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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The National Preschool Debate Intensifies

Educators rave about the benefits of early childhood schooling. So, why don't we support it more?
By Michael Lester
Credit: Veer

Early this year, two dissimilar governors delivered two similar messages.

"Effective preschool education can help make all children ready to learn the day they start school and, more importantly, help close the enormous gap facing children in poverty," announced New York's Eliot Spitzer. He boldly promised to make a high-quality prekindergarten program "available to every child who needs it within the next four years."

Across the continent, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation expanding preschool opportunities in low-performing school districts and providing additional state dollars for building and improving preschool facilities. "Preschool gives our kids the strong foundation they need to be successful in school and in life," said Schwarzenegger.

Spitzer (a Democrat) and Schwarzenegger (a Republican) may not agree about a lot of things, but here's one area where they concur: Preschool education can perform miracles. Children who attend prekindergarten programs have bigger vocabularies and increased math skills, know more letters and more letter-sound associations, and are more familiar with words and book concepts, according to a number of studies.

Nationwide, almost two-thirds (64 percent) of children attend preschool center in the year prior to kindergarten, typically at age four. On any given day, more than five million American youngsters attend some prekindergarten program.

And a preschool day is not just advanced babysitting for busy parents. Kids also practice many key components of the school day, including the importance of routine. That's key for early learners.

"They understand carpet time, clean-up procedures, how to share crayons, or even getting their pants on and off without the teacher's help; that's big," says Steve Malton, kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Parkmead Elementary School, in Walnut Creek, California. "Little kids have only only a certain amount of what's called active working memory. If a large portion of their brain is figuring out what they're going to do next, there's less room there to spend on learning." Result: Preschool has a huge impact on their ability to keep up in class.

Too Much, Too Soon?

So, what's not to love about preschool? Plenty, say critics. "Young children are better off at home," says Michael Smith, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association. "We are in danger of overinstitutionalizing them. A child will develop naturally if the parents give the child what he or she needs most in the formative years -- plenty of love and attention. In this way, the brain can develop freely."

As soon as the subject of schooling before K-12 comes up, another concept quickly follows: testing. That gives some parents the jitters.

"The only way for school programs, including preschool programs, to show accountability of public funding for education is through testing," says Diane Flynn Keith, founder of Universal Preschool. "The only way to prepare children for standardized testing is to teach a standardized curriculum. Standardized preschool curriculum includes reading, writing, math, science, and social sciences at a time when children are developmentally vulnerable and may be irreparably harmed by such a strategy."

That's part of a broader test-them-sooner move across many grades. One pushdown from No Child Left Behind, for instance, is that high-stakes testing now begins as early as the second grade.

"It's not the same kindergarten we went to," says Don Owens, director of public affairs for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYP). "It's not the same kindergarten it was ten years ago. Kindergarten used to be preparation for school, but now it is school. That's why school districts and boards of education are paying attention to what happens before the kids arrive at school."

The result is a desperate tug-of-war between prekindergarten advocates and critics, with the under-six set placed squarely in the middle. In 2006, for instance, the Massachusetts legislature passed, by unanimous vote, an increase in state-funded high-quality prekindergarten programs. Governor Mitt Romney promptly vetoed the bill, calling preschool an "expensive new entitlement."

On the national stage, Oklahoma is the only state to offer publicly funded preschool education to virtually all children (about 90 percent) at age four. But twelve states -- Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming -- provide no preschool services at all.

"There is not enough support for preschool," explains David Kass, executive director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. "It's very expensive, and most parents cannot afford it."

The three costliest states for private preschool are Massachusetts (where preschool runs an average of $9,628 per year), New Jersey ($8,985), and Minnesota ($8,832). In Rhode Island, the average yearly tab for preschool ($7,800) represents 45 percent of the median single-parent-family income. In California, part-time private preschool and child-care programs cost families on average $4,022 statewide. By comparison, the average full-time tuition at a California State University campus was $3,164.

"America is forcing its parents to decide between paying for early education for their kids and saving for their college education," says the NAEYP's Don Owens.

That's when the subject of state-sponsored preschool comes up. Over the past two years, the total state prekindergarten funding increased by a billion dollars to exceed $4.2 billion. But those numbers are often inadequate. After Florida voters approved a preschool-for-all initiative similar to a voucher program, the state legislature appropriated about $390 million -- or roughly $2,500 per child served. Reasonable budgeting for preschool, however, should parallel that for K-12 schools.

