An Attack on Preschool for All
As usual, I have taken the lazy columnist’s approach to the crucial issue of preschools in America. What little I have written about it has been how to find the best pre-Ks and preschools, and what it is about them that makes them good.
But the question of what kind of preschool system is best for the nation has become so important that even I can’t avoid it. Politically, it is the most-mentioned item on the education agendas of our nation’s most ambitious political leaders. The president, Congress, numerous foundations and think tanks are working on it. There seems to be an emerging consensus that universal preschool is what we need, maybe.
Sadly, neither I nor most of you clearly comprehend what the preschool advocates are talking about. We need some well-crafted analysis, and one of the most interesting -- if argumentative -- takes on preschool policy just arrived in the mail. The leaders of the movement to expand preschool services are not going to like “Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut” by Chester E. Finn Jr., but its clarity and depth are hard to resist.
Finn is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution. I have called him the most irritating education expert in America, because of his intimidating erudition and acidic wit. But in this 123-page report, published by Hoover, Finn often steps aside and lets other experts speak. He is, of course, selective in his choice of quotes. The report puts the idea of universal preschool in an unflattering light, because Finn thinks we are headed in the wrong direction.
The problem, say the scholars cited by Finn, is that although good preschool teaching is important to preparing impoverished students for success in school, very few of the available preschools are very good, and the mediocre ones don’t add much value. On the policy level, Finn is particularly distressed by the widespread notion that we won’t get good preschools for poor kids unless we provide good preschools for all kids.
He quotes Berkeley public policy professor David Kirp’s book, “The Sandbox Investment,” explaining the universal approach: “Helping all of us and not just them -- that division makes all the difference in the world. In theory, concentrating state pre-kindergartens entirely on poor children should help to close the education gap, and that would be a good thing. But a study carried out by two World Bank economists concluded that, when the voters effectively set tax levels, the poor are in fact worse off when a program is targeted, because the citizenry is willing to pony up much less money.”
To which Finn replies, “That’s nonsense.” He says it’s obvious “that America is awash in enormous, well-funded programs that target the poor. Medicaid and Pell Grants leap instantly to mind. And in the early-childhood field, of course, there is already Head Start.”
I see what Finn is saying, but Kirp has a point. Social Security and Medicare are good examples of programs that work best for the poor, but would not have come into existence if there weren’t also some benefits for middle-class voters like me.
Finn makes a much stronger case when he goes after the notion that a universal program will ensure high standards for personnel and curriculum in all preschools. He cites the work of Robert C. Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia school of education and a leading scholar of pre-kindergarten teaching. What matters, Pianta says, is not just the curriculum, but more importantly, how well it is implemented. Teachers must “strategically weave instruction into activities that give children choices to explore and play” and provide “explicit instruction in certain key skills such as phonological awareness; and teachers must provide responsive feedback on kids’ performance of skills; and a lot of verbal engagement/stimulation,” Pianta says.
Pianta dismisses much of the government regulatory activity on which preschool advocates place their hopes: “Many states and localities measure program ‘quality’ only in terms of proxies -- the credentials of teachers, the size and spaciousness of the facilities, the amount of learning material available, and the length of the preschool day. Except for the last characteristic, these ‘quality indicators’ do not measure what programs offer young children that is educationally important. Still, these indicators often drive program design and policy.”
When I contacted Pianta to check this quote, he added that the government quality indicators “are important platforms around which decisions have to be made, but they do not produce learning -- they are not sufficient.” He also told me “even mediocre preschools do help kids from poor backgrounds, not as much as high quality ones do, but they do help. ... One problem is that we really aren’t reaching all the kids we need to, even if you target poor kids or near-poor kids. I think Finn’s cut point for kids who could use it or need it is a bit too stringent.”
Finn’s report illuminates the promoters of preschool, the quality debate, the evidence of effectiveness and the future of Head Start. To Finn, less is more: “In a rational world, it would make vastly more sense, while costing the taxpayer less money, to overhaul Head Start (and pre-Head Start and Early Head Start, etc.), existing programs that are already targeted, perhaps focusing them even more tightly on the neediest kids, making them start earlier -- with those pregnant, soon-to-be single moms -- and last longer, and insisting that they emphasize pre-literacy, vocabulary and other school-readiness skills.”
I haven’t seen enough preschools, good or bad, to decide whether Finn is right. But his analysis is a good starting place. There has been much written about the benefits of universal preschool. This report will inspire much more, both positive and negative, and help those of us overwhelmed by conflicting data to figure out the essentials, and see the weaknesses on both sides of the debate.
Washington Post editors
| May 29, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: universal preschool fordham institute
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