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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 (30)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that pre-school is much more of a demand now than in the past. I've been teaching Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence combining English and Art for the past 5 years in East Asia. I'm currently Teaching in China now with Pre-Schoolers and can definitely see the advantages of early schooling. I taught at a couple of Pre-Schools in New York City where I'm from also and find that the most important learning experience that the parents want their children to have is socializing. However, East Asian parents tend to be more demanding and want them to learn more English and the alphabet and how to write their names. I think that it's a good balance between East and West educational philosophies if the children socialize while learning English and the alphabet together. I find that 99.5% of my day is dedicated to miscommunication problems over here. However, we speak in English and engage in meaning making through art materials and puzzles and crayons and markers like American kids.

Mike Frazier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've read some where that it takes about $50,000 per year to keep a person in jail. The above research indicates that a quality preK program helps to limit the number of people who end up in jail. spending $2500 or even $6,000 a year now seems much better then spending $50,000 or more in 18 years. Why can't the people who make these choices about funding see this?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Some years back, kindergarten was made mandatory to fill this preparation for learning. Kids would do what they know do now in pre-school. So now kindergarten teachers are failing to do what is required, so someone lower on the pole is created to blame. I guess the ultimate conclusion of this is to grab the child as soon as it exits the womb for pre- preschool. Let the children be just that, children. Being home is much more valuable than life with strangers.

Suzanne Steelman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Gone to the public sector everyone?

As the story goes it seems that our kids don't become independent adult's untill about the age of 27yrs. The cost of a college education automatiacally places the majority of them/or parent's in considerable debt.

Programs such as HeadStart already support low income children with preschool.

Economically the cost of public preschools would put additional financial burdens on households and thus add the need for parent's to work longer hours and spend less time with their young children.

Rose Mary Robles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a few suggestions from what I observed as a Spanish-English Bilingual Class-room Reduction teacher of a Kindergarten class & 3rd grade class. The lead teacher, who was from South America, did not speak English well enough much less read & write it. I am fluent in both languages. She would even ask me how to spell in Spanish at times. These children had a hard time understanding her.

I am in accordance with Elkind and would like to add to his beliefs my observation when I tested my 3rd graders. There were many test questions with simple every day English words they never heard of such as sidewalk, globe, lamp, etc. They didn't even know the difference between a stove and an oven. It was all stove to them. In my observations I feel it is extremely important that parents attend pre-school classes with their children. Most of the parents of my students did not have the education or the time to teach these children the basics, not only academically but socially and that includes etiquette. I cannot comprehend how The United States educational system allows to bring in teachers directly from Spain, South, Central America, etc. to teach the pre-school age and K-3.

This does not have to be posted. I would just like to speak up for these children and their parents. I would be more than happy to help in any way I can so that this group of children can do better in testing because it's not lack of intelligence on their part.

Thank you for allowing me to comment on this subject.

Rose Mary Robles

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree with Sharon Bergen... young children are capable of a lot more than we traditionally are led to believe. But if you think about it, it makes sense....after all kids learn all kinds of complex things such as talking, walking, etc. My mother had the luxury of being a stay at home mom and since she was also an early education teacher she was able to provide me with educational opportunities daily from the get-go. I was reading Little House on the Prairie on my own by the age of 2. And at 4 and 5 was writing and illustrating my own creative short stories--a project that was self-initiatied. There's nothing special about me, other than I had the opportunities and the environment that enabled me to gain those skills early on-skills that increased my ability in, and thus enjoyment of, school in later years. It saddens me when as adults we try to claim that educating children early on will institutionalize them, put too much pressure on them, or take the joy out of learning. The implication of such remarks is that learning is not fun in and of itself, and if that's what we convey to our children from the start, that is the only lesson they will take with them. If we give our children educational experiences early on when everything about the world is still a discovery, they can develop a love of learning, a creativity, and a confidence that will last them a lifetime.

Isabel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm not sure what state you are writing from, but in California Kindergarten is not mandatory. I find all this discussion about Preschool interesting because what we should be doing is making Kindergarten mandatory (like grades 1 -12). I am a preschool teacher and highly recommend it to all. I also feel it is imperative to closing the education gap, especially when it comes to English language learners.

Mary Donegan-Ritter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am concerned about some of the misinformation out there. Publicly funded preschool is voluntary so families can choose to enroll their children. Programs like Head Start that serve low income familes have wait lists and reach only about 45% of eligible children. Families who struggle to make ends meet but earn too much to be eligible for programs for low income children are often left with few options- including low quality child care. Publicly funded preschool holds promise of making sure that young children can have access to preschools with specially trained and certified early childhood teachers. These teachers know about the importance of learning through play and hands on activities. Children who are English language learners will be much more likely to enter kindergarten ready to succeed. We should be concerned that states adequately fund preschools so that they are of high quality and can yield positive results.

Lou's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is continual mention of preschool preschool preschool. There is some mention of low quality day care. I'd like to see more focus on children in day care centers which are not accredited. They need the opportunities to learn and grow. They need staff who will talk and talk to them - appropriately. Unfortunately, there will always be warehouses for children, and staff do try, but with the low wages for day care staff, there is regular turnover. I would like to see curriculum with monitored implementation part of day care regulations. I would like to see appropriate pre-school (and earlier) education as part of the requirements for licensing in all states.

linda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Colorado has yet to Mandate Kindergarten. First grade was made mandatory in 2006. As we read along it is very important not to assume that all states follow the same plans.

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