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Commentary: The Problem with Universal Preschool

Mar 19, 2013

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of “high quality preschool.” But are politicians and the tax-paying public willing to foot the bill? On this edition of FM89’s commentary series The Moral Is, Fresno State education professor Jack Benninga says this new effort may fail if it’s not properly funded. 


A CNN analysis of President Obama’s State of the Union Address in February noted the President, “reeled off a laundry list of small-bore proposals.”  The day afterwards, Mr. Obama crisscrossed the country advocating for those new programs.  Among them is “high quality preschool” for all four-year olds. 

The notion of universal preschool is an old idea that is catching on across the country, with more than a dozen states ready to launch.  Even Fresno Unified School District has gotten on the bandwagon by announcing the hiring of a new Assistant Superintendent for preschool education.

The argument long made and raised again by the President is straightforward: Universal preschool will help children, “read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families,” and reduce teen pregnancies and crime.  Indeed, said the President, “Every dollar invested in early learning and development programs saves about $7 down the road in higher earnings that yield more revenue, and lowers government spending….”

But it’s certainly reasonable, in the face of all this excitement about the benefits of preschool education, to ask, “What exactly might it be about preschool education that brings about these positive effects?”

Here’s the scoop.  There are a set of well-done studies dating back to the 1970s that show positive effects on school attainment, even many years later.  But, recent studies seem to show that Head Start attendance alone doesn’t increase children’s academic achievement after third grade.  And, most early childhood classrooms don’t do what experts say needs to be done.  Indeed, they look more like watered-down first grades than like the programs most experts say children need.

One study President Obama alluded to that seems to have long-term positive benefits for its young participants is a program started in 1965 that followed up its four –year old students for almost 40 years.  It’s a program out of Michigan called High Scope.  It worked generally the way President Obama described it because the curriculum was designed by experts who understood key developmental indicators of children; it hired well-trained teachers to design classrooms and implement the curriculum; it encouraged the children to make choices, solve problems and otherwise be actively engaged; it included home visits by the teachers; and, the teacher-student ratio was very low.  Today, few states offer such a rich curriculum to their preschoolers because such programs are expensive.  A notable exception is the state of Oklahoma.

“High quality preschool”.  That is the slogan bandied about by political leaders to promote preschool education.  We know what high quality in preschool education should look like.  The fear is that what may result will not be high quality because the programs that work are very, very different from those we may find affordable.  High quality preschool education, like high quality in any other area, is not cheap.  Done improperly, it won’t pay off.

The President’s intentions in this case are good.  But the sloganeering is suspicious because, as yet, there are no details comparing what does work with what may be implemented.

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.