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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.

By Washington Post editors  | May 29, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  universal preschool fordham institute  
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What Finn is advocating is another form of segregation whereby we create an education program and restrict it by income. It is obvious we already have in effect this kind of segregation in most of the public school system due to both funding schools via property taxes and the use of neighborhood schools. However, Finn's model would explicitly extend it further. There is a body of research that suggests that having mixed incomes with a critical threshold of not having a majority of students being from low income families promotes better outcomes ie income integration rather than segregation.
Additionally, the public support for Medicare and Social Security is much higher than support for Medicaid and other income tested programs.
The issue of metrics is a good one. Evaluation of programs is often driven by what is easy to measure rather than by true measures of success. For early childhood programs, it is particularly hard to decide on the appropriate measures as such facile measures as have been used previously to measure success of Head Start eg. letter recognition skills are really an irrelevant measure and not necessarily associated with future learning outcomes. Far more work needs to be done and the results disseminated on what really constitutes a good early childhood program (is it a Montessori like environment or the use of Piaget principles or academic preschool?) and what the metrics of success really should be. Universality in my view can raise all boats and will in particular benefit the most vulnerable whose boats are now sinking.

Posted by: ordinarymom | May 29, 2009 7:44 AM | Report abuse

Ordinarymom makes a good point. Parents who can spend time on stimulating activities with their pre-schoolers probably provide the ideal pre-school environment so there should be an "opt out" for state funded preschool -- perhaps even with a small school district check for any savings in bussing costs. Other than truly excellent home environments, I doubt that having students in pre-school would hurt their educations and the few hours of "me time" for parents might be a plus (which is probably why so many OECD countrites provide or heavily subsidize pre-school). Thus, extreme segregation, even with preschool an option seems unlikely.

I do note that the near-universal preschool programs in Georgia and (rolling out) in NJ do not appear to have lead to statewide educational gains. But as an amenity for parents, perhaps funded like Medicaid with costs shared between states and the feds, perhaps we should catch up to our OECD competitors.

Posted by: mct210 | May 29, 2009 7:58 AM | Report abuse

Finn's assessment of the preschool learning needs of middle class students is outdated at best and purposefully ignorant at worst.

The reality is that children from all socio-economic backgrounds are coming to school less prepared than in the past. The analogy to other broad spectrum social programs is false, anyway, and belies his philosophical bias on the issue.

I've had conversations with Finn on a number of education topics and every time came away with a firmer perception of his right-wing ideologies.

Posted by: LarryBud | May 29, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

The RAND group did a study of California's proposed universal preschool a few years ago and concluded that 90% of the costs would go to switching middle-class and affluent kids from private preschools to government-run ones.

If we're going to make a massive government investment in young children's well-being, I would personally *MUCH* rather see a year's worth of paid parental leave.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 29, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm afraid that Finn is probably on the right track. The role of government, I suspect, should be to concentrate of the poorer students (and the role of NCLB should have been the same, focus on the most challenged school where we could have had qualitative assessments like Rothstein advocates and people-driven solutions instead of the bogus test-driven accountability)

I'd never support vouchers for k through 12. But I'd like to hear a discussion of vouchers for pre-school. It may be a terrible idea, but I'd still like to hear out the experts on that.

Posted by: johnt4853 | May 29, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jay,
As a Head Start teacher, PhD student, and blogger for Pre-K Now I have been looking at preschool for years from numerous perspectives. I am attempting to respond to each of what Chester calls Myths but which are closer to truths than the perspectives he offers. On Tuesday I published a post responding to Chester Finn's Washington Post Op-Ed. Here is a snippet.

Not everyone in favor of voluntary pre-k for all says or believes that "Everybody needs it." Actually, that is the one thing that both sides agree on. However, pro-pre-k advocates believe it should be a legitimate choice for every family. When high-quality pre-k programs are not accessible to all children, only people who can afford private pre-k or those living in poverty have a choice to attend a high quality pre-k program. As a result, far too many children in the middle enter kindergarten unprepared or behind the kids who had the opportunity to attend pre-k. Just take a look at Pre-K Now's report, "The Pre-K Pinch." The way Chester and others jump start this "fear factor" ignores the sound reasoning behind pre-k for all. It's clear that this manipulation is a tool to help readers buy into the skewed logic of most of their arguments. That is why it is always the lead-off statement in anti-pre-k propaganda. "The boogie man government wants to take your kids."

Check out the original post here:

Today I posted a second response. Another snippet and a link to the original. Thanks for bringing pre-k forward as a topic of discussion.

It is strange that Finn would say that only a "few tiny, costly programs targeting very poor children have shown some lasting positive effects."
A RAND corporation study disagrees and suggests that pre-k positively impacts every child who attends. RAND suggests that in calculating potential benefit of high quality preschool, high risk students may realize 100% of benefits, medium risk students may realize 50% of benefits and low risk students may realize 25% of benefits. A voluntary universal pre-k system would increase the total number of children realizing benefits that would be passed on to our society as well as provide the most benefit to the students that most need it.

Currently in Virginia, almost 70% of low risk (high socio-economic) students already attend center-based preschools, but approximately 20% of high risk students and 40% of medium risk students attend center based preschools. Oklahoma and Georgia have realized 70% total enrollment in public pre-k across all risk levels. So if universal really means 70% then low risk students already have a universal pre-k program. It is only the poor and middle class that don't receive the benefit of a universal system.

Posted by: circle-time-blogspot-com | June 4, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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