading a book is the only way to prompt reading comp? weird justifications

  • Pierrot Le Fou

    “make sure you get it right…implementation…”
    “we know how to do it….” LOL, the guests were one moment talking about achievement gap and then laud themselves that they figured out how to do scaffolding

  • Pierrot Le Fou

    “Current preschool workforce…children need stability…all these attributes listed…” – all you preschool teachers out of work, you are all deficient. nice.

  • Pierrot Le Fou

    “real societal benefits…” this is not about benefits, its about efficiency with tax dollars

  • Rebecca

    i worked for 6 years with low-income primarily Spanish speaking families and the parents wanted the preschool experience to focus on academics because they are not gettig the academics at home. Play based needs to incorporate academic learning to make it palatable to these parents. They say “my kid can play at home.”

    • MrsB

      Play is academic learning. While freeplay is an important part of children’s development, hanging out at home is not the same as a strong play-based preschool curriculum. Good EC educators need to communicate to parents how play based curriculum leads to better academic and overall development. Children build preacademic skills through play. Block play, clay, playdough, pretend play all build a child’s ability to learn mathematics, writing, reading, when it becomes developmentally appropriate around age 6. I work with low income school age kids and they are bright and can learn academics from the many skilled teachers in our “low performing schools.” What is holding them back and why their schools struggle is the social-emotional skills they didn’t get during the early years and that aren’t fostered in elementary school.

  • Gretchen Ames

    This notion that there is a difference between “care” and “education” HAS To end! The notion that it is one or the other is divisive and outdated. We need to develop systems that support children to thrive in out of home settings – they are learning from the people around them, not matter what we call it!

  • Etienne LeGrand

    We know what contributes to effective early learning – well paid and trained teachers who engage in language dancing and other inquiry based learning activities that contribute to the social, emotional , and academic development of children. The key to replication lies in lthe quality of leadership of these schools/programs, which is never mentioned. The respinsibility for setting strategy, structure and the organizational culture in which learning happens doesn’t just happen if you have the right curriculum or teachers or policies. Someone has to lead all invested toward the goal.

  • Candy

    How can we possibly trust governments to know what a quality preschool would be. Science is certainly not to be trusted when determining the future of our children; this is much to personal to chalk it up to “science”. It is Government that has been supposedly fixing K-12 for a very long time and has mostly failed. After this failure it was decided that the Kindergarten teachers could not teach the basic skills and that the fault of educational failures was preschool. Yes, there really was a time when children learned the basic educational and social skills in Kindergarten.

    • menloman

      Every dreamy-eyed leftist credits ‘science’ for their pet obsessions that never quite work as planned. It is a propaganda word to convince the gullible.

  • I think the easiest and quickest way to improve pre school education is to improve the tax benefits for parents who send their kids to pre school. Pre schools are expensive as of now, the FSA is not available at all the workplaces. Sometimes one parent has to sit home and not work because of the expensive pre school.

    • Demographer

      We already have tax breaks for people who use child care/preschool. Problem is that many many folks don’t make enough to pay enough in income taxes to benefit from this in any significant way, and they are the ones who can least afford child care/preschool in the first place.

  • Home environment is key. Tutored a very bright low income Af-Am male grade 6-8. Mom/dad unaware of basics & unwilling engage to help truly promising child excel. Could not even manage to get kids to read 30 minutes each day every day. Unable to maintain basic routines needed to raise kids. TRAIN PARENTS & hold some of them accountable.

    • Demographer

      How exactly do you do this without becoming a police state? You could point out to people that certain things would be better for their kids, but it doesn’t always make them comply.because it involves sacrifices of time, effort or money. Look at the large number of men who would rather spend their time and money on themselves rather than on the children they produced. They know quite well, (and are told in so many ways by governments, their kids and their kids’ mothers) that it would be better for their kids if they spent more time and money on them, but they certainly don’t always oblige..

    • There is science that has illustrated what is and is not effective parent involvement. And it has more to do with modeling, awareness and access to resources than it does with “men who would rather spend money on themselves.” For example, Joyce Epstein – – has collected voluminous data on what is effective parent involvement. And for children it includes things like setting routines and having discipline within the home, safe environment, having expectations for your child etc. But how many parents know this? And for those parents who aren’t doing this within the home, is it because they want to spend money on themselves or because they are simply ignorant of what good parenting looks like or should be? Babies do not come with an owner’s manual. And being a parent is the single most important job for which there is NO training!

      How many parents know, for example, that these types of things are what has a long-term impact on literacy and school aptitude: singing to their 2 month old, tracing the words on a page while reading to their 18 month old, discussing phonemes with their 2 year old, exposing their child to rich language experiences from birth to age 6, asking questions before, during, after reading with their 3 and 4 year old, etc?

