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
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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 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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Tammy Callis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach kindergarten. I agree with both sides of this topic. Children who have one parent at home who interacts with them and does not sit them in front of a video game, computer or TV for 8 hours do well in kindergarten. However, most parents work and preschool is their way of giviing their child the interaction they desire for them to have before they begin school.

Both of my children attended preschool and are honor roll students. My kids would ask to go to preschool because they had fun there.

I love the new preschool program. I think it gives parents a safe environment to leave their child in while they are at work.

I also have several good friends that homeschool their children and they do a great job at it too!


Maureen Grimm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When is it too early? Researchers have done studies which have found that children living in poverty are more "at risk" than those in middle/upper class families. They have then implied that the solution to this problem is to provide "programs" to "fix" these students. I am guessing that their parents don't believe they are broken. None-the-less, the programs are put into place and the children are expected to report. But, how early is too early? Half day kindergarten used to be the norm. Then all day kindergarten took its place, only to be replaced by all day K4, and now we have 3 year olds attending Head Start programs. Where do we stop??? My fear is a future where the government mandates parents to begin sending their babies to school. At what point do we say enough is enough? As a mother I remember sending my son off to kindergarten and realizing that I was giving up my child's upbringing. Someone else would now be with him more hours during the day than I qwould be. Someone else would be having a major influence on his life. This terrified me. I can only imagine how parents feel when they turn their 3 year olds over to the school system. Maybe it's the mother in me, but 3 is just too early for formal education.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am glad you had a wonderful childhood. But what about "Mom's on crack, Dad's in jail". Not so joyful at home. My daughter is a preK teacher and their program only accepts at-risk students. The only way to break the cycle is early intervention. This is much more than an education issue. It is pretty obvious that it is PreK now or Prisons later. Where would you like to spend your money?

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Head Start is a program for children living in POVERTY. I don't see how public preschool would add to the financial burden. It is public education- FREE. My state (Illinois) offers preschool through the school district. We are licensed teachers and we have a full time aide in our room. The parents are not charged anything but for supplies (which is about $10). Children have to be screened and be eligible to be in the program- meaning the are considered "at risk". Unfortunatly, there are preschools that have given preschool a bad name.

Kristina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with many of the others that children can benefit greatly from being home with caring adults during their 3-4 years. However, for families who must work and do not have this option, preschool allows them an oppotunity to have their child in a safe, secure, and educational environment. I work with a full day preschool program targeted for families who are working, and I have seen how satisified the parents are with having their child there. The students love the program as well and we have parents who tell us that their child is upset when preschool is closed. I think we need to keep in mind that there are many high quality preschool and child care programs out there that are providing a great service to families.

Amy Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anonymous, because there are some loser parents out there EVERYONE should be required to send their babies to school? Why should all of us be forced to do something we don't want to do because of a minority that shouldn't have had kids and that can't get their crap together? You are SO wrong on this. I'll be damned if you tell me that MY, MY children need to go to preschool or pre-K. Only I know what's best for them, NOT you or some idiots trying to get more money. I read to both of my children every day and take them outside and explain what we are looking at. As I go through the day, I explain what we are doing and listen to them and provide feedback. At 2.5 years old my daughter is trying to write her name, counts up to six, knows most of the alphabet in order, and is very empathetic and sharing. She speaks in complete sentences most of the time and helps dress her little brother. My one-year-old son is empathetic, says a few words, tries to repeat other words, and plays well with others. So don't tell me that because of screwups in the world that kids need preschool. LET THEM BE KIDS. Recess is already being taken away from kids to make the school day longer, and now we have a nation of fat lazy kids that are draining the healthcare industry.

Linda 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems like stay-at-home moms are being penalized for being able/choosing to do so. If someone has to work and put their kids in daycare, that's not my fault. Why would my kid have to go to preschool just because yours is in daycare? My son is six years old, going into first grade, never went to daycare or preschool, and reads at a fourth grade level. He has been able to write his name since the age of three, knew his alphabet at two and his second word was "one." I stayed at home because it was cheaper than me working just to put him in daycare. What is wrong with having kids at home until they go to kindergarten? I never kept him locked up away from other kids and sat him in front of the TV. Quit generalizing everyone and let everyone live their own lives. I have seen a lot of daycare and preschool kids that are bratty, don't pay attention, and are behind other kids their age, so putting them in school when they should BE ALLOWED TO BE CHILDREN obviously didn't work for them. Do what you want with your own kids, but don't go cramming your beliefs down other people's throats. You don't have that right. LET KIDS BE KIDS. Quit forcing your warped agenda on others.

Jill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an educator I am offended by the tone of the comments from some ot the writers. Whether or not to stay at home, go to work or somewhere in between, does not require a value judgement nor a verbal attack on one's choices. Stay at home parents are not to be reprimanded nor applauded for their choice or possibly their good forntune to be able to have the choice to stay at home. It is my belief that preschool age children will blossom whether they stay at home, go part-time to a preschool program or are in full-time school/day care situations as long as the environment fosters creativity, independence and positive self-esteem. If the provider, parent, grandparent, child care provider teacher consistantly develops routines, activities and developmental learning opportunities with care, thoughtfulness and attention, then no matter where the child is, he or she will flourish. It is only in situations, either at home or otherwise that does not attend to the needs of the child, is not aware of child development, and/or is not capable of meeting the needs of the child will the child wither. Each model for teaching a child is acceptabe as long as their is quality attached.

LisaDeNardi's picture

The majority of research conducted in preschools involves children from low-income families. There is not enough evidence to support funding preschool for children from all income brackets. America should not implement universal preschool because it ignores the scarcity of government funding, removes crucial resources from those with the greatest need, and dilutes the quality of education provided. With finite funding, the government must determine which programs are the most effective and the most needed. While recent research shows that children from middle-income families exhibit significant gains from preschool, it is low-income children that show the most dramatic gains. Targeted preschool, such as the Head Start program and state-funded subsidies, is aimed at low-income families. Adding middle- and higher-income children to the pool will take focus away from those that need preschool in order to catch up to peers. The amount of money spent per child on early education is a quality measure that contributes to positive outcomes. Funding preschool for all four year olds in America will reduce the dollar amount spent per child, and will decrease the overall quality of education. Federal and state funding should continue to be directed toward programs, such as Head Start and state vouchers, for children from low-income families.

Rebecca C's picture

Thank you for your post! I wholeheartedly agree that so long as one "consistently develops routines, activities and developmental learning opportunities with care, thoughtfulness, and attention" it really does not matter where the child is, be it in the home or a formal institution. Indeed, it is sad that often the discussion turns to a blame game on "bad parents" or "bad teachers." I also detest the misconception that learning and development is some synthetic entity that must be manufactured and delivered in a precise and cookie-cutter way by qualified experts. Everything a child takes in is an educational experience, and it is up to the caretakers in his/her life to guide those experiences in a constructive fashion.


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