No Substitute for Quality

There’s a lot of research to indicate that high-quality preschool does a lot to improve outcomes for poor children. I think this is important and I don’t think there’s anything surprising about it. There’s also a lot of research to indicate that for all the importance of socioeconomic background in determining educational outcomes, that the best K-12 schools make a huge difference in this regard. What’s odd, as Kevin Carey points out, is that some folks who like to dwell on the difficulties of providing high-quality K-12 schools to poor kids seem to breezily dance past this quality issue when talking about preschool:

In other words, there are small localized pre-K programs with robust long-term effects (and which were, thus, unavoidably, implemented a long time ago) and large federal programs that have not been nearly as consistently successful, and some mid-range programs that have worked pretty well and others that haven’t. According to a RAND study of early childhood programs in California, 16 percent of early childhood classrooms fall below “adequate” standards of quality, meaning they may be actively harming child development. Only 22 percent were classified as “good,” and disadvantaged children were less likely than others to be in the best classrooms.

The point being, you can’t just assert high quality in making these policy arguments. You need an actual, plausible plan to ensure quality. Otherwise, it would be like saying “All we need to fix American education is to enroll every child in a high-quality charter school, high-quality meaning ‘as good as the best charter school ever.’ ” That would be laughed down by anti-charter people and rightly so.

To me, that’s not a knock on preschool. It underscores how important preschool is. But providing high-quality preschool on a mass scale isn’t some kind of easy to implement alternative to the tricky task of providing high-quality elementary school on a mass scale. The situations are actually quite similar—the best stuff works great and we need more of it but it’s not 100 percent obvious how to get it.