Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank, published a provocatively titled paper that posited, “Do we already have universal preschool?” Revitalizing the fierce debate over early childhood education, the paper concluded that 70 percent of children already have an option for pre-K, infuriating many who have been making pushes for public funding of universal pre-K.
Universal pre-kindergarten has been receiving a lot of attention lately. Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton announced a universal pre-K plan in June. Governors across the political spectrum have been acknowledging the importance of early childhood education, and Democratic senators pushed hard to include an amendment that would provide funding for five years of universal pre-K in the bipartisan rewrite of No Child Left Behind — the Every Child Achieves Act. But there are still policymakers who don’t take preschool as seriously as they do K-12 education, early childhood education experts say.
There is a perception that preschool teachers are really just “babysitters,” said Conor Williams, senior researcher in the Early Education Initiative at New America.
“If you really want to understand how policy folks are misunderstanding pre-K, say ‘Look, would you say this about a second grade teacher? Would you say this about a 6th grade teacher? Would you say this about a teacher at other ages?’ No, of course not,” Williams said. “The question is whether you want to treat early education as something that is actually part of education or ‘Oh, it’s a nice thing for kids.’”
Early childhood experts took several issues with the way the paper ignored the quality of preschool programs. Not all programs are alike, and many issues can alter their effectiveness: whether the preschool is aligned with a specific kindergarten, how the schools are serving dual language learners, and whether half-day programs are the best option for children and working families.
“[The Brookings paper] was based off a framework that you don’t really hear about K-12 schools,” said Sara Mead, a partner with Bellwether Education Partners in the Policy and Thought Leadership practice. “There was just no sense of, ‘Does it matter if the programs that kids are in are good or not?’ And a huge motivation for expanding access is a recognition that a lot of programs are not good and they’re not providing kids the learning experiences they need.”
Mead pointed out that concerns about the quality of pre-K programs is what led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in reforms of Head Start in 2007, such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, which provides some measurement of quality of teaching, as well as requiring low-performing grantees to compete for grants. Bellwether Education Partners would like to see additional reforms, such as more transparency in the monitoring process and better analysis of Head Start data.
Why people question the data on universal preschool
The authors of the Brookings paper, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst and Ellie Klein, point out the ways in which the Census questions fail to provide an accurate overview of how many children are attending preschool. Some of their criticisms are that children whose relatives care for them for a certain period of time in addition to a preschool program aren’t counted as attending a formal program or that questions about enrollment aren’t specific enough.
For example, a child who attends a typical preschool program, i.e., half-day for five days a week for nine months a year, and also receives out-of-home care by her grandmother during the rest of the parents’ work week would be indicated under this variable as having received relative care in another home rather than having received center-based care …
The authors also mention the fact that grouping 3 and 4 year olds into one estimate is not a good idea because enrollment of 3 year olds is so much lower compared to 4 year olds. And even if parents aren’t enrolling their 3 year olds, they say it’s not an issue of access but that some parents may decide they would rather not enroll their child in preschool at that age.
Early childhood education advocates agree that putting the two groups together doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but they disagree on the idea that many parents don’t enroll 3 year olds because they simply prefer not to.
“By combining 3 year olds and 4 year olds, you do lose some important information. If you really want to know what percentage of kids have any pre-K experience before they get to kindergarten, it’s good to look at 4 year olds on their own,” Mead said.
Mead said that it’s very important for low-income kids to have access to pre-K earlier, to try to mitigate achievement gaps.
“The place where we have the best evidence to close gaps for low-income kids are programs to serve kids when they’re 3 or 4 years old. So if you care about closing gaps, you might be interested in that,’ Mead said. “To assume that parents aren’t sending kids when they’re 3 years old because they don’t want to … Another completely plausible explanation is that they have limited financial resources and preschool is expensive.”
CREDIT: Ted S. Warren, AP
Lisa Guernsey, director of the Learning Technologies Project and director of the Early Education Initiative at New America, said that the skills of pre-K teachers are often underestimated in comparison to teachers at other grade levels, and that family care can’t make up for an actual preschool education.
“I’m not saying at all that a grandmother and a parent isn’t a wonderful teacher for young children in terms of modeling how to get along in the world,” Guernsey said. “But it’s not the same as having some time with a person who knows the science of child development, who knows the building blocks of early math, and uses new materials and groups of children to help them see how to learn together and cooperate. There are skills that require some preparation and training.”
