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Education Opinion

The Implications of Universal Preschool

By Matthew Lynch — August 16, 2013 3 min read

President Obama has been vocal about his belief that a publicly-funded universal preschool initiative is necessary to give American children an academic advantage before ever setting foot in a Kindergarten classroom. A poll conducted by the bipartisan team of Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies found that 70 percent of respondents were in full support of a universal preschool plan as long as it did not contribute to the national deficit. Sixty percent of the Republicans polled supported the plan, despite its close ties with the Democratic Chief. It is clear that average Americans, despite party affiliation, are supportive of essentially extending the public school system to include preschool-aged students - but should K-12 educators be on board?

On paper, universal preschool seems like it would provide a definite boost to the K-12 academic initiatives that follow. Children with an earlier start in school settings should hypothetically have a stronger knowledge base before Kindergarten and be further developed in the social aspects that accompany the school years, and life beyond them. Common sense would dictate that adding a one-year option for preschool would lead to higher achievement throughout the K-12 journey, but the facts actually contradict this stance.

Studies of federal early education programs, like Head Start, have found that kids entrenched in academics early on show little to no academic advantages compared to kids that started school later. The positive academic impact of early education programs is non-existent by fifth grade. Further, state-based preschool campaigns in states like Oklahoma reveal no real long-term critical thinking or social advantages for the students.

The idea that setting kids in a school environment earlier than Kindergarten leads to better, smarter students is flawed - if just the results of these studies are to be trusted. So then what is with the push for this universal preschool? Critics of the plan say it is just a way to add more education jobs, particularly since proponents want to insist that states accepting federal preschool dollars pay preschool teachers at the same rate as elementary ones.

The plan has also been accused of being a federally-funded childcare angle meant to help alleviate the cost woes of working parents along with giving kids a jump on academics. Predictably, this ruffles the feathers of constituents who are already leery of Obama’s so-called “socialist agenda” and the government having too much control over family affairs. Both claims are a stretch, in my opinion, and not the real issues that need to be discussed when it comes to the worthiness of universal preschool.

The real question that needs to be answered is whether or not starting kids earlier, across the board, will have a measurable impact on the success of American students throughout their careers. This answer comes with a host of complications though. What specific gains will constitute “success” in a universal preschool initiative? Higher standardized test scores? Better graduation rates? More graduates who go on to earn math and science degrees? Laying out a preschool plan that does not spell out any goals, or steps for achievement, is like sowing seeds haphazardly in a field and hoping something comes to fruition.

The second question should be: If implemented, how long will it take to see potential improvements? At what grade level will universal preschool benefits materialize - or at what age do educators stop hoping to see any positive impact?

Education is a right for all children but the how and when of that learning is muddy. Universal preschool may be the boost American children need to regain some academic ground on the world stage - or it may prove to be a better idea in theory than practice.

What are your thoughts on publicly funded universal preschool?

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 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.

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