Dewan is a pint-size, sweet-faced 1st grader who lives with his uncle, grandmother, and assorted relatives in a cramped apartment in a poor New York City neighborhood. Until recently, he was in foster care. The people he calls his mom and dad were his foster parents, and he speaks wistfully of them. Last Halloween, he didn’t trick-or-treat because “my uncle forgot to get me a costume.” Thanksgiving and Christmas also were nonevents for him. This year is his first experience with school, and although he is of average intelligence, he has spent much of the time scrambling to learn what most of his class entered school already knowing. I work with Dewan for one hour each day.
Dewan is only one of many such children in the nation’s poorer districts, schools that are struggling to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Since its inception five years ago, the law has been critiqued from every angle. It aims to ratchet up the pressure on the nation’s schools in order to turn out children who are equally well-educated, no matter what school they attend. But as a volunteer tutor at Public School 8 in Brooklyn, where a number of students travel from nearby housing projects, it is clear to me that an equally pressing concern is funding high-quality preschool programs for disadvantaged children.
Why the lag in preschool availability in our wealthy United States?
Anyone who works with youngsters from low-income backgrounds notices that they often begin school far behind their middle-class peers. While middle-class children enter kindergarten enjoying a friendly acquaintance with the alphabet, zoo animals, and Dr. Seuss, their less fortunate peers do not. The children I tutor live one subway stop from Manhattan, but have never traveled there. Nor have they visited the city’s museums and parks. PS 8 is not the problem. Its teachers are excellent, as are its enrichment programs. The problem lies in children’s homes. Many of the students have overworked and exhausted mothers, absent fathers, and a home environment where a constantly running television is their primary window to the outside world. They were “behind” when they started kindergarten.
Research shows that an important factor in sustaining economic growth is the development of human capital. In January of last year, the business-oriented Committee for Economic Development hosted a conference in New York to build an economic case for investment in preschool. From that conference came some useful information. A study by the University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman demonstrated that investment in preschool programs for disadvantaged children provides a much greater return than later, costly initiatives alone in important and quantifiable ways, including more on-time high school graduations, lower rates of teenage pregnancy and arrests, and higher earnings later in life. Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, went further. She estimated that investment in universal preschool would increase the gross domestic product by as much as $988 billion within 60 years. Last June, the CED released a report summarizing its findings. Investing in preschool education, it said, will not only enormously benefit our children, but ultimately our economy and society as well.
This is not exactly breaking news in other developed countries. Early-childhood programs for all families with young children are in place in much of Western Europe, instituted most recently in Britain with its Sure Start initiative, which enrolls nearly all of the country’s 3- and 4-year-olds. This compares with only 20 percent of American preschoolers in state-financed and Head Start programs.
So why the lag in preschool availability in our wealthy United States? More than 30 years ago, Congress passed legislation that would have underwritten preschool programs nationwide, but President Richard M. Nixon vetoed it, largely to discourage communal approaches to child-rearing. Today, our national public policies seem stuck in a three-decades-old time warp.
To make a bleak situation worse, in 2005 Congress agreed to cut nearly 25,000 Head Start slots to help fund tax cuts for the country’s wealthiest citizens. Last year, the trend in program closures and service cutbacks continued. The aim of Head Start is to increase school readiness for children up to age 5 who come from low-income families. The children being cut from the program are not children from middle-class homes, who will start prekindergarten at age 4, already groomed by their striving parents for what lies ahead. No, the cuts affect those children who, without Head Start, know little of the world outside their living room walls.
When I began tutoring Dewan last September, he could not identify his letters. Today, he recognizes each, understands them phonetically, and is solidly on the road to reading fluency. Now that he is on grade level, the chance that he will remain so is strong. But what about his disadvantaged classmates, for whom there aren’t enough volunteer tutors to go around? Many will fall further and further behind, until one day, their self-esteem on the line, they say, “Who needs this?” and join the growing ranks of high school dropouts.
We call ourselves a country that cares for our children, but whose children?
We call ourselves a country that cares for our children, but whose children? It is not enough to work to improve our schools without first providing a preschool foundation so that all children will have an equal chance at academic success and the rewards such success brings later in life.
While the concept of universal preschool has its advocates, turning it into a reality would be expensive and politically cumbersome, and it is not necessary. One interesting suggestion comes from the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, which, while solidly opposing universal-preschool funding, is aware that disadvantaged children often enter school without appropriate skills. The foundation suggests eliminating duplicate programs in California and streamlining the existing system to target high-risk children. Other states might consider the same strategy.
The long-term effects of poverty are too great to be ignored. If we want to seem credible as a country in our pronouncements that we value our children, we need to increase public awareness of the need for early-education programs for our disadvantaged. Only in this way can other initiatives, like those in the No Child Left Behind Act, be fairly judged.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2007 edition of Education Week as Fund Preschool Where It’s Needed Most