"If you're a state like Florida spending $9,000 per student on a yearly full-day program of K-12, your costs for a half day of prekindergarten should be somewhere around $4,500, not $2,500," complains Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

That pattern is true nationwide. In 2002, average state spending was at $4,171 per enrolled child, but that figure fell to $3,482 in 2006, according to the NIEER's 2006 State Preschool Yearbook. Some states spend even less: New Mexico provides $2,269 per child, and Ohio budgets just $2,345. Compare those amounts with the national average of $10,643 for each child enrolled in K-12 schools.

Barnett says Florida and other states are creating a dual system consisting of high-quality, expensive preschools in private settings and underfunded public schools for low-income families.

Credit: Veer

The Survey Says . . .

While the battle over funding continues, it's difficult to dispute the positive effects of preschool not only in better learning in kindergarten but also in long-term educational value. Furthermore, key research findings indicate that those who go through prekindergarten programs are more likely to graduate from high school and make higher wages as adults.

The research recited in support of preschool education usually comes from three long-term studies of low-income families. In the Abecedarian Project, launched in 1972 in rural North Carolina, 57 infants from low-income, African American, primarily single-mother families were randomly assigned to receive early intervention in a high-quality child-care setting; 54 children were assigned to a control group.

Each child had an individualized prescription of educational activities, which consisted of "games" incorporated into the child's day and emphasized language skills. The child care and preschool were provided on a full-day, year-round basis.

Initially, all children tested comparably on mental and motor tests; however, as they moved through the child-care program, preschoolers had much higher scores on mental tests. Follow-up assessments completed at ages 12, 15, and 21 showed that the preschoolers continued to have higher average scores on mental tests. More than one-third of the children who attended preschool went to a four-year college or university; only about 14 percent of the control group did.

Another important research effort was the High/Scope Perry Preschool study, which began in Ypsilanti, Michigan. From 1962 to 1967, 123 children ages 3-4 -- African American children born into poverty and at high risk of failing school -- were randomly divided into one group that received a high-quality preschool program and a comparison group that received no preschool.

These children were evaluated every year, ages 3-11, and again three times during their teens and twice in adulthood. The latest results of this High/Scope study were released in 2004. By the time members of the preschool-provided group reached age 40, they had fewer criminal arrests, displayed higher levels of social functioning, and were more likely to have graduated from high school.

Meanwhile, Chicago's Child-Parent Centers (CPC) have been around for 40 years, and more than 100,000 families have gone through the federally funded program, which still operates in 24 centers. Parents are drawn into the program with classes, activities, and their own resource room at each school site.

A longitudinal study by Arthur Reynolds, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, looked at 1,539 Chicago students enrolled in CPCs in 1985 and 1986 and tracked their progress through 1999. He found they were much more likely to finish high school and less likely to be held back a grade, be placed in special education, or drop out than 389 youngsters who participated in alternative programs. Intervening early improves student achievement and has a cumulative effect: The longer students were enrolled in the CPC programs, the higher their level of school success.

Other shorter-term studies -- and there are many -- argue these kinds of benefits are not limited to at-risk children but extend to middle-income kids as well. But when a family's budget is tight, preschool becomes unaffordable. Less than half of low-income toddlers attend preschool, but half of middle-class four-year-olds and three-quarters of those from high-income families (earning $75,000 or more) attend preschool.

That enrollment gap can have immediate academic consequences, say educators, who note that the lower the family income, the more pronounced the benefits of preschool. "I've worked with a lot of kids and know the achievement gap starts before kids are even in kindergarten," says Kimberly Oliver, a kindergarten teacher from Silver Springs, Maryland, and 2006 National Teacher of the Year (who was featured in this Edutopia.org profile).

Learning While Playing

Many educators appreciate the wide range of positive influences preschool seems to germinate. Debra King, a preschool teacher for 35 years, has run the Debra King School, in San Francisco, for nearly half that time.

