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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.