Concerns About Universal Preschool

I certainly do not claim to be an expert on such matters, but I do have an opinion on the universal preschool proposition that has recently entered the national educational discussion. Were these concerns to be allayed, I do believe that I would fully support universal pre-K as I am an advocate of education at all levels. Here is a list of my primary concerns:

  1. The cost associated with adding pre-K for all 4-year olds would be high. Many states are already having financial troubles, and the federal plan is supposed to require state support. Additional burdens on states would reduce or remove other programs in order to include pre-K for all children. I have heard that they are talking about an estimated 4 million children with a rough estimate of $5,000 per child. This amounts, conservatively, to at least an additional $20 billion. Although there are supposed future benefits for these children that would save money in the future (i.e. better health, less likely to become pregnant as a teenager, less likely to commit crimes and land in jail, etc.), clearly the average American would not have been as affected by these statistics. Therefore, including all American 4-year-olds would not actually realize these potential financial returns on this investment. In fact, the majority of added students to this program would not realize a return at all, most likely.
  2. The cost of improving pre-K to traditional public school standards would be high. The general call for universal pre-K is predicated on the concept that these preschool programs would be of high quality. Reaching that standard would add to the costs. How many preschools right now are not high quality?
  3. When adding all students into the preschool mix, children who were previously above the curve would benefit as well, nullifying the value in closing the achievement gap. Furthermore, these children who need preschool less, such as those with wealthier, better-educated parents, would require attention from staff memebers that would pull from the more needy children, resulting in less effective instruction for the impoverished children. In order to rebalance the diminished achievement gap created by current pre-K, 3-year-old pre-K would subsequently need to be expanded. This would add to the cost and logically spiral down to schooling from birth for some children in an attempt to get ahead of the curve.
  4. The effectiveness of public preschool is questionable, specifically concerning the fact that the gap can be diminished (not eliminated) before Kindergarten begins, but generally returns before students leave elementary school. In How effective is Head Start?, Helt revealed a study showing that “while student performance during their time in Head Start was positively impacted, any gains were all but gone by third grade.” In Obama spotlights Georgia’s pre-K program, but state still struggles to meet its goal, the author writes, “Georgia made a commitment to universal pre-K in 1995 and it’s been a slow climb, with about 60 percent of eligible children currently enrolled. And Georgia’s high school graduation rate is among the lowest in the nation.” With the long-term effectiveness of pre-K programs in question, it is difficult to substantiate the need for universalization. I also wonder how many children will be negatively affected by this program, presuming they could have been receiving a better preschool education elsewhere.
  5. Perhaps there are more important areas in education that need to be addressed. Tienken (2012) explained that poverty plays a larger role in education than it is often given credit for. Tienken referred to a word gap, specifically that children in poverty hear 30 million fewer words prior to entering pre-Kindergarten than their nonimpoverished peers. In Obama proposal reflects shift in views on early childhood education, the authors point to a working vocabulary gap of between 224 and 591 words by age three for children in poverty. Therefore, concerns such as the effect of the phenomenon of being in poverty related to education and the summer slide (Tienken) would seem to be more negatively impactful than preschool could possibly be positively impactful.
  6. When you mandate pre-K for all children, you minimize the value of all previous research comparing students receiving versus not receiving pre-K services, as there would no longer be a group of children not receiving these services to compare with. Causation in much of the completed research is difficult to argue currently, but the universalization of preschool would make the data less significant still.

For these reasons, I am concerned that universal preschool may not be a panacea at all. Therefore, I would recommend a more cautious approach, perhaps starting with fixing state and federal education budgetary concerns along with efforts to ensure the current preschool programs are of high quality. The universal approach is hard to justify when the current programs are not nearly as effective as is claimed.

Tienken, C. H. (2012). The influence of poverty on achievement. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 48(3), 105-107.


