One morning this past April, scores of preschoolers and kindergarteners dragged their grownups into the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The children had created an exhibit demonstrating their perceptions of the nation’s capital and what it means to belong to the city. In one gallery, there was a replica of the D.C. Metro routes, made from neon-colored plastic pipes. In another were cardboard, foam, and popsicle-stick models of the children’s dream playgrounds.
Over the course of the morning, a signboard asking “what does it mean to be a citizen?” bloomed with more and more bright sticky notes containing answers to that question. Some contributions came from parents and teachers. “To participate in decision-making for the country,” read one. “To be free, to explore, to grow through learning,” offered another, signed with a heart and the name “Ms. Rachelle.” Other contributions came from children: “to be a homin” (i.e., “human”), for example. “To help another bear in my classroom,” signed Lucas, a member of the participating “Cinnamon Bears” class.
The lack of attention on the topic means there’s little empirical data to demonstrate the impact of a “democratic” preschool classroom on children’s academic and social outcomes. But that could change. The issue has attracted the attention of the University of Chicago’s Center for the Economics of Human Development, which is directed by James Heckman, a Nobel laureate and economist famous for his analysis of the long-term economic benefits of thePerry Preschool Program. Members of his international research team are currently studying Reggio Emilia’s schools, whose education philosophy, according to the researcher Pietro Biroli, “has inspired schools all over the world, but it has never undergone a formal impact evaluation.” The schools, Biroli says, represent “a unique natural experiment that has been unfolding” over the last half century. The research team is in the process of analyzing its data on the schools’ returns on investment and has not yet released any findings.
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