President Obama has pledged to spend $10 billion more a year on "zero to five" education, and his 2010 budget makes a $2 billion "down payment" on that commitment. (Billions more are already in the "stimulus" package.) Any number of congressional leaders want more preschool, as do dozens of governors. Not to mention the National Education Association and the megabucks Pew Charitable Trusts, which is underwriting national and state-level advocacy campaigns on behalf of universal pre-kindergarten. At least three states are already on board.
Underlying all this activity and interest is the proposition that government -- state and federal -- should pay for at least a year of preschool for every American 4-year-old. One rationale is to boost overall educational achievement. Another is to close school-readiness gaps between the haves and have-nots.
Almost nobody is against it. Yet everybody should pause before embracing it.
For all its surface appeal, universal preschool is an unwise use of tax dollars. In a time of ballooning deficits, expansion of preschool programs would use large sums on behalf of families that don't need this subsidy while not providing nearly enough help to the smaller number of children who need it most. It fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start. And it dumps 5-year-olds, ready or not, into public-school classrooms that today are unable even to make and sustain their own achievement gains, much less to capitalize on any advances these youngsters bring from preschool. (Part of the energy behind universal pre-K is school systems -- and teachers unions -- maneuvering to expand their own mandates, revenue and membership rolls.)
Versions of universal preschool are underway in Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia, with participation rates for 4-year-olds between 60 and 70 percent. If advocates have their way, dozens of states will expand their more limited pre-K offerings -- typically aimed at poor or disabled youngsters -- to include all 4-year-olds and, soon after, 3-year-olds, in government-funded programs that most often are run by public school systems. Washington will kick in billions to help.
Yet this campaign rests on four myths:
- Everybody needs it. In fact, about 85 percent of 4-year-olds already take part in preschool or child care outside their homes, paid for with a mix of public and private dollars. And fewer than 20 percent of 5-year-olds are seriously unready for the cognitive challenges of kindergarten in the No Child Left Behind era.
- Preschool is educationally effective. On the contrary, while a few tiny, costly programs targeting very poor children have shown some lasting positive effects, the overwhelming majority of studies show that most pre-K programs have little to no educational impact (particularly on middle-class kids) and/or have effects that fade within the first few years of school.
- Existing programs are shoddy. Quality control is indeed patchy, and some operators do a lousy job. But experts, leaders and providers in the field of early-childhood education cannot agree on how to define and judge quality. Most often, antiquated measures of spending, staff credentials and adult-child ratios -- i.e., "input" gauges -- are used, rather than appraising the kindergarten-readiness of these programs' graduates or sending qualified observers to crouch in classrooms to assess the quality of teacher-child interactions.
- Head Start is terrific but doesn't serve enough kids. If only. This iconic, much-loved federal program, now costing more than $7 billion annually, has spent four decades denying that it's an education program, refusing to embrace a pre-K curriculum and being staffed by people -- now a major interest group -- many of whom are themselves ill-educated (and ill-paid). Though its statute pays lip service to "school readiness," Congress has forbidden Head Start to use readiness measures to evaluate program effectiveness.
Instead of launching vast new pre-K programs for all, policymakers would better serve American children by focusing on three genuine problems:
- Delivering intensive, targeted education services -- preferably starting at birth and including parents as well as children -- to the relative handful of children (one or two of every 10 babies) who would truly be unready to succeed in school without heavy-duty interventions. Most are children of poor, young, single mothers, often of color, who themselves have little education.
- Redeploying pre-K funds and revamping existing programs, beginning with Head Start, to emphasize the cognitive side of kindergarten preparation (e.g., pre-literacy skills such as letters, sounds and shapes) and judging the effectiveness of such programs by the readiness of their graduates.
- Beefing up school-reform efforts so that the classrooms poor children enter have high standards, knowledgeable teachers, coherent curriculums and the ability to tailor instruction to children's readiness levels -- and to cumulate gains from year to year rather than dissipate and squander them.
Done right, preschool programs can help America address its urgent education challenges. But today's push for universalism gets it almost entirely wrong.