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Universal preschool: Important but no panacea

President Obama at a preschool in Georgia President Obama at a preschool in Georgia

President Obama just released his proposed 2014 budget, which includes a push for universal preschool for low- and middle-income four year olds, fulfilling a promise he made in his recent State of the Union message.

Research over the years has shown that quality preschool programs benefit all children, especially those from disadvantaged families. (You can see a review of what the research says and doesn’t say here.

There is good reason to applaud the Obama effort to expand preschool, but also to take note that expanding access is not enough. Here is a post that looks at all of this by Larry Cuban, a high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA), and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His new book is “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” This post appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

In the political gridlock that has marked cutting federal budgets, gun control, and immigration legislation, one issue brings together both CEOs and educational progressives, political conservatives and liberals: investing in tax-supported preschool for three and four year-olds. President Obama has called for increasing children’s access to prekindergarten and assembled legislators applauded across the aisle separating political parties.

He said in his recent State of the Union speech:

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.  But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.  Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool.  And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.  So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.  (Applause.)


Reasons for expanding access to prekindergarten run from the Alabama leader who said: “We’re trying to invest in a work force that can compete in 20 years with other states and other nations”–which President Obama would nod in agreement with–to experts on brain development who say: “Children are born ready to learn. They cultivate 85 percent of their intellect, personality and skills by age five” (brain_dev_and_early_learning, p. 1).

Yet supporters of greater access for all children have their work cut out for them. Over the past decade, many states (e.g., Illinois, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma) have increased access for families through Universal PreKindergarten (UPK) modeled after Head Start and similar full-service efforts. Even with the spread of these state-funded programs and extensive media attention, variation in access for toddlers across the U.S. ranges from over 70 percent to none (see graphic). As a result, the United States ranks 28th out of 38 nations offering parents entry to preschool. Mexico, France, Spain, and Netherlands have 95 percent of their children in preschool while the U.S. registers far below that, a fact that often goes unnoted by media compared to the attention that international test score rankings receive.

Even amid federal and state budget retrenchment, the political coalition of business and civic leaders, political conservatives and liberals has continued its lobbying and marginal gains in enrollment have occurred. But getting “high-quality” preschools, that is another matter. Different versions  of “good” programs serving three- and four-year-olds are contested.

Should preschool be boot camp for kindergarten or a place where very young children, as Alison Gopnik put it, “be allowed to explore, inquire, play, and discover?”

None of this ideological see-sawing about the content of preschools is new, of course. Over the past two centuries,  child-rearing experts have advised moms to be strict and permissive, be parent-centered and child-centered. Since the invention of nurseries and preschools decades ago, a similar back-and-forth movement between preparing toddlers for the cognitive demands of schools or developing the whole child (and, yes, mixes of both) have had their champions again and again.

For the past three decades, national fears of being outstripped in global economic competition have spilled over public schools with a reform agenda that places primary attention upon  standards, testing, accountability, and charter schools. That agenda has trickled down into both public and private preschools.

*Many private and public preschools require cognitive skills tests.

*Preschool charter schools have been established.

*There are accountability standards for preschools.

But not for all preschools. Progressive ones looking to develop the “whole child”–a phrase that prompts snickers if not ridicule in many elite reformer circles–flourish below the radar. Such schools are, in this climate, mostly private (see here). Some, however, are public. Many parents are caught in the tangled dilemma: “If we give them barbies/GameCubes/television/Play Stations they want and we can afford, will they become too slack, glazed, and lazy to get into Harvard?”

Can research settle what are the best ways for preschoolers to learn? Hardly. Evidence seldom convinces ideologues either about the size of government, the best diet, or how  preschool should educate.  The National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC), for example, lays out the research, benchmarks for development for young children (see KeyMessages). NAEYC anchors the progressive side of the preschool ideological see-saw. In the present political and economic climate, however, they are lightweights compared to well leveraged state and federal policymakers worried about the nation’s weak performance on international achievement tests and civic and corporate leaders who press for cognitively-driven preschools where direct instruction in knowledge and skills give young children a running start in the race through the grades and into college.

The earnest move to enact Universal Prekindergarten endorsed by both civic and corporate leaders, business groups, and educational associations as national investments in economic growth and supported by longitudinal studies (e.g., Perry Preschool, ABCedarian (see, etc.) has become politically acceptable and,  as state funding has become available, has spread.

But the content and direction of preschools will again be influenced by the ideological fervor of those wanting boot camp instruction to prepare for school and those wanting more curiosity and play rather than a brain on a stick. Thus, conflicts over what constitutes “high quality” preschools will continue even as access for toddlers expands. No panacea here.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · April 10, 2013

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