Tag Archives: Preschool education

Does Pre-Kindergarten Education Work – or Not? (Isabel Sawhill)

Making policy to improve schooling has been popular for the past century. And constant. Because making policy is a political decision and schools have been vulnerable to every gust of the reform wind, research and best-available- evidence has played a part in that decision-making process. The past three U.S. Presidents and Congress have supported pre-kindergarten programs with both words and dollars. Yet critics have pointed out shortcomings to both the research and argument for bringing three- and four year-olds into a school-like setting. Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., summarizes well the point-counterpoint of the policy debate. This op-ed appeared April 19, 2016.


In this tumultuous election year one wonders whether reasoned debate about education or other policies is still possible. That said, research has a role to play in helping policymakers make good decisions – if not before than after they are in office. So what do we know about the ability of early education to change children’s lives? At the moment, scholars are divided. One camp argues that pre-k doesn’t work, suggesting that it would be a mistake to expand it. Another camp believes that it is one of the most cost-effective things we could do to improve children’s lifetime prospects, especially if they come from disadvantaged homes.

The pre-k advocates cite several earlier demonstrations, such as the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs. These have been rigorously evaluated and found to improve children’s long-term success, including less use of special education, increases in high school graduation, reduced crime, and higher earnings. Participants in the Abecedarian program, for example, earned 60 percent more than controls by age 30. Mothers benefit as well since more of them are able to work. The Abecedarian project increased maternal earnings by $90,000 over the course of the mother’s career. Finally, by reducing crime, improving health, and decreasing the need for government assistance, these programs also reduce the burden on taxpayers. According to one estimate, the programs even increase GDP to the tune of $30 to $80 billion (in 2015 dollars) once the children have moved into and through their working lives. A careful summary of all this research can be found in this year’s Economic Report of the President. The Report notes, and I would emphasize, that no one study can do justice to this issue, and not every program has been successful, but the weight of the evidence points strongly to the overall success of high-quality programs. This includes not just the small, very intensive model programs, but importantly the large, publically-funded pre-school programs such as those in Boston, Tulsa, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Some estimates put the ratio of benefits to costs at $7 to $1. Very few investments promise such a large return. Pre-k advocates admit that any gains in IQ may fade but that boosts to nonacademic skills such as self-control, motivation, and planning have long-term effects that have been documented in studies of siblings exposed to differing amounts of early education.

The pre-k critics point to findings from rigorous evaluations of the national Head Start program and of a state-wide program in Tennessee. These studies found that any gains from pre-k at the end of the program had faded by the time the children were in elementary school. They argue that the positive results from earlier model programs, such as Perry and Abecedarian, may have been the result of their small scale, their intensity, and the fact that the children involved had few alternative sources of care or early education. Children with more than adequate home environments or good substitute child care do not benefit as much, or at all, from participating in a pre-k program. In my view, this is an argument for targeted programs or for a universal program with a sliding scale fee for those who participate. In the meantime, it is too early to know what the longer-term effects of current programs will be. Despite their current popularity among scholars, one big problem with randomized controlled trials (RCTs) is that it takes a generation to get the

answers you need. And, as is the case with Perry and Abecedarian, by the time you get them, they may no longer be relevant to contemporary environments in which mothers are better educated and more children have access to out-of-home care.

In the end, you can’t make public policy with RCTs alone. We need to incorporate lessons from neuroscience about the critical changes to the brain that occur in early childhood and the insights of specialists in child development. We need to consider what happens to non-cognitive skills over the longer term. We need to worry about the plight of working mothers, especially single parents, who cannot work without some form of out-of-home care. Providing that care on the cheap may turn out to be penny wise and pound foolish. (A universal child care program in Quebec funded at $5 a day led to worse behavior among the kids in the program.) Of course we need to continuously improve the effectiveness of pre-k through ongoing evaluation. That means weeding out ineffective programs along with improving curriculum, teacher preparation and pay, and better follow-up in the early grades. Good quality pre-k works; bad-quality does not. For the most disadvantaged children, it may require intervening much earlier than age 3 or 4 as the Abecedarian program did — with strikingly good results.

Our society is coming apart. Scholars from AEI’s Charles Murray to Harvard’s Robert Putnam agree on that point. Anything that can improve the lives of the next generation should command our attention. The evidence will never be air-tight. But once one adds it all up, investing in high quality pre-k looks like a good bet to me.



