Education Opinion

Let’s Get Universal Pre-K Right

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 30, 2014 4 min read
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Tuesday’s State of the Union Address by President Obama asserted a new war on poverty and promoted Universal Pre-K. In the 1960’s, the country was engaged in a war on poverty led by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Head Start began then as a summer catch-up program for children living in poverty. It morphed into a full year program twenty years later. So, we’ve been here before and we have learned some things....right?

Research articles on the value of early childhood education abound. One article, on the value of early childhood programs, written ten years ago, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine said:

Early childhood development is influenced by characteristics of the child, the family, and the broader social environment. Physical health, cognition, language, and social and emotional development underpin school readiness. Publicly funded, center-based, comprehensive early childhood development programs are a community resource that promotes the well-being of young children. Programs such as Head Start are designed to close the gap in readiness to learn between poor children and their more economically advantaged peers. Systematic reviews of the scientific literature demonstrate effectiveness of these programs in preventing developmental delay, as assessed by reductions in retention in grade and placement in special education.

More current research is consistent in its findings. The National Institute for Early Education Research reports research from across the country and has developed a summary fact sheet. A powerful rational for Universal Pre-K is documented there. First, there are long term positive effects including gains in achievement and in social-emotional development, less grade repetition and special education, and increased high school graduation. There is also a strong case made by the cost benefit analysis for publically funded programs. Some of the research indicates the gains for boys evident in grades two and three is noteworthy. From both Chicago to Oklahoma, publically funded universal pre-K programs have experience to offer. “The bottom line: pre-K does produce substantial long-term gains, particularly when programs are properly designed” (p.1). Properly designed, high quality and properly funded are keywords as the new program comes online.

But, let’s learn from the past. In August 2013 USA Today reported that as a result of the sequester 57,000 of the one million children would be denied Head Start programming. Unacceptable for any essential program to be that vulnerable to political gamesmanship. We believe in Universal Pre-K and we want it introduced to the system in a way that really will make it accessible to all. We are optimistic that there is enough research to support the design of preschool programs informed by principles of early child development.

Universal Pre-K is a proposal that offers pre-K to ‘all’. Initial indications are that the program would be voluntary, like kindergarten is in most states. Funding is unclear. Overtime, schools have become not only places for children to be educated but also childcare centers which parents can plan their lives and work around. Working parents in both single parent and two parent households have come to depend on it. When schools close for weather or other emergency reasons, parents must scurry to figure out how to care for their children or it causes them to lose work time. So let’s be clear about the roles schools play. And, if Universal Pre-K opens voluntary enrollment to all preschoolers, let’s make sure that the children in poverty served successfully by Head Start are not lost as others rush in.

Funding and delivery options will need to be carefully, not haphazardly, developed. Some states and schools still struggle with mandatory Kindergarten. With tax caps affecting schools across the country, some schools have been forced to cut Kindergarten programs to half days. How could it be good for children, if from ages 3 to 5 they were in full day Pre K programs and then, at age 5 enter Kindergarten for only half a day.

The way children in this country are educated has become a football in a bigger political game than ever before. First, there seemed to be concern that American students were unable to lift the status of the US on international standardized tests. Then, came the data to demonstrate that our students were not college or career ready. So let’s be smart about this. We hear the discussions. We hear in New York a Governor and a Mayor bandying about their intent to legislate Universal Pre-K. It had been previously introduced by Arnie Duncan. Now we hear it from the POTUS. Its time has come. Now, it is time to contribute our voices. Let’s get in on the ground floor of how to make this happen. We need to be thinking about what this means for the children. No one knows more about the impact, effects, and costs to our children and their families than we do.

Let Universal Pre-K not become the next Common Core or standardized testing battle. Let’s get active now, while it is still taking shape. If it is intended to support formation of those behaviors that help young children develop vocabularies, learn how to express themselves better, practice cooperative play, work on fine and large motor skills, count, focus, and pay attention, then we can tap our networks and lead. In fact, we must do that. There is fear associated with any new initiative coming from above right now. If the sole intention held by political proponents is to prepare children to better able to handle rigorous academics in Kindergarten, we must push back. If Universal Pre-K is coming, let us design it. Now is the time to step up and step out and embrace the 3 and 4 year olds. Then, we will have our own future in our hands. Let’s get this one right.

American Journal of Preventative Medicine 2003; 24(3S): 32-46

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