The results of a new study challenge the prevailing perspective in the United States that early education in the form of mandatory preschool benefits every child. In fact, it may even be developmentally harmful for some children. And in younger years, many kids may learn and grow best through play.

These findings confirm what homeschooling parents have been asserting all along: each child is unique. And children are best served when the people who know and love them best—their parents—begin their formal education at a time and in a manner most suited to their needs and abilities.

This was the message homeschool parents delivered to Washington state lawmakers in February, helping to thwart legislation that would have lowered the compulsory school attendance age from 8 years of age to 5.

According to KXLY-TV in Spokane, Jen Garrison Stuber, advocacy chair of the Washington Homeschool Organization, told elected officials, “The homeschool community is saying we don’t want to have to start formal instruction with our five, six and seven-year-olds unless we would like to do that individually.”

Program Produces Disappointing Results

As it turns out, the rationale behind Washington homeschooling parents’ position gained immense support with the release of a study earlier this year showing disappointing results for certain prekindergarten programs in Tennessee.

The research focused on 2,900 low-income children who were selected by lottery to attend government-funded early learning in public schools throughout the Volunteer State. It followed these students for 10 years, tracking their performance through the 6th grade.

Compared to other public school students who were not selected for the program, the children who attended prekindergarten did not fare well.

As a National Public Radio (NPR) article summarized, by the 6th grade, “they had lower test scores, were more likely to be in special education, and were more likely to get into trouble in school, including serious trouble like suspensions.”

Deeper Look at What Went Wrong

Dale Farran, one of the authors of the study, admitted to being alarmed by what she and fellow researchers discovered.

She told NPR, “It really has required a lot of soul-searching.”

Some of the causes that Farran believed contributed to the failures of the Tennessee preschool program may especially interest homeschool parents. This is because researchers examined the extent to which the program treated students as raw material to be shaped by a rigid educational system rather than as young boys and girls, each just beginning to realize their individuality.

Not Age-Appropriate

For example, Farran pointed out that the Tennessee program did not place students in special kid-friendly facilities, but installed them in school buildings designed for older, more mature children.

As a result, the prekindergartners spent a good deal of time either being made to sit still and listen, or being herded from place to place in order to do basic things like eat lunch or use the bathroom. The need for group discipline meant they were often chided for behavior that is perfectly natural for their age: talking, touching, laughing, squirming.

Farran contrasted this to the kind of learning activities wealthier parents often provide for their preschoolers. Again, according to NPR, “families of means tend to choose play-based preschool programs with art, movement, music and nature. Children are asked open-ended questions, and they are listened to.”

Early Education as Entrenched Policy

Not all researchers consider the Tennessee study cause for alarm. Some have suggested that the prekindergarten program performed poorly because it was underfunded or badly managed—not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with institutional preschool.

The outcome of this debate matters a great deal to preschoolers in families across the country as well as to homeschooling families. Policymakers around the U.S. have staked a great deal on expanding preschool programs.

President Joe Biden made it a centerpiece of his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better legislation, which failed to pass Congress.

California is poised to spend billions of dollars on so-called community school initiatives, which—in addition to education—will offer a wide range of health and social services to low-income neighborhoods. This includes something called “transitional kindergarten” for 4-year-olds.

Freedom to Choose What’s Best for Children

Though it’s true these programs are still largely optional, it’s not unreasonable to envision their status changing once officials have invested vast amounts of resources and have so much at stake in seeing them succeed.

With top-down solutions, the trend is toward less flexibility and freedom. This is what we recently witnessed in Washington state, with legislation that would have essentially mandated preschool.

The Tennessee results also mirror research done by two pioneers of the homeschool movement, Dorothy and Raymond Moore. They were instrumental in getting many of the early movers and shakers to begin homeschooling, including HSLDA Board Chairman Mike Farris and his family, as well as HSLDA President Mike Smith and his wife Elizabeth. 

The Moores authored two books—Better Late Than Early, and School Can Wait—dealing with the optimum time to start formal education for children. This was over 40 years ago, but they provided research that still resonates . Their conclusion was clear for a myriad of reasons: most children, especially boys, are better off starting schooling at the ages of 7 and 8. They found that play, parental stimulation through reading to the children, and intentional communication were the best ways to prepare children for formal education, not preschool.

And so, after much money being spent on massive programs designed by experts, it appears that homeschool parents were on the right track after all.

As NPR paraphrased Farran: “We might actually get better results . . . from simply letting little children play.”