Filed under preschool, school reform policies

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

Cartoons on Preschool

Recently, I posted two pieces on preschools. In writing those pieces, I began collecting cartoons.  Cartoonists exaggerate key ideas–thus, the humor–driving the national passion for starting school earlier and earlier, collecting credentials in the race to get into college, pushing toddlers up the ladder of financial success, and giving Mommy and Daddy a break from racing around. Often, they poke at the pretentiousness of middle- and upper-middle class parents seeking the edge for their three year-old. So here they are in a monthly feature of my blog.* Enjoy!

an A in finger painting











*For earlier monthly posts featuring cartoons, see: “Digital Kids in School,” “Testing,” “Blaming Is So American,”  “Accountability in Action,” “Charter Schools,” and “Age-graded Schools,” Students and Teachers, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Digital Teachers, Addiction to Electronic DevicesTesting, Testing, and Testing, Business and Schools, Common Core Standards, Problems and Dilemmas, Digital Natives (2),  Online Courses,  , Students and Teachers Again, “Doctors and Teachers,” and Parent/teacher conferences.

Leave a comment

Filed under preschool

Education and Inequalities in the U.S. (Sean Reardon)

Sean Reardon is a professor at Stanford University. This piece appeared in the Boston Review, December 1, 2011.

Education has long been the primary pathway to social mobility in the United States. The American Dream—the idea that one’s family origin is no barrier to economic success—is plausible to the extent that we believe that our schools provide all students with equal opportunity to develop skills that will enable them to succeed in our complex society. Without such opportunity, hope for social mobility dims.

So when we ask whether America is becoming more or less equal, we should ask not only whether income and political power are becoming more unequally distributed (they are), but also whether the opportunity for social mobility is declining. We should ask whether children from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to succeed in life.

Increasingly, the answer seems to be no.

It is well known that economic inequality has been growing in the U.S. since the 1970s. Less well known, however, is the fact that inequality in educational success has also been growing. The difference in average academic skills between high and low-income students is now 30–40 percent larger than it was 30 years ago. Indeed, the difference in average test scores between high- and low-income students is now much larger than the difference between black and white students. Likewise, the college completion rate for children from high-income families has grown sharply in the last few decades, while the completion rate for students from low-income families has barely moved. [PDF]

This rising gap in academic skills and college completion has come at a time when the economy relies increasingly on well-educated workers. Largely gone are the manufacturing jobs that provided a middle-class wage but did not require a college degree. In today’s economy, young men and women without college degrees are increasingly consigned to low-wage jobs with little opportunity for advancement. So family background has become increasingly determinative of educational success, and educational success, in turn, has become increasingly determinative of economic success. The American dream has moved farther out of reach for lower-income children.

What has caused this rise in educational inequality? Contrary to popular rhetoric, our schools are not worse than they used to be. The average nine-year-old today has math skills equivalent to those of the average eleven-year-old 30 years ago. Nor have test scores or college completion rates for students from low-income families declined; they simply haven’t risen nearly as fast as those of high-income students. Although there are striking inequalities in the quality of schools available to children from low- and high-income families, these inequalities do not appear larger than in the past. Furthermore, if schools were responsible for widening educational inequality, we would expect that test-score gap to widen as students progress through school. But this does not happen. The test-score gap between eighth-grade students from high- and low-income families is no larger than the school-readiness gap among kindergarteners. The roots of widening educational inequality appear to lie in early childhood, not in schools.

So what has been happening in early childhood? Rising neighborhood segregation by income means that low-income children are more likely to grow up in poor neighborhoods [PDF] where they have less access to high-quality child care and pre-school. High-income families, by contrast, increasingly invest more of their income [PDF] in their children. They spend more on preschool and early childhood education than they used to, more on tutors and lessons, on private school tuition, and on college. This is a reasonable response to an economy where educational success is increasingly important in securing a middle-class job. The problem, of course, is that lower-income families have not seen their income grow at the same rate as have upper-income families, and so they have not been able to increase their investment in their children. Stagnant incomes have left the poor and working-class without the resources to give their children the improved educational opportunities and supports that the children of the rich enjoy.

What can we do about this problem? The most effective way of narrowing the academic achievement gap would be to ensure that all children have access to secure, stable, and cognitively stimulating environments in early childhood, both at home and in child-care or preschool settings. And the best way to do that is ensure that we have an economy that provides families with stable incomes at a living wage. We need jobs, we need affordable health care, and we need a social safety net to support families through the hard times between jobs. We also need high-quality child-care and preschool programs for low- and middle-income children. We need programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership, in which nurses make home visits to help low-income first-time mothers develop effective parenting skills.

