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Universal Preschool: Is It Necessary?

September/October 2009

Everybody seems to have an opinion about preschool. Ask your neighbor or local coffee barista—chances are, they’ll have strong feelings about how preschool should be taught, where it should be offered, and who should pay for it. And right now, the discussion is more heated than ever.

The recent buzz is fueled by the early-education-friendly Obama administration and increased investments by states in preschool programs. Advocates tout quality preschool for all as a way to close the achievement gap and improve school performance. Skeptics question the need for government-sponsored programs beyond ones that help only those in dire and immediate need.

While many educators, policy makers, and parents agree on the merits of universal preschool, the controversy often centers on public financing. Is this how we want to spend public money? Also, many are wondering how new initiatives will impact K–12 curriculum, standards, and testing. As states experiment with different approaches and preschool research continues, educators are watching closely and looking for the best way to shape how programs are rolled out in their districts.

Preschool Snapshot

today, more than 80 percent of 4-year-olds attend preschool in the US. About half of those are enrolled in a public program, such as state pre-kindergarten (preK), Head Start, or special education, and the other half are in a private program, according to The State of Preschool 2008 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Of the 38 states that have state-funded programs, 33 increased enrollment in 2008, and funding per child rose from about $4,100 to $4,600 in the past year.

When it comes to public preschool, the action is at the state level. As a result, we’re contending with a patchwork of programs that reflect differing state cultures, economics, and public opinion.

A decade ago, Oklahoma began funding preK programs like it does grades K–12. Parents have the option of sending their 4-year-olds to public preK, and 72 percent take advantage of the program.

Florida, on the other hand, opted for a voucher program. In 2002, voters passed a state ballot initiative to create high-quality preK learning opportunities for families. Parents receive portable vouchers to use at preschools of their choice, including many in community-based organizations (CBOs). “The focus is on developmentally appropriate pre-academic skills,” says Shan Goff, executive director of the Office of Early Learning in Florida. “We typically underestimate what 4-year-olds can do.” The system is big on accountability. Kids are screened within the first month of kindergarten to see if their preschool programs prepared them adequately. If the readiness rate does not meet the standard, providers can be sanctioned.

A 1998 court order to equalize educational opportunity in New Jersey mandated the state provide free preschool to children in the state’s poorest districts. Here, the aim is to balance child-centered and teacher-directed activities, steering away from an academic label, according to Ellen Wolock, director of the Office of Preschool Education in New Jersey. While the program first targeted low-income kids in schools and CBOs, the hope is to expand the option to more of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds.

“States are great laboratories,” says Libby Doggett, deputy director of the Pew Center on the States and head of its PreK Now efforts. “The research is clear that it is an important time in a child’s development. When you have a high-quality program, you see lasting gains for the school, the community, and the child.” Pew is in year eight of a 10-year campaign to promote quality preschool for all.

At the federal level, President Obama has been a longtime supporter of early childhood education. Advances in public preschool will likely happen at the state level, but there is some hope that there can be a national movement to agree on universal principles of preschool, says Barbara Bowman, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. There is tension between local control and the desire to have continuity across the country so that all kids come into school ready to learn, she says.

The president’s 2010 budget includes an increased investment in early childhood education. The budget calls for a $122 million increase in Head Start funding (to its annual $6 billion allocation). “We are not serving anywhere near the eligible children,” says Bowman. “The push now is to make sure we’ve gotten all children who, because of poverty, would be disadvantaged in school.” While Head Start has helped decrease the achievement gap for low-income kids, it has not erased it, says Bowman.

Many young children still do not enter kindergarten ready to be successful, and they may never make up that gap. When Head Start was created in 1965, its goals were broad, reaching out to families to help improve nutrition, physical and mental health, social services, parenting, and education. Recent research of the program shows only a small-to-moderate positive impact. The push now is to shift Head Start’s focus to academic readiness.

The administration budget also includes $300 million for an Early Learning Challenge Fund to help states create “zero-to-five systems” to prepare children for kindergarten and a voluntary home visitation program to reach out to families of children 3 and under.

The Case for Universal Preschool
“Preschool can dramatically improve the quality of education that all kids receive,” says W. Steven Barnett, codirector of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Research has shown positive effects on learning and development in both small- and large-scale public programs—and preschool effects don’t vanish over time, he says. Experts often cite the positive impact on participants in Michigan’s Perry Preschool Project, North Carolina’s Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Center.

Economists say that the return for every dollar invested in preschool can be anywhere from $2 to $17 when you total the drop in special education, grade repetition, and crime, and add the value of a more productive workforce. “There is strong evidence that there are effective programs,” says Lynn Karoly, a senior economist with Rand Corporation in Philadelphia. But the biggest benefit seems to be for the most disadvantaged—the more universal, the lower the return.

“One of the challenges with investment in human capital is that the returns are downstream—five, 10, or 15 years,” says Karoly. “It’s hard for politicians to have to pony up money now when the returns will come long after they are gone.”

