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
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
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
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
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,