Special Report
Equity & Diversity

Consensus on Early Ed. Value, But Policy Questions Remain

By Christina A. Samuels — January 03, 2015 11 min read
Emma Sidders, 4, works on a project at a "curiosity station" at SPARK! Discovery Preschool in Frederick, Colo. Exercises such as those with gumdrops and toothpicks help build fine motor skills and basic understanding of structures and shapes.
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A year ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told state leaders at a National Governors Association gathering that the growth of publicly financed early-childhood education in the nation is “inevitable.”

Actions at the state, local, and federal levels, both before and after that meeting, have largely proved the assertion true. In New York, for example, lawmakers set aside $340 million for preschool in May, most of which was earmarked for creating a universal preschool program in New York City. On a far smaller scale, Indiana is dipping a toe into the preschool waters, with a program set to serve 2,000 in five counties. That leaves only eight states with no state-funded preschool.

As those examples demonstrate, the conversation about early-childhood programs, particularly preschool, has in many cases transcended political divides. Red states and Republican lawmakers have taken up the preschool cause almost as eagerly as Democratic politicians in blue states, accelerated by more than a billion dollars in federal funds passed through to states via programs such as the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants.

“I’m an optimist, so I’ve always expected this to happen,” said Libby Doggett, the U.S. Department of Education’s deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning, who has spent her entire career in early education, including as a teacher and advocate. “What’s been exciting is to have so many unexpected allies—the business community, the law-enforcement community, the faith-based community—stepping forward and saying, ‘These are our children, and we are going to help.’ ”

Complications Abound

But the enthusiasm for expanding early-childhood programs has raised some complex policy issues.

Early education in general, and preschool in particular, carries a heavy burden, with advocates arguing that the ripple effects can include future academic success and improved life outcomes. Still, it is an open question whether prekindergarten programs—including such landmarks as federally funded Head Start—are uniformly good enough to lead to those positive results and whether the same positive results will be seen by all children who participate.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president emeritus of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the author of the 2009 book Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut, says current evidence doesn’t support the need for publicly funded preschool for all. The focus, he said, should be on comprehensive programs for the neediest children.

Preschool “has transcended politics, but bad ideas often do,” Mr. Finn said. “There is a soft-heartedness and a soft-headedness that has come together here, and it’s leading to bad policy.”

There’s also the siloed nature of early-childhood programming itself. A single child might receive services through a federally funded home-visiting program as an infant; day-care services paid for by a different federal funding stream as a toddler; a state, federal, or privately financed preschool at age 4; and a state-funded public education on entering kindergarten. The connections between all those programs have traditionally been tenuous or nonexistent, though early-childhood policy advocates are working to forge closer bonds among the many programs that may touch the life of a child in his or her early years.

Finally, researchers are still making discoveries about how young children learn best, with implications for how early-learning programs are structured. Some supporters are concerned that a push to get children literate by 3rd grade, for example, is elbowing out other important elements of early education.

Bipartisan Support

But policymakers around the country are willing to grapple with this issue in a way that they were not even 10 years ago, said W. Steven Barnett, the executive director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Riley Nelson, 3, works on a project at a "curiosity station" at SPARK! Discovery Preschool in Frederick, Colo., which emphasizes the use of tools and encourages young children to see how things work. The surge of interest in early-childhood education poses complex policy and academic challenges.

In October, for example, Mr. Barnett attended a panel discussion in Georgia on early education, sponsored by the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students. The Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian candidates for governor in that state, all in attendance, said they support publicly subsidized preschool. Nathan Deal, the GOP governor who won re-election, had cut the state’s public pre-K program from 180 to 160 days during a budget shortfall but restored those days for the 2013-14 school year.

The expansion of early-childhood programming “is the accumulation of a body of evidence and the demonstrated policy successes,” Mr. Barnett said. “And I think you can also add a third thing: Families today just view it as a necessity.” Today’s debate about early childhood is not focused primarily on whether the government is interfering with child-rearing, Mr. Barnett explained, but on how to pay for preschool programs and how to improve their quality.

“Parents have made the decision,” he said. “So now, it’s how do we support the parents’ decisions?”

Long Windup

Preschool in some form existed in the United States as early as the 1800s. At that time, it was supported by groups that had two different aims, wrote Emily D. Cahan, a professor emerita of psychology at Wheelock College in Boston, in Past Caring, a history of early-childhood-education programs in the U.S. One group believed that programs such as “infant schools” could provide better socialization for poor children than could their parents; a second philosophy was that early education could enrich children and give them a better start to 1st grade and beyond.

The largest federal investment in early-childhood education came through the 1965 enactment of Head Start, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Head Start was launched as an eight-week demonstration program and is now a more-than $8 billion-a-year expenditure that serves pregnant women, infants, and children up to age 4.

In some states, such as Wisconsin, 4-year-olds have been allowed to attend kindergarten at state expense as far back as the 19th century. But state funding of preschool was largely jump-started with the enactment of Head Start. The states got involved in a major way in the 1980s, and by the end of the 1990s, 40 states had established some form of state-funded prekindergarten.

The number of state-financed programs has remained relatively stable since then, though recent years have brought some increased funding and involvement at the city level.