Although the report claims that almost 70 percent of the U.S. population of 4 year olds regularly attend a pre-K program, instead of around 50 percent participation as other reports show, Guernsey took issue with that claim, since it doesn’t account for the differences in pre-K settings.
“That is just incorrect if you recognize that that 70 percent is including all sorts of different settings, and some are not even learning settings, and we have no idea how many of them are truly pre-K and have even less of an understanding of how many are quality pre-K,” Guernsey said.
One of the things the account doesn’t consider is the importance of going to a pre-K program that is connected to a larger school system, Williams pointed out.
“Capturing the difference in that 70 percent, even just that basic question, like ‘Are they in a pre-K setting that leads them to dedicated single kindergarten?’ That matters a lot. We have good research that shows if you align them into a single kindergarten through third grade system that matters, and that’s why we see bigger effects.”
There is growing evidence that a preschool through third grade approach shows positive results for students. A consistency in teaching methods can also allow for a better transition from pre-K to kindergarten. In terms of why there is a focus on pre-k through third grade, a 2010 New America report explains that students whose math and reading skills aren’t proficient by the end of third grade are more likely to have poor academic outcomes and drop out of school.
What low-income and dual-language kids need from preschool
The issue of cost is mentioned frequently in the Brookings paper, which seems to accept half-day preschool attendance as sufficient to and writes about how the cost of pre-k programs is overestimated since pre-K teacher salaries are lower compared to K-12 teachers, neglecting the issue of whether the savings are worth the low prestige that comes with such salaries. There are problems with half-day programs and low salaries, however, that affect the learning environment for children. A half-day program is less accessible to working parents and provides less time for low-income children and dual language learners, who are already disadvantaged, to catch up to middle class and upper class children before kindergarten.
Williams said that the advantage of full-day programs is that they allow more women to participate in the workforce, given the fact that gender biases among employers and within households mean that women become the default caregivers. When considering the fiscal realities of having a longer preschool day, Williams said the authors should consider the increased tax revenue from increased labor force participation.
“If you have a six, seven, or eight-hour investment then you actually see considerable increases in maternal labor participation, which is to say you see increases in paternal and maternal income,” Williams said. “And here is the really great part … lo and behold, you get more tax revenue. Because then they can go work and pay more taxes and help to offset the cost of the program … A half day, where labor force participation is concerned, is actually deeply inadequate.”
In addition to more labor force participation, a full-day pre-K program is better for kindergarten-readiness for low-income kids. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that low-income students did better on four out of six measures of school readiness, as well as attendance, when they attended a full-day program.
In addition to helping low-income students, a high quality full-day preschool program is beneficial for dual language learners, Williams said. Dual language learners don’t get very much exposure to English outside of the classroom, a structured, so an English-exposed environment such as preschool compensates for that.
“Being bilingual is a good thing and if you start early in life, you get cognitive benefits in the long run,” Williams said. “However, the stronger evidence even still for having dual language learners in pre-K is that they have robust English language skills earlier, which is really important and means higher potential for these kids in the long run. If you start them learning English at age 3 or age 4 it speeds things up for them to get on grade level for English language learning by third grade.”
Mead said the lower cost of pre-K teacher salaries means that preschool programs are going to be a lot less stable than other education levels. Pre-K teachers made a median salary of $27,570 in 2013 compared to the median high school teacher’s salary of median annual salary of $55,360, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Is it a good thing that teachers make so much less than K-12 schools? Or is it not a good thing because it means there are higher rates of turnover?” Mead asked.
In a book published last week, Too Many Children Left Behind, the authors — a combination of social scientists and economists — detail how low-income children are far behind their middle class peers in their educational development before they enter school and emphasize the importance of pre-K access. As family backgrounds become lower income, proficiency in math fades, the authors write, and gaps in academic performance don’t change very much over time:
“Children from families with low-educated parents begin school with a massive disadvantage in terms of their basic academic capabilities, and they are not able to close even a portion of that gap by the start of high school. Disadvantage from the preschool period appears to persist unchallenged throughout the school years,” they write.
Williams agrees. “Public investment here done well could raise quality and it could raise the professional standards of the education force of the United States. Right now, there are tiers in the system where we have the very cheapest care but usually the lowest quality going to the children who often need the best and highest quality,” he said.