For too long, preschool has been widely considered glorified babysitting (“Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least?” The New York Times, Jan. 9, 2018). Yet when done right, it has the potential - not the assurance - to help the most disadvantaged children.
But even if further research showed a positive, direct link between preschool and effects years later, I’m not sure attitudes would change. I say that because we can’t agree on what constitutes “high quality.” The widely cited Perry and Abecedarian studies continue to be criticized for the difficulty of replicating their results. ( e.g. Perry had a treatment sample of only 58 kids.) Moreover, pilot programs tend to have low external validity. By that I mean they don’t generalize to other settings.
I also wonder how much influence the infamous McMartin preschool sexual abuse case plays. It was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in California history, and resulted in zero convictions (“The Great Day-Care Sexual-Abuse Panic,” The Weekly Standard, Jul. 17, 2017).
Let’s assume, however, that preschool is finally recognized for its importance. Who would want to make a career in that field when teachers earn on average $10 an hour? For example, Massachusetts prohibits a child-to-teacher ratio in full-day preschool from exceeding 10 to 1. That comes out on average to $28,500 a year. A Child Development Associate certificate, which requires a nine-month course meeting for four hours every Saturday, would likely bump the hourly wage by only a few dollars.
If we’re serious about preschool, we have to treat teachers as professionals, rather than as babysitters. So far, Oklahoma is in the vanguard in this regard. Every four-year-old receives free access to a year of high-quality pre-K. Younger children from disadvantaged backgrounds get access to full-day, year-round nursery school. Some families even qualify for home visits to coach parents on how to read and talk to their children. In short, quality is expensive.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.