For example, in Indianapolis, Republican Mayor Greg Ballard is one of several city leaders nationwide who are stepping into the early-childhood arena. With his backing and the financial support of major businesses in the community, such as pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., the city will launch a $40 million preschool program for 1,000 low-income children in 2016. This will be in addition to the state-funded program, which will also serve some children in Indianapolis.

An early stumbling point on the Indianapolis program had been funding, but there was no disagreement between the mayor and the Democratic-dominated City Council that the program is needed, Mr. Ballard said.

“It’s easy to put the pieces together: You spend a penny now or you spend a dollar later. I think there’s a lot of truth to that,” he said.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, wants to bring a state-funded program for 4-year-olds to the state and has proposed $37 million that can be used by school districts, either to set up their own programs or to form partnerships with private providers. The program would be Montana’s first foray into state-subsidized prekindergarten and, if approved, would start in the 2015-16 school year and be available to all 4-year-olds, regardless of family income.

Mr. Bullock said that some lawmakers in the Republican-dominated legislature will need convincing that preschool is an appropriate priority. But he said that it is helpful to be able to point to other states, such as GOP-controlled Oklahoma and Michigan as places that have made sizable preschool investments.

Madison Flanders, 4, listens to her teacher at SPARK! Discovery Preschool. Prekindergarten programs can carry a heavy burden of expectations on the part of advocates and parents.

“That is a bit disarming to those who want to oppose something just because it’s one of my priorities,” Mr. Bullock said.

While politicians work the political angle of early childhood, teachers and others who work directly with children are delving into how best to educate young children.

Research has exploded in the past decade on how the under-5 set learn. Evidence in fields from neuroscience to cognitive psychology suggests very young pupils can understand and even enjoy challenging material. But the studies also find that young children learn in a very different way from older children, and that simply moving the format of the primary grades down can actually hinder their learning and development.

Once children move on to kindergarten, several states have adopted entry assessments intended to highlight gaps in a child’s knowledge. The federal government has supported state implementation of those tests, both through the Early Learning Challenge Grants and a grant program aimed directly at test creation.

Assessment Anxieties

The tests have brought anxieties to some in the early-childhood field, however. Some educators say they are valuable tools to see what children know and shape instruction to their needs, but others worry that kindergarten testing is edging out important play-based learning in favor of inappropriate academic expectations and pressure.

Those concerns have spread to the early years more generally.

University of Virginia researchers Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem, using information gathered from teachers surveyed in 1998 and in 2010 as part of the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, found that kindergarten teachers have much higher expectations of their charges now than they had more than a decade ago. For example, in 1998, 30 percent of teachers indicated that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that figure was 80 percent. And in 1998, 15 percent of kindergarten teachers said they spent three or more hours per day on teacher-directed, whole-class activities. In 2010, that had more than doubled, to 32 percent.

Recognizing that elementary school principals have often had to straddle two different worlds—the birth-through-5 continuum and the K-12 system—the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals in October released a guide outlining the skills school leaders should have to support children for the “first critical years of schooling.” The guide encourages principals to create a seamless transition from preschool to kindergarten and on to later grades.

The advent of technology in the classroom is also making a difference in the early years. Perennial concerns about screen time and active versus passive technology use are now running into new concerns about the need to prepare even very young children to handle and interact with technology and to become responsible digital citizens. Schools also face the challenge of integrating a wealth of new apps, adaptive-learning programs, and other instructional tools that many believe can help ensure that students enter 4th grade reading and doing math on grade level.

And moving beyond kindergarten, 3rd grade has become a pivotal point, with many policymakers enacting rules that say children must be on grade level in reading by the end of that year or be retained for further instruction.

Uneven Enrollment

The complexity of the work going on in the early-childhood space appears not to have slowed the momentum for support. However, early education still has an uneven rate of participation among families.

Nationally, 28 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in preschool, a trend that has held fairly steady for the past four school years, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research, which produces an annual yearbook of statistics on state programs.

But the Education Week Research Center, analyzing data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, found that preschool enrollment for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families is substantially lower than it is for children that age in more-affluent households. Families with higher education levels are also more likely to enroll their children in preschool. The data also show that most of the states with the highest preschool enrollment are on the East Coast, and that lower enrollments are found in the West. Also, families with higher incomes tend to enroll their children in preschool at a higher rate than their lower-income counterparts.

Chart: Preschool Enrollment by Household Income

Those disparities in preschool enrollment stand in contrast to enrollment in full-day kindergarten. About 76 percent of kindergarten pupils were enrolled in full-day programs in 2012, and the percentage was about the same both for parents who had less than a high school diploma and for parents who had a bachelor’s degree or more, according to Child Trends, a Bethesda, Md.-based research organization.

Federal education officials, while extolling early-education expansions at the local and state level, haven’t given up on Congress, though after the November elections action may be difficult because Republican leaders have said they want to see less of a federal footprint in education. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is continuing to push for a $75 billion federal investment in preschool; in the proposal, states could also use some of their funding to bolster full-day kindergarten offerings.

Secretary Duncan hammered on the theme in San Francisco in October during one of his frequent trips to drum up support for early learning.

“As a nation, we rank something like 20th relative to other industrialized nations in percentage of young children with access to high-quality early-learning opportunities,” he said. “That’s no badge of honor. That makes no sense whatsoever. So again, at every level, state, local, national, we have to be better. We have to get better faster.”

Contributing Writer Lillian Mongeau provided material for this article.


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