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Preschool        Next >


The Public Policy Point to Preschool


Q. I didn't go to preschool, and I certainly did all right in school and my career. I'm in my 50s. What has changed, that all of a sudden, if kids don't have a whole bunch of early childhood education, they'll be doomed?


Nobody's saying that! The consensus is that preschool programs are important these days, and can be a great aid to a child's learning curve and personal development as the child moves into formal schooling with kindergarten.


But the positive impact depends a great deal on what type of preschool program it is, and how well the preschool is matched to the child's needs.


The consensus among parents and most child psychologists and pediatricians is that part-time preschool is best, just 15 hours a week or so out of the home, though many early childhood educators want to have the children on a full-time basis for economic and organizational reasons.


But those are self-serving reasons, and immensely expensive. The real question is, what's in the best interest of each individual child? And how can we construct public policies that do the best job of meeting those diverse individual needs without bankrupting taxpayers?


There's a lot of interest among more liberal educators and others in our country right now for "universal preschool." That would be "free" preschool for all children, paid for by taxpayer expense. Unfortunately, the evidence is clear that government-provided preschool is substandard compared to private-sector preschool. Moving to universal preschool would "dumb down" preschool for the top 75% of the preschool population or so.


Places which have instituted widespread government preschool, including Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee, have produced disappointing results. The students aren't doing better as a result of that "free" preschool, and in fact, in some measurements, they are actually doing worse than children who didn't have government-provided preschool at all.


So there isn't much of a case for those who would institute across-the-board "free" preschool.


Then there are other citizens, such as those in the homeschooling community and wealthy citizens, who point to evidence that in the past, parents have done a better job preparing children for school than professionals who are paid to teach preschool - especially since preschool teachers are notoriously poorly-paid. So shifting gears to "outsourcing" preschool education outside the family would be a step in the wrong direction, they say.


Also, they point out, research shows that the earlier a middle-class or wealthy child starts formal, structured preschool, and the more time the child spends in that setting, the WORSE the child does in school, on down the line, both in academics and in terms of self-control. More out-of-home care is producing children who are overly aggressive and selfish, the studies are showing.


Therefore, there are many who believe it is better public policy to minimize taxpayer-provided preschool. However, it must be considered that the home settings of many children at all income levels are not conducive to getting them ready for kindergarten - alcoholic homes and single-parent homes are two examples - and so some form of public preschool is a must.


Here's the crunch, though. Because of the immense diversity in the preschool population, it can't be the same kind of program for all preschool student groups. And that can cause conflict, especially since different kinds of preschools cost different amounts of money, and one group might feel slighted even though their children's needs are being addressed by a less expensive program.


A middle- or upper-class child will be underserved, and perhaps damaged or held back, by a preschool program designed for low-income preschoolers, whose home environments are less enriched by parents with high educational attainment, large vocabularies, and relatively less stress in which to rear children in a more relaxed, nurturing environment. Such a preschool will literally be inappropriately "easy" for that child. About 75% of the preschool population does best with a preschool program that is more oriented toward cognitive development; these children don't need the social development quite as much.


But on the other hand, a child from a dysfunctional, chaotic or deprived home will not have his or her needs met in the typical suburban preschool program with vocabulary and cognitive expectations that are 'way over the child's current level. There is solid evidence that a quality preschool experience tailored for the low-income child's social needs, more so than academic needs, is correlated to better test scores, less grade repetition, less categorization as "special education," less delinquency and higher graduation rates, for the low-income student population.


What's the answer? Avoid universal preschool. Target subsidies and government-provided programming to disadvantaged preschoolers. Limit the future public investment in government-supplied preschool to programs that have demonstrated success and are cost-effective, and limit the taxpayer-supplied funding for those to children from disadvantaged families.



Homework: For more about the importance of preschool, see this report from the Education in the Public Interest Center of the University of Colorado:


One of the best resources for deciding how to structure your child's preschool years for maximum happiness, intelligence and imagination, and select a good preschool, is the book Your Child's Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.


By Susan Darst Williams Preschool 01 2008


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