"There's been a big push lately to make preschoolers ready for academic learning, to teach children the alphabet and how to write their names," King says. "Many children are developmentally ready to learn these things, but I think socialization skills are more important. I believe that playing with blocks, dolls, and toys, scribbling with crayons, painting, communicating, storytelling, and music -- that's readiness for school. There are a lot of different things to learn to be successful in the world."

That's an important insight. "The original preschool was a place for socialization, but, increasingly, today it has become necessary because of working and single parents," explains David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child and The Power of Play. "And that's muddied the waters, because people think it needs to be an educational thing. We got it turned around and are learning the academic things before we learn the social skills that are prerequisites for formal education."

Elkind believes that phonics, math, and book reading are inappropriate for young children. "There is no research supporting the effectiveness of early academic training and a great deal of evidence that points against it," he says. "The age of six is called the age of reason because children actually develop those abilities to do concrete operations; brain research substantiates this.

"Take reading," he adds. "A child needs to be at the age of reason to understand that one letter of the alphabet can sound different ways. That age might be four, or it might be seven. They all get it; they just get it at different ages."

Elkind argues that toddlers need to learn only three things before entering kindergarten, and they're all socialization skills: listen to adults and follow instructions, complete simple tasks on their own, and work cooperatively with other children.

"Children need to learn the language of things before they learn the language of words," he adds. "They are foreigners in a strange land, and they need to learn about the physical world, they need to explore colors, shape, and time, they need to find out about water and the sky and the stars, and they need to learn about human relations. Much of this learning comes from direct experience."

Sharon Bergen, senior vice president of education and training for the Knowledge Learning Corporation, counters that curriculum and fun are not mutually exclusive: "Children are capable of a lot of development earlier than we thought," she says. "But we don't want their time to be overly structured. We still want kids to have a good, fun, joyful childhood." With prekindergarten education, many people think, we can have it both ways.

Michael Lester is a writer and editor. He recently launched a site about fatherhood, The Dad Company.

Comments (31)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

lalitha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

hallo ms.robles,
i am lalitha,born and brought up in India.we moved to USA three months back. i have a one and half year old baby girl.i am a little concerned about her pre school and schooling.i am not aware of the way of education procedure in USA,so i keep on browsing and thats where i saw your comment on pre school teachers.in india we dont prefer pre schooling.kids start off with their nursary classes at the age of 2 1/2 or 3.its called KG.but does not have anything in common with the KG here.
but my concern is somewhere else.we speak our mother tongue at home.english is of great importance back in india and myself and my husband,who is a software engineer,are good at that.but we rarely use it for our communication other than with friends or with americans. i wonder how my baby will get the fluency and accent as that of american kids .if atall i put her in KG she may catchup lots of words from her tachers and friends.but back at home she will simply carry on our tradition of mother toungue.can u suggest me some way by whilch i can get her grow with a good english with accent?... if in case,unfortunatly, i put her in some pre school,as u mentioned,where teachers r not fluent on the language,my baby will be the last one in the a ababy in KGclass. oh, i am so worri ialso wanted to know what is the right age to put a baby in KG. please help me.


L. Geiger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe Kindergarden should be mandatory, however preschool is an excellent venue for children to experience interaction with other children. Sitting at home watching mommy/daddy be homemakers is not giving them the experiences they need. Interacting with strangers outside of the home (preschool) will prepare them for social interaction as they mature. Education most certainly began in the home, however, preschool is a necessary extension.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

From the statistics I've seen (at http://www.childstats.gov/americaschildren/pop8.asp for example) the majority of young children are not home full time with a parent. If you have to work, someone has to take care of your child for you, at least part of the time.

In the Northwest where I live, when a child turns 3, she or he can graduate to preschool from a pure "daycare" environment. And that's a good thing, from a financial point of view, because preschool ratios allow the cost to be considerably lower than high-quality daycare for very young children. (For example, my 4-day-a-week costs for a 3 year old will drop from $962/month to $672/month.)

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I must say I was a little insulted by the phrase, "Watching mommy/daddy be homemakers"? Are we trying to stay that parents who choose to stay at home with their children are too stupid, ignorant or just plain lazy to provide a decent pre-education program? I would like to think that I, who stay at home with my 9 month old, am quite capable of using the internet, books and educational stores as resources to build a "fun" and educational curriculum for my child. I also won't have 15-20 other children to split my attention between so I can focus purely on his strengths and weaknesses.

