Preschool as Panacea?

In the political gridlock that has marked cutting federal budgets, gun control, and immigration legislation, one issue brings together both CEOs and educational progressives, political conservatives and liberals: investing in tax-supported preschool for three and four year-olds. President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech called for increasing children’s access to prekindergarten and assembled legislators applauded across the aisle separating political parties.

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.  But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.  Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool.  And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.  So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.  (Applause.)

Reasons for expanding access to prekindergarten run from the Alabama leader who said: “We’re trying to invest in a work force that can compete in 20 years with other states and other nations”–which President Obama would nod in agreement with–to experts on brain development who say: “Children are born ready to learn. They cultivate 85 percent of their intellect, personality and skills by age five” (brain_dev_and_early_learning, p. 1).

Yet supporters of greater access for all children have their work cut out for them. Over the past decade, many states (e.g., Illinois, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma) have increased access for families through Universal PreKindergarten (UPK) modeled after Head Start and similar full-service efforts. Even with the spread of these state-funded programs and extensive media attention, variation in access for toddlers across the U.S. ranges from over 70 percent to none (see graphic). As a result, the U.S. ranks 28th out of 38 nations offering parents entry to preschool. Mexico, France, Spain, and Netherlands have 95 percent of their children in preschool while the U.S. registers far below that, a fact that often goes unnoted by media compared to the attention that international test score rankings receive.

Even amid federal and state budget retrenchment, the political coalition of business and civic leaders, political conservatives and liberals has continued its lobbying and marginal gains in enrollment have occurred. But getting “high-quality” preschools, that is another matter. Different versions  of “good” programs serving three- and four-year-olds are contested.

Should preschool be boot camp for kindergarten or a place where very young children, as Alison Gopnik put it, “be allowed to explore, inquire, play, and discover?”

None of this ideological see-sawing about the content of preschools is new, of course. Over the past two centuries,  child-rearing experts have advised Moms to be strict and permissive, be parent-centered and child-centered. Since the invention of nurseries and preschools decades ago, a similar back-and-forth movement between preparing toddlers for the cognitive demands of schools or developing the whole child (and, yes, mixes of both) have had their champions again and again.

For the past three decades, national fears of being outstripped in global economic competition have spilled over public schools with a reform agenda that places primary attention upon  standards, testing, accountability, and charter schools. That agenda has trickled down into both public and private preschools.

*Many private and public preschools require cognitive skills tests.

*Preschool charter schools have been established.

*There are accountability standards for preschools.

But not for all preschools. Progressive ones looking to develop the “whole child”–a phrase that prompts snickers if not ridicule in many elite reformer circles–flourish below the radar. Such schools are, in this climate, mostly private (see here). Some, however, are public. Many parents are caught in the tangled dilemma: “If we give them barbies/GameCubes/television/Play Stations they want and we can afford, will they become too slack, glazed, and lazy to get into Harvard?”

Can research settle what are the best ways for preschoolers to learn? Hardly. Evidence seldom convinces ideologues either about the size of government, the best diet, or how  preschool should educate.  The National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC), for example, lays out the research, benchmarks for development for young children ( see KeyMessages). NAEYC anchors the progressive side of the preschool ideological see-saw. In the present political and economic climate, however, they are lightweights compared to well leveraged state and federal policymakers worried about the nation’s weak performance on international achievement tests and civic and corporate leaders who press for cognitively-driven preschools where direct instruction in knowledge and skills give young children a running start in the race through the grades and into college.

The earnest move to enact Universal Prekindergarten endorsed by both civic and corporate leaders, business groups, and educational associations as national investments in economic growth and supported by longitudinal studies (e.g., Perry Preschool, ABCedarian (see, etc.) has become politically acceptable and,  as state funding has become available, has spread.

But the content and direction of preschools will again be influenced by the ideological fervor of those wanting boot camp instruction to prepare for school and those wanting more curiosity and play rather than a brain on a stick. Thus, conflicts over what constitutes “high quality” preschools will continue even as access for toddlers expands. No panacea here.



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

14 responses to “Preschool as Panacea?

  1. Pingback: How Do We Define "High Quality Preschool? | Informal Learning: What Parents Need to Know |

  2. Pingback: How Do We Define "High Quality Preschool? | For Parents: On Learning and Education |

  3. This discussion mirrors the beginnings of Head Start. There are famous B&W videos on the successful direct instruction of Algebra to 4 year olds to push Head Start toward an instructional model. Head Start went with the social model instead.

    Americans have a sentimental attitude when thinking of children and childhood. For “reformers,” pushing for more pre-school can only work if compliance (including testing with funding rewards) of Common Core-like standards are applied. This wasn’t done with Head Start. Parents (ie voters) may not like this.

    • larrycuban

      That is accurate, Dennis, about competing models of instruction in Head Start and subsequent preschool programs. Project Follow Through (1972) evaluating the different models of preschool approaches and did find evidence of direct instruction having some lasting effects into lower primary grades, as I recall.

  4. Pingback: How Do We Define "High Quality Preschool? | Red Apple Reading Content Sharing |

  5. Before my current job I was training Head Start teachers and while the push comes form K-12 to make kiddos “school ready”, the teachers fortunately seem to have a better idea what pre-school is about. They do engage kids in exploration and interactions – which is exactly what early learning should be about: guided concept development in developmentally appropriate settings.
    As for why the effects don’t last past grade three I have my own very strong opinion: elementary school learning is not age appropriate, nor are the practices or expectations. But then again, I was trained as a teacher in Finland, so my point of view is different.
    The reality is, though, that we will never have a satisfactory definition of “high quality” preschools (or educational systems in general) before we create a balance between quantitative and qualitative research describing the effects. Right now quantitative tools (and measurements) are so overly emphasized that the whole picture is distorted.

    • larrycuban

      Nina, thanks for your comments on “high quality” preschool and linking your comments to Head Start work that you did. The war over “quality” will continue since it represents competing ideologies of parenting, teaching, and learning for young children.

  6. As the universal preschool accolades rose in prominence over the past couple of months, I knew the contentious issue would be this idea of “quality”. While the experts and early childhood educators are often in the “play camp”, the policymakers and the parents are often in the early academic skills camp. The tension won’t be about access and expansion…it’ll be about what happens during the school day. Ironically, if the latter group gets their way, there will be no long term gains and those who oppose the policy will deem it as a failure.

  7. Alfred Miller

    It seems reasonable to assume “Pre-K” education better prepares the child for “K”, but how long does the benefit last ?
    Are there any studies comparing High School Seniors who had “Pre-K” vs those who didn”t have “Pre-K” ?
    Are their grades superior ? Do they routinely score better on college entrance exams ? Do they exhibit greater leadership or greater compatibility ?
    Does “Pre-K” really have long lasting benefits ?

    • larrycuban

      If you enter Google Scholar and look for “research on lasting effects of preschool” you should get a PDF by Stephen Barnett that summarizes the research and should answer some of the questions you asked.

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