The evidence strongly supports the notion that quality preschool programs benefit all children, especially those from low-income families (click here to see some of that evidence). Thus, it is refreshing that President Obama has made this one of his goals and that he is getting some support from both parties. However, Universal Preschool for All is not a panacea that will erase the achievement gap or solve the nation’s economic woes.
Larry Cuban highlights some of these problems in his recent piece in the Washington Post. Let’s start with Cuban’s first point, “that one issue brings together both CEOs and educational progressives, political conservatives and liberals: investing in tax-supported preschool for three and four year-olds.”
The fact that conservatives are agreeing with liberals on anything should make one suspicious. While they may be asking for the same thing on the surface, their objectives and motivations are likely very different. Cuban alludes to this by suggesting that not all preschools are created alike. Should preschool be “boot camp for kindergarten,” he asks, “or a place where very young children, as Alison Gopnik put it, ’be allowed to explore, inquire, play, and discover?’”
The answer to this question depends on the social class of the children, and the parents who are asking it. The wealthy can send their kids to elite private preschools that focus on play, art, music and movement as a way to develop their children’s social and cognitive skills. Most of the rest of America cannot afford this. Even President Obama said in his State of the Union speech that “most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool” and the poor and working class are far worse off. Consequently, less than 30% of U.S. four year-olds currently attend a “high-quality” preschool (compared with over 90% in Mexico, France, Spain, and Netherlands).
This is a new education market, yet one that carries with it many of the same benefits of the K-12 market: captive, obligatory consumers; secure annual revenues from the state; subsidies; and the marketing magic of being able to say your business nurtures and protects America’s Innocent Children.
The question is, will the corporate education vultures looking for a piece of the supposed 70% increase in preschool consumers, provide a boot camp for other people’s children, or a “whole child,” Froebelian-Pestalozzian style preschool that nutures children’s creativity, curiosity and enthusiasm through play and social interactions, like the schools where their children attend?
The most likely answer is boot camp. These are not their own children, after all, so nurturing, coddling, fun and play are not their concern. Rather, these are the children of their employees, future employees themselves. They need discipline. They need to be prepared for the 21st century workforce. This has led to a demand for “cognitively-driven” preschools with direct instruction in skills that give children a leg up in the competition for college and jobs. Driven by the national obsession with standards, testing and accountability, this has led to many private and public preschools now requiring cognitive skills tests.
It is important to note that Froebelian, play-based pre-kindergarten programs do not completely ignore the development of academic skills. They simply approach it differently. Rather than forcing children to sit still for extended periods of time and then repeat after the teacher ad nauseum, they let the children play and explore with provocative and intriguing toys, games, tools and nature, introducing the vocabulary, pre-reading skills, math and science as they go. The children take more initiative and responsibility for their activities and interactions, thus developing their social skills, as well as their reasoning skills, curiosity and self-efficacy.
It is true that lower income children typically enter kindergarten with vocabularies that are substantially lower than those of their more affluent peers. This is because affluent parents on average spend far more time reading to their children than do poor and working class parents. They also tend to use larger vocabularies with their children and introduce them to more complex words and ideas. Consequently, poor children start kindergarten with significantly smaller vocabularies and fewer literacy skills (see Burkam and Lee). This makes high quality prekindergarten programs all the more important for them.
It is not true, however, that low income children must be subjected to the same sort of rote memorization, accountability, testing, homework, worksheets and other nonsense they will likely get in the higher grades. They can still rapidly increase their vocabularies and pre-reading skills in a freer, Froebelian-style pre-K environment.
Pre-K Does Not Erase the Effects of Poverty
Lack of preschool worsens an achievement gap that is already in place well before children are even old enough for preschool (see Hart and Risely). Preschool has been shown to help mitigate this for some lower income children and provide skills that help many become school ready, but it does nothing to improve the conditions in their homes and communities that cause the achievement gap to grow over time, like hunger, illness and absenteeism, or lack of access to intellectually enriching summer activities. Thus, while preschool for all is a potentially positive education reform, it still suffers the same fundamental problem that all other education reforms suffer: It does nothing to reduce poverty and the wealth gap. And as long as these problems persist, there will continue to be an achievement gap.
Obama’s Pre-K for All Plan Leaves Out the Middle Class
Obama’s plan is to provide quality pre-K for all the lower income families who currently cannot afford it. But what about all the middle class families who cannot afford it, or those who are borrowing on their retirement plans to pay for it? Will they get any relief?
Probably not. Without relief, they will continue to borrow and save and spend more than they want to because they know the educational value of preschool (and they need day care for their children so they can go to work). Thus, the risk of middle class children missing out on preschool is less of a problem.
The government’s interest in providing free public education is to aid the employing class in providing their future employees with the basic skills necessary for work at the lowest cost possible. A small increase in expenditures to help the lowest achieving kids increase the chances that they’ll graduate might be considered a reasonable investment, but providing superfluous relief to the already self-sufficient middle class would be wasteful. More importantly, this subsidy will allow private companies to make large profits providing pre-K educational services to the poor, much like many urban charter schools are already doing at the K-12 grade levels.