7 thoughts on “Concerns About Universal Preschool

  1. ctspedmathdude

    There can be a battle he said she said research as there is ample research supporting pre-school for all. A cursory search reveals this.

    I have to respectfully challenge you on this.

    Cost is part of this and prevention as cost savings measure being accepted over many areas beyond education. What you don’t take into account is the cost in time and effort in addressing these behaviors and in remediation in school. Administrative costs in addressing behavioral issues alone is astounding, e.g. an assistant principal spending 1/2 hour on a single class disruption costs maybe $50 in lost work production.

    The gap that originates in preschool is evident. My son attends 2 years and 2 summers of preschool. He will have classmates in kindergarten who will be encountering school for the first time. My son will understand class rules and the hidden rules in school. He will have some sight words, know how to write his name and other words, will know his numbers etc. That alone is powerful evidence. Ramping up the effectiveness only exacerbates the problem as my son gets a bigger head start.

    While we can disagree vehemently and respectfully 🙂 having this debate is important.



    1. brettrubicristian Post author

      First of all, I am in total agreement that debate can be healthy and should be a part of the growth process. So, I respect your opinions and welcome your further contributions.

      I would love to see research supporting preschool for all. I have not seen any in my recent searching. I have seen research that supports preschool as beneficial to students who have taken it compared to those who have not, but that does not necessarily substantiate a free, public preschool for all argument. Clearly, there is a bell curve of benefits for preschool for all. A poorly offered, mandatory preschool would certainly not benefit children who would have otherwise gotten a better education.

      I did not follow the logic of your administrative costs relative to this discussion. Are you arguing that children who have been in preschool are fundamentally better behaved and do not require visits to the principals office? Are you arguing that students who have not been to preschool are fundamentally the most disruptive students logging substantial hours of wasted administrative time? Both of these arguments seem illogical, and I would need to see research to be convinced of anything regarding this assumption.

      Regarding the individual story of your son, I also disagree with this “evidence” as supporting your case. I can guarantee that there is also some child who has two years of preschool who will be the biggest pain for her/his Kindergarten teacher and hold back other kids for having to “deal” with her/him. Furthermore, the opposite of your anecdotal evidence implies that my daughter, who started Kindergarten this year, would have done better had she attended a high quality preschool, which she did not. She had the further disadvantage of being born days ahead of the deadline to begin the year, meaning that she is up to a full year younger than her peers. And yet, she is above grade level for Kindergarten with three months left in the year. My daughter only knew a couple of sight words, could write her own name (with mistakes like a capital letter in the middle or the ‘s’ backwards), and was familiar with numbers for counting purposes only. Neither of my other two children had high quality formal preschooling, and both perform well above their peers and basically always have.

      The kids who come to Kindergarten with no clue and little expectation of ever getting a clue are the ones who need the preschool services, and they need for those services to be of high quality.

      Another thought occurred to me: my sister-in-law taught Kindergarten for several years and said that you could definitely tell who had been in preschool and who had not upon entering school. However, when pressed, she also admitted that she could get them all to be on grade level entering 1st grade regardless of their pre-Kindergarten experiences. There just is not that much ground to make up, although many children could get significantly ahead, theoretically. I also pointed out to her that her son, who entered Kindergarten this year and had high quality, formal, private preschool and started way ahead of the curve, has fallen back to the crowd quite a bit. He is still advanced compared to his peers, but not as significantly as preschool had pushed him ahead in the first place.

      I feel that I have written enough for now,


  2. ctspedmathdude

    Your point your sister-in-law reinforces what is common knowledge in education. She could get them all to grade level but has she? Is her situation representative of urban areas like Hartford, CT or Chicago? In comparing our kids I used my son as a proxy for a common situation – kids being ahead. You used specific qualities of your daughter to generalize.

    Regarding behavior, there is an immense amount of literature about academic challenges and classroom behavior having an association including causal. This is readily apparent to anyone in the classroom as well. It is a generalization of whole groups is not reflective of every student in either the preschool group or otherwise.

