Last night, President Obama give a nice little shout-out to early childhood education in his State of the Union Address. You can watch and read the whole address at whitehouse.gov, but here’s the part about preschool:
“… None of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs. And that has to start at the earliest possible age. Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That’s something we should be able to do. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”
First of all: Bravo Mr. President, for talking about the importance of early childhood education in such a high-profile way. In general, I think your administration has done more for early childhood education than any since Johnson’s (which kicked off Head Start in 1965). I don’t love Arne Duncan (Secretary of Education) overall, but I think he’s done some good stuff to raise the profile of early childhood education. This address is more in the right direction.
Second, I wanted to analyze and discuss some of the specific things the president said.
“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.” True! There’s prominent research has come from David Weikart, whose Perry Preschool Project in Michigan later became the HighScope curriculum, and economist James Heckman (more on him below), and others. Though “the better he or she does” is a somewhat misleading phrase. Children who go to preschool don’t necessarily outperform other children academically in a significant way—and a lot of people trying to evaluate, say, Head Start want to look for academic gains. The human benefits come in terms of quality of life—which Obama alludes to a little later.
“But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”
This is a fascinating statistic, and I wish I knew its source. According to a 2012 Department of Education study, 64% of four-year-olds receive professional child care; according to 2011 US Census data, 52% of three-and-four-year-olds are in school. What’s great is that Obama’s stat, whatever its origin, emphasizes HIGH-QUALITY care. There are many metrics of what makes a preschool high-quality; the good ones (like CLASS) find a way to evaluate the quality of teacher–child relationships and interactions (which research clearly links to quality of education) and determine the developmental appropriateness of the program and curriculum. (Aside: To my knowledge, no method of evaluating program quality even looks at how quickly children are learning material; unlike how we seem to be evaluating K-12 education.) If both Obama’s stat and the DOE stat are accurate, that means that half of preschools aren’t good enough. From my personal experience evaluating preschools for Contra Costa County, that’s not a crazy thing to think. What does it mean? Well, it means that if we’re going to expand access to high-quality preschool as the president suggests, it’s not a question of building more schools, it’s a question of making the schools we have better—through expanded teacher education and funding for program improvements. I really, really hope this goes somewhere.
“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool.” There’s a wide range of how much preschools cost, but “a few hundred bucks a week” is a decent ballpark figure for quality care. Let’s say that makes on the order of $1,000/month, or $12,000/year. In the US in 2012, poverty was defined as $23,050/year for a family of four—which would make quality child care cost 52% of your annual income. The definition of “middle-class” is a lot more contentious, but in 2012 the US Census reported that the median household income was $50,054—which would put the cost of quality child care at 24% of your annual income. Yup, most people can’t afford anything like that. Which is why so many preschools get away with being low-quality—there’s a huge market for cheaper child care, even if it’s not as good!
“And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.” That’s been well known, again, since Johnson oversaw the founding of Head Start in 1965. Poor kids walk into kindergarten over a year “behind”—and that gap only widens as they get older. Think about that phrase for a minute. How can you already be behind on the first day of kindergarten?! It’s cruel and wrong. The issue of “kindergarten readiness” is an important and complicate one, but I love the spin Belann Giaretto, director of the fabulous Pacific Primary preschool in San Francisco, put it once: “It’s not children’s job to be ready for school. It’s the school’s job to be ready for the children—whoever the children are when they walk in the door.” Amen to that.
“So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” That sounds awesome. I am nervous about how vague it is.
“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” This one’s true, and I think it’s the best way to “sell” early childhood education to a skeptical public that doesn’t want to foot the bill. James Heckman, the economist I mentioned earlier, estimates that for ever dollar used to put “at-risk” kids in preschool, society saves between $30 and $300. That’s not a typo. We save money when less teens get pregnant. We save money when there are less crimes to solve and prosecute and punish. We make more money when more people grow up and have better jobs (or any jobs) and pay more taxes. The list goes on a for awhile. If you’re looking for a financial investment for a community to make, it’s hard to find a more profitable one than preschool. The only reason it’s hard to sell to the public is that you’ve got to wait 30 years for the investment to pay off, and even then you can’t measure it directly. But anyway, if you’re unconvinced, or want to know more about the profoundly important economic aspect to putting public funds into preschool, please, PLEASE spend 20 minutes listening to this piece on NPR’s Planet Money. They’ll sell you, in a very entertaining and listenable way.
“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.” I don’t know what’s going on in Georgia. I know that Oklahoma, through a bizarre series of back-door programs, kind of accidentally instituted universal preschools, and the results have been great. Read about it in the New York Times. (I know I heard a great radio program about how Oklahoma’s law came about, but I can’t find it online. Anyone know?)
“So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”
Well, on the one hand, that’s ridiculous. The sad fact is, children born into poor families DO start “the race of life” already behind, and it’s a question of catching back up before kindergarten. On the other hand, why does our society insist on this ridiculous “race” metaphor for education? We all want our kids to learn as fast as possible, so they’ll be “ahead,” and that makes no sense at all. Each child learns at his own pace and his own way, which has very little bearing on that child’s happiness or fulfillment in life, and research is very clear that education works best when it conforms to the different needs of each individual child. And yet we put them all on the same age-based schedule, and we want them to “get ahead”… sigh. It makes me crazy.
But on the other other hand: yes, I know exactly what the president means, and so do you. He means that our society is not meeting the needs of many of our society’s children, and it’s not fair. And that’s true. And by expanding access to quality early childhood education, we can make things a little better. So “let’s give our kids that chance.”
Good luck, Mr. President. We’re all behind you on this one. When there’s a program, we’ll all be calling our congressmen.
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I’d love to hear your thoughts on public policy and early childhood education! Please comment below.