President Barack Obama’s call for universal preschool exists more as a noble aspiration than as something the White House can realistically expect the present Congress to enact.
The idea is hardly far-fetched though. States are already moving, if unevenly, to expand public pre-kindergarten classes. Programs are taking root and spreading just as public kindergartens did in the mid-20th century. In 2011, 28 percent of American 4-year-olds attended a public academic preschool, up from 14 percent a decade earlier. Thirty-nine states offer some kind of program and eight have more than half of their 4-year- olds enrolled.
This trend should be encouraged, because preschool has been shown to be effective in getting little kids started in school. Experts may argue over how many years the academic benefits last, but it’s clear that children who attend a decent preschool enter kindergarten with sharpened cognitive skills. They’re also better able to sit still and pay attention, work and play with other kids, and regulate their own behavior. The evidence is especially strong when it comes to poor and otherwise disadvantaged children.
So the question is not so much whether more preschool is a good idea. It’s how to expand it now — even if it takes years for a federal plan like Obama’s to materialize.
The first priority should be to improve the quality of existing preschools. In the best ones, fully credentialed teachers, earning salaries on par with K-12 teachers, offer carefully planned group and one-on-one experiences that let the youngsters build vocabulary, learn about letters and numbers, and play happily with one another. In the worst, teachers with too many pupils and too little training either fail to engage the children enough or push them beyond their capacity with alphabet drills and strict discipline.
It wouldn’t be realistic or even desirable to suddenly hold every classroom to the highest standards. But it is possible to give training and support to preschool teachers who have never had it. Many of those who lack a college degree in education are nevertheless nurturing, responsive, capable people who mainly need some help in understanding how to develop the post-toddler mind. For example, Texas, which has one of the largest state preschool programs in the United States, with 52 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled, offers its preschool teachers training and curriculum materials, feedback and coaching on their interactions with children, and an incentive payment of $300 for participating in the program.
In addition to improving existing preschools, governments at every level should push to create more of them. Good preschools not only help children get ready for school but also attract business. Last year, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro persuaded business executives to endorse his effort to raise city sales taxes to expand preschool.
The federal Education Department has been helping, too, through its Race to the Top-Early Challenge, which is to distribute $133 million in grants to five states to improve and expand their preschool programs.
Obama’s proposed program would presumably do much more, though the administration has yet to say how much it would cost. The president has indicated, however, that he, too, is willing to move gradually. The plan wouldn’t actually provide preschool for all children but would begin with the poorest. (The proposal would cover about 45 percent of the 4.1 million 4-year-olds in the U.S.) Obama has said he would also let local school districts and “other partner providers” of preschool take the lead in deciding how to spend the money.
There will be those in Congress who say that the federal government should be striving for less involvement, not more, in traditionally local matters such as education. And the ever- present federal budget deficit colors all proposals to spend money.
Still, it would be a nice surprise if Congress would at least consider it — and even suggest improvements. Some preschools, for example, may deserve support even if all their teachers aren’t yet fully credentialed and if the teacher- student ratio is not yet ideal. Such programs could be given time to improve.
Policymakers at every level of government spend much time debating how best to help older students. Improving the education of America’s 4-year-olds would allow them to take a crucial first step.