    Research extends back to the 70s:
    *The Long Term Effects of ESEA Title I Preschool and All Day Kindergarten: An Eight Year Follow-Up Study.
    *Preschool Plus All-Day-Kindergarten: The Cumulative Effects of Early Childhood Programs on the Cognitive Growth of Four and Five Year Old Children.
    *The Effectiveness of Early Head Start for 3-Year-Old Children and Their Parents: Lessons for Policy and Programs.
    *Does Head Start Improve Children’s Life Chances? Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Design
    *Head Start FACES 2000: A Whole-Child Perspective on Program Performance. Fourth Progress Report. (appears to be a good one that addresses other related factors)

    Again, we can play he said she said with research but there is supporting evidence that it helps.

    Finally, what is the alternative? Again, I have yet to see a substantive alternative nor a reason not to pursue preschool for all.



    1. brettrubicristian Post author

      I must have worded the information about my sister-in-law poorly. The point she was making was that even though she wished all of her incoming students had been in preschool she had the ability to get them on grade level by the end of Kindergarten. She was a fantastic teacher, and so yes, she did get them all on grade level. Despite how they came to her, she did get them to where they needed to be. Although the statistics change from year to year, these are the approximations of her school stats. The school she taught in was a Title I school with 900 students, 81% low socioeconomic, 80% Latino, <1% white, 65% at risk, 54% ELLs. She taught bilingual Kindergarten with several students each year new to this country. Although she might be able to get her students ready for 1st grade by the end of Kindergarten, that does not mean that they were still ready for 1st grade by the beginning of 1st grade. There are many challenges for many of the poorest academic children and the gaps in their education grow dramatically from Kindergarten through high school.

      I would recommend fixing the poor preschools that are offered for free to the neediest students right now. If we can’t get that right with such a limited scope, what is the point of expanding the program? Step two would be to expand the program for the right children. That is clearly going to be a point of contention and cause great amounts of debates. I do not think targeting all children is appropriate for the many reasons I mentioned in the article. If the goal is to “fix” students who are broken before they are even given a chance to start, why would you provide “fixing” to students who do not need it? It is apparent that more students than are currently being served need to be served, so expand the program that works. Step three would be to realize that all the preschool in the world does not fix 13 years of a student’s educational experience… so get back to fixing the rest of the broken education system instead of creating new problems.

      I will agree to not argue the research, as it is fruitless.

      I can see the connection between academic ability and behavior. However, a typically engaging Kindergarten class should easily be able to minimize the relationship between those two. Sure, I can picture one of my 9th graders that is five years behind in math becoming a discipline problem because there is no way s/he can comprehend the level of mathematics we are studying and has learned over the years that trying does not yield results. However, this is Kindergarten. One child can already read a little; the next child has no comprehension of the formal language system and therefore cannot recognize even one letter. Other than when there are true cognitive challenges, I believe that competent teachers can work with that child until s/he can recognize all of the letters, including the sounds related to each by the end of the first semester. I have not done this, but I imagine it would be very possible. That leaves you a whole semester to move from letter recognition to word recognition to sounding out words to “reading.” I will discuss this further with my wife and sister-in-law to see how far off base they think I am, having both taught lower grades in elementary. Of course, some children start 1st grade (others even later) with no formal education and illiterate.

      Would you not agree, then, that preschool education should start at age 3, 2, or even 1? As a parent, we did a number of things to begin our children’s educations from birth. If you believe in preK for all, how low are you willing to go?



      1. brettrubicristian Post author


        I did follow up with both my sister-in-law and my wife; both agreed that it should not be a problem getting these students up to speed by the end of Kindergarten. My sister-in-law added that the standards are actually lower than most people believe. She also mentioned that because Kindergarten is not required that some children start 1st grade at the same super-low/well-behind status as the lowest beginning Kindergarten students. This, of course, would create an even greater gap and bigger challenges often.



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