Support for public preschool can be found on both sides of the political aisle, says Doggett, of the Pew Center. Expanding it to the middle class broadens the appeal. “The gap we see in learning is a gap that occurs before children enter school,” says Doggett. “In the first five years, we need to do a better job so kids enter on a level playing field.” In the 2008 report The PreK Pinch: Early Education and the Middle Class, Pew maintains that eligibility requirements and high costs leave middle-class families either sacrificing household needs to pay for early childhood care or being stuck with low-quality options.

In the first few weeks of kindergarten, says teacher Kim Oliver Burnim of Silver Spring, Maryland, she could see recognizable learning gaps between students who were in substandard day care versus those in quality preschool. “The most learning we ever do in life is from zero to five years. Many kids are at a disadvantage,” says the 32-year-old 2006 National Teacher of the Year. Schools should tap into those early years, when kids are most receptive to learning, Burnim stresses.

If quality preschool were available to all students, Burnim says, she could spend less time in remediation and have fewer reading group levels. When kids try to squeeze in too much during kindergarten to catch up, they may burn out, she adds.

One Size Fits All?
despite the evidence that quality preschool can help poor kids, some feel that expanding public preK is not the best option. In his new book, Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut, Chester Finn Jr. argues that most 3- and 4-year-olds are already in preschool or day care and arrive in kindergarten ready to succeed.

“The universal approach offers an unnecessary, entitlement-style windfall to millions of families that have made their own satisfactory preschool arrangements without it,” says Finn, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.
For kids who are deeply disadvantaged, universal preschool is not sufficient to prepare them for kindergarten, maintains Finn. And an intensive program isn’t something that all parents would tolerate for their kids. Programs targeted at kids who need it most are a better use of public dollars, says Finn.

The “one size fits all” approach to preschool is what is fueling the push-back, writes Bruce Fuller in his book Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle Over Early Education.

“Quality preschool holds lasting effects for poor children, but the benefits for middle-class kids don’t appear to make a comparable difference,” says Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Critics question whether the preschool program studies lauded by advocates can or should be replicated on a larger scale.

The universal approach doesn’t take into account the diverse needs of families, Fuller adds. “What makes me nervous is the cookie-cutter approach of someone in Washington saying, We’ll run all preschools through the public schools and test in the same way—that kind of standardization,” says Fuller. “Once we have centralized administration of preschool, we tend to see hyper-standardization of what goes on inside of classrooms.”

Some educators fear that universal preschool will mean worksheets replacing colorful activity centers, writes Fuller. Testing pressure could trickle down. Kindergartners should not be taught how to fill out multiple-choice bubble-sheet exams or practice vocabulary words on the first-grade tests, as is happening in some schools, says Fuller.

Neal McCluskey, associate director of Cato’s Center for Education Freedom in Washington, D.C., is skeptical that expanding preschool will improve education. “It’s sort of like a tsunami. Five years ago, there was not a lot of talk about preschool education as being an extremely potent education reform,” he says. “Suddenly preschool is one of the most important things being talked about, one of the most powerful forces in education reform. I think a lot of people were actually a little shocked by it."

What’s Next, and Your Role
public preschool will likely remain a state responsibility, but with federal support. Proponents emphasize the need for quality programs. While preschool for all may be the ideal, most agree that it’s important to start with programs that cover children most in need.

“I’m not sure we’ve done as good of a job as we need to selling the public,” says Education Secretary adviser Bowman. If the United States wants to be competitive in the global market, Bowman contends, it needs to do as Japan and other countries have and make the investment in early childhood education.

There are two things that make her hopeful that all states will eventually have universal preschool: scientific research that underscores the importance of brain development in the first six years of life and evidence from the states that public preschool programs are effective.

In New Jersey, students who attended a high-quality public preK outperform their peers in language, literacy, and math through the second grade, according to the 2009 APPLES Blossom study. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, preK has had a significant impact on all children, not just low-income or “at risk” kids, in improving cognitive development, according to the 2008 report Preschool Programs Can Boost School Readiness.

So if public preschool is expanding in your district, how can you make it work? Build partnerships with community organizations, suggests Fuller. Many nonprofits run preschools, and schools can build upon their track records.

Open a dialogue between preschool teachers and elementary school teachers to ease the transition for students. In Orange, New Jersey, a meeting of preschool and kindergarten teachers was called to break down barriers. “We thought the meeting would be a little charged, but it wasn’t,” says Jacquelyn Blanton, supervisor of 51 preK classrooms. The benefits of preschool may be more profound when there is collaboration between preschool and elementary school teachers. Principals should also know more about how young children learn, says Bowman, so they can effectively supervise and coach preK classes.

When done right, preschool can be a win-win for kids and schools. Teachers working with preschool children, such as Jennifer Rosenbaum, a teacher in the Washington, D.C., public schools, are encouraged by the growth they see in our youngest students. “The kids are varied at the beginning of the year. Some are able to spell their names and some don’t know the difference between a letter and a number,” she says. “By the end of the year, the progress is amazing. Kids go to kindergarten with the foundational skills to know how to be in school. The earlier you start, the better off kids will be.”




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