Preschool Really Is the Magic Bullet

Preschool Really Is the Magic Bullet

Editor's note: This essay is adapted from Mr. Salins's new book, The Smart Society. Check RealClearPolicy again tomorrow for a response by Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute.

America's most intractable educational failure is the woeful school performance of its most disadvantaged children. The educationally "left behind" include not only racial minorities but millions of lower-income white children, especially boys. No other accomplishment would so dramatically transform American society as significantly reducing the school-achievement disparities between these children and the rest. In pursuit of such a breakthrough, political leaders and educators have, for over 50 years, experimented with an extensive repertoire of reforms: racial integration, increased spending, smaller class sizes, and most recently charter schools and teacher merit pay. The problem is that, by and large, the reforms haven't succeeded -- at least with respect to their stated goal of enabling the "left behind" to catch up with the rest.

Countless studies have put their finger on what causes disadvantaged children to do so badly in school. The families in which they are raised -- often headed by single mothers -- are unable to give them the cognitive stimulation that is both essential for early-childhood development and common in the homes of their middle-class peers. These early-age disparities are then magnified throughout the later years of formal schooling.

Given this diagnosis, what is the remedy? E.D. Hirsch, for decades an insufficiently heeded voice in the education-reform wilderness, argues that differences in cultural literacy, more than any other single factor, separate socioeconomically disadvantaged children from the rest -- and that for them to catch up, this deficit must be erased before they enter first grade by enrolling them in preschool, with continued reinforcement of cultural literacy in the elementary-school grades.

But it has to be the right kind of preschool: where children spend enough time each week, in small classes, taught by trained, well-paid professionals that give them a foundation in the kinds of cognitive skills and social behaviors on which later school success depends.

Most existing preschool programs, especially those attended by poor children, fail to meet these criteria. The most conspicuous case in point is Head Start, which enrolls over 1 million poor, primarily minority children in centers with limited weekly hours and minimal educational content, overseen by poorly trained and poorly compensated staff. Numerous evaluations, including the most recent one (conducted by the Brookings Institution in 2010), document that Head Start students make minimal academic gains while they are in the program, and that whatever little benefit there is vanishes by first grade.

But a case can be made that Head Start (despite its name) was never designed to be a true preschool program; rather, it is a well-meaning daycare program that offers poor children some social enrichment in a safe setting and frees their parents of the burdens of child care. Therefore, the failure of Head Start should in no way be mistaken for a failure of preschool.

According to a 2009 Rand Corporation study, where well-designed preschools have operated, "evaluations ... show that such programs can advance school readiness and lead to higher test scores through at least the third grade. The benefits are most pronounced for disadvantaged children, but there are positive effects for children across the socioeconomic spectrum."

Further validation of expanding preschool access lies outside the United States. Moved by the enormous disparities in K-12 academic achievement among French schoolchildren, largely correlated -- as in the U.S. -- with social class and ethnicity (children of France's large North African immigrant community tend to perform less well than their peers), France in the 1980s launched its universal, public, and free preschool system, open to (but not compulsory for) all children age two to five. Strongly influenced by Hirsch's work, the program's French designers made sure their preschools had rigorous cultural-literacy content, well-trained teachers, reasonable staff ratios, and good facilities. All evaluations since then show that this initiative has sharply raised the academic achievement and high-school graduation rates of French schoolchildren -- across the board, but most notably among the disadvantaged.

If we are to emulate France, the national policy challenge is to find a way to scale up preschool across the country while ensuring high and consistent quality. Expanding Head Start would be a fatally counterproductive approach. Instead, to give children academic skills that survive into later grades, we must fully incorporate preschool within the regular district educational system. Under this rubric, school districts would extend their educational ladder by two years below kindergarten, creating an integrated pre-K-to-grade-12 curricular program -- accessible, without extra charge, to all local schoolchildren.

Beyond maintaining continuity between preschool and the K-12 years, there are two key benefits to such an approach. First, because preschool's benefits are evident for middle-class children in addition to poor ones, universal preschool could narrow the gap between the average American student and his high-performing wealthy and foreign peers. And second, taxpayers will be more likely to support preschool programs that are accessible to all and not means-tested.

Clearly, implementing such a revolutionary change in American schooling will be not only expensive but controversial in other respects. Some will argue that young children should not be herded into formal institutional settings at such an early age -- that they would be happier and better adjusted at home or engaged in structured play. (This view doomed an early-education initiative 40 years ago, when Congress passed -- and President Nixon vetoed -- legislation that would have paid for states to add up to two years of preschool to their K-12 educational sequence.) Others will say that we cannot afford it, or that we should subsidize only poorer children. Then there is the question of who should pay for it: the federal government, the states, or local school districts. But the greatest political obstacle is convincing skeptics that universal access to preschool really can make a meaningful difference in the long-term educational achievement of American schoolchildren.

Thus, for political and financial reasons, expanded preschool should first be implemented on a pilot basis. We actually have a good example at hand of another federal educational reform initiative that can serve as a model. The Race to the Top grant program of the U.S. Department of Education, begun in July of 2009, has, with financially modest competitive awards, managed to get states to institute serious K-12 reforms that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Preschool grants to school districts could be handled he same way: Grants could be awarded only for plans that met the rigorous specifications previously noted, with the requirement that states monitor preschool enrollees as they moved through subsequent grades -- all the way to high-school graduation -- with statistically valid studies. Districts that showed substantial gains would have their grants renewed for a limited number of years; those that didn't, would have them terminated. If the pilot proved to be widely successful, the program could be expanded on a national scale.

Education agencies and school districts in the United States, with the courts intervening on the sidelines, have devoted the better part of half a century to closing (or at least narrowing) the huge academic-achievement gulf separating America's lowest-performing schoolchildren, usually poor and minority, from the middle-class mainstream. After spending billions of dollars on a broad array of hopeful sounding initiatives, they have had little in the way of academic gains to show for it. Meanwhile, the most empirically validated reform -- high quality preschool -- has never been tested on any comprehensive basis.

It is time to give it a thorough national trial. And if it lives up to its promise, as I believe it will, it can revolutionize American education.

Peter D. Salins, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, is university professor of political science at Stony Brook University and director of the university's Graduate Program in Public Policy. He is author of the recently released book The Smart Society: Strengthening Americas Greatest Resource, Its People (Encounter books). 

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