I'm also quite capable of organizing "field day trips" to botanical gardens, petting zoos, science centers, museums, the library, etc, in order to broaden my child's horizons. The term "stay at home" parent is just that: a term. We are not chained to the kitchen with just enough leeway to get to the laundry and bathroom. With the myriad of resources out there for parents to research, I do not believe it is correct thinking that a pre-school education can not be taught at home, by a stay at home "mommy/daddy".

As far as interacting with other adults and children, outside the home, that is what playgroups, playgrounds, parks and places like Kid's Town (play town featuring 10 child size houses, each with a theme) & Pump it Up (The Inflatable Party Zone) are for.

ADS's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We are stealing the joy of childhood from our kids. My mom was a grade 3 school teacher, an award winning teacher. She never sent her 3 kids including me to any pre-school or pre-kindergarten. All we attended was a few months of kindergarten and that was it. So we were considered by the system as deficient when we started grade 1. But around grade 4 we caught up and ended up topping our classes and ended up doing very well in life. My mom is no more, but god bless her for her wisdom. She could never fathom the thought that parents would put their small children through this grind, imagining that would get a leg up in life. Children need a lot of love, attention and to be with their parents at this age. That makes them secure, confident and they will bloom on their own. We should not be stealing the joy of their being children for the first 3-4 years of their life. But I am sure the this pre-kindergarten lobby will not let that happen, and I see the reason why. At 10K for a child per year , thats good money.

Luanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I hear what you are saying however, I need to say the children today are living different lives then we lived back in our day. When we were kids families were stronger, the cost of living was lower, family values were stronger then today's world, and kids knew how to play and discover. The key is to provide a NURTURING, well rounded program that meets all the growing needs of young children. I individualize my program to meet each child' interests, abilities, needs, and age appropriate developmental areas: cognitive, physical, social/emotional and language. Many of these children come from single family homes, foster families, or full time working parents. My program is a Community Partnership Program in a public school. If it wasn't for this program some of these families would have to be on welfare because they can't efford daycare. Others would have to put their kids in a daycare and work longer hours to pay for it. I also have 3 children who live with grandparents, which two have said they would have to put them into the system if they didn't get this break because they don't have the energy to meet their growing needs. I have observed non-verbal students become verbally strong. I have seen the joy in 4 1/2 year old learn to write her name. I don't make any of these children do things they are not ready for but I do encourage them to reach for their next challenge. You were very lucky to have the mother you do but today's children aren't lucky enough to have your upbringing. All I can do is give them love and a fun place to learn and PLAY.

Luanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Preschool should only be high quality after all we are setting the foundation for future learning. You make a valid point about low quality programs. I have been in low quality daycare settings and it isn't pretty. These are the programs that often give all preschool programs a bad name. For my job I am "highly qualified" teacher. We work hard to provide nurturing, fun, and learning. Preschool educators are changing and getting more qualified. However, we need the support of our societies.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Are you sure you have all the information, facts, and status. Have you seen a happy faces of the children when they run into their effective classroom to see their highly qualified teacher. LOOK into what our society has become and see it from another's point of view.

Luanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are many dedicated parents and guardians in our world, they deserve their credit. However, the growing need for a double income makes these dedicated parents go to work. Therefore, who takes care of the kids? What about the many broken homes?

mm wv's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your child is very lucky, indeed, to have a mother like you. And it sounds like you're blessed, too, to be able to provide such a home for your child! Unfortunately, the reality for too many children is very different than that of yours. It seems that the MAJORITY of homes these days is strapped--for time, money, and, most importantly, positive contact. As a seventh grade teacher, I see the long-term effects of this lack of communication and time spent. It sometimes seems that no one has ever sat and engaged these kids for more than fifteen minute segments. For many, they don't know how to concentrate, even when they try. This frustration leads to behavior problems or, more often, a defensive unwillingness to try. These results are a detriment to the education of ALL students in the classroom. Even "ideal" students' learning is negatively affected by these distractions.
If, for whatever reason, parents need assistance in providing their children with a strong foundation, that need MUST be met for EVERY CHILD! I can almost imagine how much more science I'd have "extra" time for if all of my students came to my class well-nurtured and eager to learn!!! I believe the difference in every classroom's environment would be astounding!

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