These do not sound like education policies, perhaps, but the best way to reduce inequality in educational outcomes is to ensure that all students start school on a more even footing. Schools alone are unlikely to remedy the very large disparities among children entering the kindergarten door. We can—and must—do more to improve our schools, of course—particularly those schools that enroll low-income students. But schools alone cannot save the American Dream.


Filed under school reform policies

Preschools in China, Japan, and the U.S.

I recently read an unusual study of preschools in three nations. In 1989, Joseph Tobin and colleagues published their book Preschools in Three Cultures: Japan, China, and the United States. What is unusual is that Joseph Tobin, an anthropologist put together another team of Chinese and Japanese scholars (an educational psychologist and cultural psychologist) to return to the very same schools over a decade later. The result is Preschools in Three Cultures Revisited (2009).

Using extensive videotaping and interviewing of preschool teachers,  administrators, and national experts they sought to find out how much change had occurred in the preschools they revisited that was spurred by the exponential pace of globalization since the initial study and how much cultural continuity persisted in norms and practices.

Change and continuity over time in social, political, and economic institutions is what historians study. For anthropologists and psychologists, however, to include the dimension of time makes their revisiting preschools in three cultures unusual.

When most people think of preschools for three and four year-olds here and abroad, they (and I) assume that these young children have similar needs, interests, and abilities. What Tobin and other researchers found, of course, is that preschools in other nations are very different from one another largely because of culture. The central question the authors ask in revisiting these schools a generation later is: Have the cultural differences that made these preschools in the mid-1980s distinct persisted or had increased globalization made Chinese, Japanese, and US preschools more alike with losses in their cultural distinctiveness?

If you want to take a crack at answering the question, look at this 15-minute video that Tobin and his colleagues pulled together from 1984 and 2002 film clips to compare each of the preschools–they added one in Shanghai  for 2002. Surely, a 15-minute video is insufficient to answer the question. So however you respond, it is clear that all you have are fragments, not the whole picture that these ethnographers compiled. (To access the video go to this document . In Introduction scroll down to fourth paragraph where you will see Fig. 1. Double click on Fig. 1 and photo and video will appear).

Here is how Tobin and his colleagues answered the question in 2009:

“A simple version of our findings would be that over the past 20 years Chinese preschools changed a lot, Japanese preschools not very much, and U.S. preschools are somewhere in between…. The more complicated, nuanced version of this story is that there is more continuity than meets the eye in China’s early childhood educational change, more dynamism and angst in Japan’s continuity of preschool practices and beliefs than is conveyed by the term ‘continuity,’ and more class and ideological tensions in the U.S. contemporary situation than is conveyed by the narrative of a country inching toward creating a national system of preprimary education” (p. 224).

Consider what the authors found in Chinese preschools:

“In contemporary China, modernization of early childhood education means more individualized education, with a focus on the rights of the child and on promoting independence and creativity….Many of the new approaches …  we have described including the Story Telling King and sociodramatic play  activities … are concerned with producing … children who will grow up to be socially minded and recognizably Chinese (p.227).”

In Japanese preschools where typical student/teacher ratios are 20 to 30 to one, authors found “an emphasis on children’s free play and de-emphasis on academic readiness” but with practices that continue to “support the development in young children of such traditional Japanese values as omoiyari (empathy), kejime (the ability to change one’s behavior according to context), and shudan shugi (social-mindedness)” (p. 240). In Japan, “there is a general consensus that preschools have an inherently conservative function, which is to protect children from the negative effect of [globalization]” (p.229).

And in U.S. preschools?

“In 1985, preschools … were largely free to teach as they wished, emphasizing play or learning, setting their own cognitive, academic, and social outcomes for children, arranging their classrooms … without needing to follow a set of guidelines…. Today in the U.S. … preschools are increasingly under pressure to comply with external governmental and professional organization standards in their curriculum, classroom set-up, and their learning outcomes…The play oriented curricula, whole language approaches to literacy and child-centered pedagogies that were seen as best practices … are now critiqued … as old-fashioned, ideologically driven, and unscientific”(pp. 230-231).

Yet practices in U.S. preschools persist that “reflect a core cultural logic that is largely shared across the philosophical/ideological spectrum. These practices include an emphasis on [individual] choice, self-expression, and the quality of the .. relationship between teacher and child in her class” (pp. 243-244).

Both change and cultural continuity show up in the these preschools at two different points in time.


Filed under Reforming schools