      In part it is a socio-economic class issue and in part it is an education issue (level of education attained by parents, that is). Many parents simply do not know. One of the first, and most widely read, studies of language exposure, by Hart and Risley demonstrated this quite clearly (see here ): Children in welfare families hear, on average, about 13million words in a year; children in middle income families hear about 26million; children in affluent families here upwards of 44million words. And the impact of these rich language experiences of the 2-3 year olds began manifesting in their school achievement as soon as ages 5-9.

      One of the best solutions to the challenge of universal preschool is to leverage an extant infrastructure: families. Coaching parents on how to be a teacher to their child does not require exorbitant resources. Very cost effective programs such as Text4Baby – – , BabyCenter – , Pocket Literacy Coach – – and Parent University - – utilize mobile phones to provide parents with daily tips on how to be better parents. These tools are HIGHLY effective.

      Educational institutions have monopolized education and have conditioned many parents into believing that learning only happens within the school. This is not true. Our babies begin learning from the day they’re born (some neuroscientists argue language learning begins in utero with fetal exposure to the mother’s language rhythms). Whether it’s early childhood ed or k-12 ed we as a society would be well served to imagine a learning ecology that includes school AND home AND community working in collaboration.

  • Michelle Fadelli

    Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman’s research supports the need for social/emotional development in the preschool years. Rather than pushing cognitive development, Heckman stresses the need for developing “soft skills” like conscientiousness, perseverance, sociability, and curiosity. He argues that investing in these skills will have better results for the child in the short term, and a greater return for society in the long run.


    My children went to a Reggio Emelia and language immersion program. While the play based was terrific, I found that they were actually behind their peers when entering kindergarten. Now we are playing catch up and its not easy!

    • Being a director of a Reggio Emilia inspired preschool, I am interested in how you think your children were behind their peers? Academically? socially? self-regulation-wise? Care to respond?

  • Not an expert by any means, but I keep hearing this idea that higher income families get “better” results and that the main benefit that integrating higher and lower income children goes to the lower income children. I feel like there might also be a benefit to higher income children from meeting and interacting with children of different cultures, backgrounds, and races. I can also imagine a scenario where very educated, high income parents are focused on their jobs and don’t spend enough time with their children which can hamper social development. Have the benefits of diversity to higher income students been studied?

  • Gretchen Ames

    Good early childhood professionals make learning academics feel fun and playful!

  • Gretchen Ames

    Thanks for taking on this VERY important subject today- hope to see more conversations on early childhood education in future shows!

  • Asya Komarova

    The fact that a preschool education is not a right but a privilege makes it difficult for all families to provide their children with a quality preschool experience. I grew up in Russia and importance of early education was never up for a debate for me. I have tried to navigate my way through the San Francisco system of preschools for my son, and am appalled at how difficult the process had been. It seems preschools are a sort of clubs, where only the “right” kind of kids have the opportunity to attend. After being expelled from a preschool, rejected by twelve preschools and having an inadequate experience in two others, I feel strongly that if US makes it a priority and a right for every toddler to attend a quality preschool program we will all benefit! I also want to mention Presidio Preschool in San francisco as a truly amazing program. What makes it work is a group of smart, well educated teachers….With their hard work and talents my son loves going school, and that’s what every parent should expect from a preschool. It’s not about academics (although he got a lot of that too) it is about teaching children to function in a group, and in a class room. Unfortunately it took me two years to find the right fit, it just does not have to be this hard.

  • Marcos Balzaretti


  • bretwaters

    Wait. I heard Deborah Stipek, but she’s not listed here as being one of the guests?

  • menloman

    Let’s be honest; Obama’s pre-school proposal is intended to boost low achieving groups. We already have such a program–Head Start. Trouble is Head Start seems not to do what it was intended to do, and when federal kindergarten fails as spectacularly as public education has some genius will dream up reasons to keep it alive.

  • Human Compassion

    First thank you to the distinguished speakers and NPR for airing this broadcast. As a brown educator, professor, and human being, hearing callers and reading postings, I am reminded how much it is our humanity that keeps us going, not how much money we have. Dr. Atkins said it well, Universal Preschool is about humanity not how much money we made.

    Slavery ended a long time ago, and we can’t keep thinking that we can make money off of other people’s poverty or cheap labor, and still keep our humanity. The question to my generation is what do we value more humanity or money? Gadhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus showed us the cost to truly loving a person out of their human decadence. Given that life has given us mercy over human decadence, how much more ready should we be prepared to help our fellow human being (child). I have come to see it my greed that steals my love. When I am greedy, I when I have this attitude, “I want everything for myself and nothing for you.” I find myself often alone in these moments, even if i am in a crowd. But If I am selfless and give generously, lives start to blossom in a variety of ways. I notice that my life blossoms too in gratitude, which leads to other living giving emotions and experiences.

