History Lessons about Preschools in U.S.

“Our four-year-olds do have a place in school, but it is not at a school desk,” said Ed Zigler, Yale University psychologist who helped design Head Start in President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and led the Office of Child Development in President Nixon’s administration. He wanted K-12 systems to welcome all young children but was concerned about pre-kindergartens becoming another academic boot camp for four-year-olds.

Many others, however, were strongly opposed to putting preschoolers into an already bureaucratized, ineffective K-12 system. For example, the head of the Commonwealth Foundation (PA) asked: “Would you hire a carpenter to remodel the first floor of your home if he was already working on the second and third floors and doing a poor job? Would you expect the results on the second and third floors to improve just because the carpenter was also remodeling the first floor?”

Both quotes stake out different positions on the significant policy question whether preschools for all children should be part of the existing K-12 system–as it is in Oklahoma, New York, Georgia, and New Jersey–or be part of the private market for child care in homes, churches, and corporate-owned facilities as it has been in most cities and suburbs for decades or, another option, a mix of public schools and private child care. These policy options capture the dilemma facing decision-makers on the issue of expanding access of three- and four-year-olds to preschool in the U.S.

The quotes come from Elizabeth Rose’s historical study (pp. 98, 179) of early childhood education from Head Start to universal preschool called The Promise of Preschool.
In tracing the trajectory of publicly-funded preschools since the mid-1960s, Rose points out how important business leaders were in the political coalition that pressed state and federal policymakers for expanded preschools in the 1970s and their continued presence since then.

“Corporate reformers,” as critics have labeled current reform advocates, include CEOs. They have been crucial members of the political coalition promoting both targeted access (only for poor children) and preschools for all children. With so much rhetoric flung  at “corporate reformers” (see here and here), it is worthwhile to remember that educational policy making is largely a political process that needs a big tent to cover a wide array of supporters.

Rose does more than tell readers of the role that business leaders had in driving the expansion of preschools for poor and middle-class children over the past half-century. In describing and analyzing the history of preschools since the mid-1960s until the present, historian Rose presents recurring policy dilemmas–re-read above quotes for divergent policy choices–and extracts a number of lessons that can inform current policy decisions. There are a few lessons that she lists that I would like to elaborate in this post.

* Inflated claims of what preschools can do for all three- and four-year-olds  are seldom achieved.

Just as hype surrounds the newest technological innovation for schools to buy and deploy, similar exaggerations accompany expanding preschool. Listen to a state superintendent of education touting preschools:

“It’s like finding out there’s an effective polio vaccine. Once you have seen the … evidence of what preschool can do for children, it becomes almost obscene not to call for universal preschool (Rose, p. 226). Or the governor of Oregon saying that expanding Head Start would be “the most significant–and most effective–anti-drug, anti-crime, and pro-education strategy” for the nation (Rose, p. 225). That providing preschool can solve larger social problems as poverty, crime, and drugs is like saying that doing exercises regularly when you are three- and four-years old will mean you will be physically fit for the rest of your life.

Life doesn’t work that way.  Preschools do not innoculate young children for the rest of their lives from pursuing bad habits, making poor choices, and avoiding mistakes.

Hyping preschools (or new technologies) may help mobilize initial political support but, historically, has led to unrealistic expectations for what can be achieved resulting in  disappointment and splintered coalitions.

*Historically, framing preschool as education rather than child care has succeeded  politically.  Yet divorcing one from the other is a policy error because U.S. families need both high-quality child care provided by private and community care-givers  and high-quality public schooling.

Business and civic leaders, educators, and parents chose strategically since the 1980s to frame preschooling as an educational issue because they believed that it paid off as an investment and was at or near the top of issues voters and taxpayers ranked as important for decision-makers to address. In doing so, advocates  stressed the importance of four-year-olds learning academic skills, having well-trained teachers, and access to proper facilities.  Calling preschool “pre-kindergarten” made it part of the K-12 system. It was a strategic decision that has worked.

In making the choice, however, promoters of “pre-kindergarten” easily slipped into denigrating child care as “custodial” and “warehousing.” Moreover, policy and voter attention shifted from just-as-important needs of infants and toddlers for high-quality child care to getting young children ready for kindergarten. Some states such as Illinois and New York have provided a full range of programs for infants through five-year-olds recognizing that both first-rate child care and preschools are needed.

These are a few of the lessons that Elizabeth Rose has drawn from her study of past and current efforts to alter the schooling and care of the young in the U.S.


Filed under school reform policies

4 responses to “History Lessons about Preschools in U.S.

  1. Great post. I’m troubled by efforts I see to push reading lessons into pre-schools. If you try to teach a kid how to read who isn’t developmentally ready, you just might create a kid who hates school at an early stage. Keep up the good work.

  2. Ian Rae

    Interesting. Dr Fraser Mustard was a big advocate for early childhood education. The most recent reports says:


    “The main recommendation was that children as young as 2-years-old should start receiving formal education, due to the “avalanche of evidence”.[20] This education should be community-based, and voluntary, leaving parents to decide how much time they want their children in these programs”

    Not sure how ‘formal education’ matches the goals in the second sentence.

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