    As far as play vs. academics. Dr. Stipek hit it on the spot. It is neither of the two. In my mind, and those of Jean Piaget and Vygotsky, the child is a living and developing organism, which is constantly changing. It lives in a world that is measurable, geometrical, sortable, collectable (all concepts of math) and full of sounds, some of which make languages. Children quickly learn that language can express itself in many ways including in little colorful things, which adults call books. Play is curiosity engaging the world through the child’s various developmental areas. Absence of this, children will sneak moments in to do this kind of play because it engages them in the things that have meaning to them. They will stop evolving and developing if their opportunity to be curious is taken away from them. It is up to the teachers to scaffold the children’s knowledge and other areas of development in order to help the learn from and engage a dynamic and active world/earth.

    Lastly Dr. Tobin said it best, regarding parents. Our perceptions influences our behavior and actions, which either invite parents to stay or leave. I worked with parents in inner cities, with children who had special needs. In many instances these children had to overcome, poverty, race, and disability for their child to succeed. Many of them did. So as the old saying goes we are what we think. If we think they won’t engage, we won’t find ways to engage them. If we don’t like their neighborhoods, we want to be there. Hence community can’t be built. I had to own this when I worked in the inner city. It was not just the others around me who needed changing, but so did I. I most of all, because I was their to model for them, so they could model to their children!

    Anyway, thanks for reading this.

  • i’m arightwingextremist


    You do a top notch job, but I want to point out that I believe there is a noticeable absence of libertarian voices on Forum. The show, “What Makes a Good Preschool?” is a prime example. There were (I think) three in-studio guests and all of them spoke in favor of government funded preschool.

    I am not suggesting that equal time be given to all shades of political opinion. Rather I am asking you to consider whether it would make your shows more lively, interesting and balanced if you would invite a spokesperson from a libertarian public interest group to briefly present the libertarian position when the topic is relevant.

    Is this something you would consider?


  • Yasmin Kudrolli

    Can a play-based program teach preschoolers the skills that they will need when they go to “real” schools? Absolutely!

    Scenario 1- Sixteen 4-year olds are trickling into the classroom from the playground, washing their hands and sitting down for snack.

    Teacher – Do we have more boys or girls in the classroom right now?
    Children – Boys
    Teacher – How many boys and how many girls?
    Students – 8 boys and 2 girls
    Teacher – Oh! Emma just walked in. Now how many girls?
    Students – 3 girls

    The children continue counting till all the children are in the classroom and this becomes the children’s snack time ritual. On the day that all children are not in the classroom, they figure out who is not there and how many kids came to school that day.

    Scenario 2 – Also during snack time.
    Teacher – I want you to put 6 gold fish on you napkin, eat it and then get 6 more. This is an activity the the teacher does every time gold fish is served starting from 3 and progressing to 6 goldfish.
    Children count 6 and put then on their napkins. Teacher helps students who are having trouble.
    Child – If we take 3 and then 3 gold fish it makes 6. That is faster.
    Another child – Or we can take 2 and 2 and 2.
    Now you do the math as to what skills the children learned not to mention how it helped those kids who have trouble regulating themselves and would rather grab a handful or the whole bowl of goldfish among other skills like learning to share.

    Scenario 3 – Circle time ends
    Teacher – If your name begins with the letter K which makes the “Ka” sound please go to your cubby and put on your jacket.
    Teacher show the children the letter K.
    What skills did the children learn? To recognize the letter K, its sound, the letter and the letters that their names or their friends’ names begin with, to listen to instructions, to follow directions, to wait for their turn, to independently find their jackets, etc. Now does it make the program too academic since the teacher showed the children the letter K on a flashcard?

    There are a million creative ways to teach children all kinds of skills in a playful and fun way without having to drill facts. Play and academic rigor can easily co-exist. In fact, such an integrated approach is the ideal way to meet the social/emotional needs, language and emerging literacy, cognitive and
    physical needs of children. Since young children are concrete learners, hands-on activities are the best way for children to make sense of their world. Play has to be self-directed as well as teacher-guided especially for those children who have trouble expanding their play.

    Why that does not happen? Answer: Poorly trained and ill-informed teachers. The NAEYC has excellent guidelines. The CA Board of Edu. started working on guidelines in 2008 and is still in the process. i don’t know how many teachers have actually read these guidelines.

    Regarding the debate about which is the best program, Montessori or the Reggio-Emilio or some other approach: Each child has his/her own individual needs and teachers have to have a bag of every trick in the book to meet the needs of each individual child. Some skills are learned through open-ended materials like blocks and some need materials like puzzles which have only one solution. A combination of approaches is the answer.

    As to children coming from families that are not stimulating them: teachers cannot control what happens in their students homes but they do have control over what they can do in their classrooms to stimulate their students. Students spend a lot of their waking hours in school. Nurture your students, take care of their individual needs, assure them that they are loved and will always be taken care of, challenge them, stimulate them, question them and and get them
    excited about the world around them. Design curriculums about things in nature that children are naturally curious about through active engagement, books, songs and play. Provide early intervention for those children who have learning

    Having taught in New York preschools for 14 years, I have experienced how children can have an “academic” learning experience while “playing”. Let’s stop this pointless debate about play v. academics. “Play” is a child’s “academics”.

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