Opinion
Early Childhood Commentary

Universal Pre-K: What About the Babies?

By Samuel J. Meisels — January 24, 2006 6 min read

—Steven Braden

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Twenty-five years ago, I picked up a new book by Jerome Bruner, one of the 20th century’s leading developmental psychologists. In the first volume of the Oxford Preschool Project, he wrote something that has stayed with me ever since. He said, “Where emotional and mental growth are concerned, well begun is indeed half done.”

Those words have real resonance for me, as an early-childhood educator. I am drawn to their clear recognition that fulfillment in human development is linked to the quality of one’s early experiences. But I also see another meaning in Bruner’s Aristotelian observation about beginnings and endings. Good beginnings are not enough. Good beginnings, like good intentions, only count when they are sustained, reinforced, and carried through to completion.

The persuasive arguments we’ve heard about the importance of the early years, from national organizations such as Zero to Three and others, have inspired several generations to improve the care and education of the very young, particularly those at risk. And that work, well begun, has led to dramatic growth in public support for educational and intervention programs prior to kindergarten.

If we allow public policy to turn age 4 into the magical year on which later school success is built, what will we do if nationwide universal pre-K for 4-year-olds fails to deliver on its ambitious promise?

Previously, the largest public investment in pre-K programs was Head Start, which opened as an eight-week summer program in 1965 and today serves more than 900,000 children, many year-round, at a cost in excess of $7 billion. Over the past decade, state-funded pre-K programs have almost surpassed Head Start in the number of children they serve. Pre-K programs are now offered by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, more than 10 states either have or are considering the option of providing universal pre-K services, though only Georgia and Oklahoma are presently serving all of the 4-year-olds in their states.

This is good news, and everyone who worked to encourage widespread availability of quality pre-K programs for 4-year-olds deserves our thanks and praise. But what about children younger than 4 years of age? If we know that even in infancy—if not in utero—children are establishing critical pathways to later learning and development, what about the babies? One of the most startling statistics about pre-K programs is that 25 states devote no funding whatsoever to those younger than age 4. Their funds are committed solely to the year prior to kindergarten.

Given what we know, is it wise policy to focus on providing care for just 20 percent of the preschool population? Do the pre-K advocates who are working so hard on behalf of the nation’s 4-year-olds not care about babies?

Of course they do. The issue is not whether babies are lovable and engaging, or even whether the first years of life are extremely important. Indeed, some advocates within the pre-K movement explain their focus on 4-year-olds by pointing out that their efforts on behalf of pre-K will provide a lever for eventually expanding services to younger children. Nearly all those who are professionally associated with the pre-K movement are also advocates for 3-year-olds and for those between birth to age 3. As one of the leading exponents of prekindergarten wrote to me last summer, “I don’t know anyone in the pre-K movement who would not acknowledge the importance of the first three years of life.” She went on to note that we must take care not to pit one age group against another, an admonition I take to heart.

But if we allow public policy to turn age 4 into the magical year on which later school success is built, what will we do if nationwide universal pre-K for 4-year-olds fails to deliver on its ambitious promise?

The early years matter not because they establish an irreversible pattern of development, but because they furnish us with either a secure or a vulnerable stage on which subsequent development is built.

The choice before us is not between supporting pre-K for 4-year-olds or supporting comprehensive services for all children from birth to age 5. I believe that the real task is to clarify—for policymakers and for the public they answer to—the place that the first three or four years of life hold. We know from a National Academy of Sciences report, “From Neurons to Neighborhoods,” that the early years matter not because they establish an irreversible pattern of development, but because they furnish us with either a secure or a vulnerable stage on which subsequent development is built. Human development isn’t over at age 3. But all the same, it makes sense to start early.

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child points out that the “window of opportunity for development remains open for many years, but the costs of remediation grow with increasing age.” Research shows us that starting early has more impact than starting late. As brain circuits are built up and stabilize over time, they become increasingly more difficult to alter. Early intervention makes sense economically and has greater potential for closing the persistent and pernicious achievement gaps that pre-K policy is largely about.

James J. Heckman, the Nobel Prize- winning economist from the University of Chicago, made this point not long ago. He said: “Learning starts in infancy, long before formal education begins, and continues throughout life. … Early learning begets later learning and early success breeds later success. … Success or failure at this stage lays the foundation for success or failure in school.”

Heckman’s point is that the cost of future learning can be reduced by the provision of quality early-childhood experiences. In his words, “The most economically efficient way to remediate the disadvantage caused by adverse family environments is to invest in children when they are young.”

I long ago learned that, in policy work, some of a good thing is better than none of that good thing, and I am confident that some pre-K is better than no pre-K. But if all children grow up in a society where programs for 4-year-olds are part of their birthright, as has largely happened with kindergarten, I fear that we may be deluding ourselves. Instead of addressing the underlying problems that too many American children confront early in life, we may have simply transferred those problems to an earlier point in time.

The start we’ve made at providing universally available pre-K in this country should not be misrepresented as an example of finished work. We’re only partway there.

Providing universal access to 4-year-old programs is thought to be the early-education equivalent of creating a level playing field for all children in the year before they enter kindergarten. But this strategy will not result in equity. It won’t close the gaps among children of different genetic inheritance, dissimilar financial and familial resources, and disparate early opportunities. Rather, it may have the paradoxical effect of widening the gaps between those with and without advantages in the early years.

Instead of creating similar, across-the-board opportunities in the year before kindergarten, we need to explore how to provide targeted interventions for those who need them most. As has been shown by the state of Illinois, in order to narrow the gap that exists before children arrive at their pre-K programs, we must begin to invest public funds in efforts that start early, provide continuous care, and are comprehensive in terms of services. And to accomplish these goals, we need virtually a Marshall Plan to transform and improve the skills of those working with children from birth to 3 years old.

I am not suggesting that one age group should have pride of place. I, like Professor Bruner, am merely stating the obvious: Well begun is half done. Life doesn’t begin at age 4, and solid beginnings are the foundation of later success. The start we’ve made at providing universally available pre-K in this country should not be misrepresented as an example of finished work. We’re only partway there.

We still need to work toward a system of pre-K that takes into account where children begin their journeys though life. To reap the rewards of pre-K, some children will require different kinds of interventions, and some of those interventions will need to be more intense, to be broader in scope, and to begin earlier than is the case for other, more advantaged children.

I concur with the slogan “Pre-K Now.” But I’d like to add, “beginning at birth for those who need it most.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Universal Pre-K: What About the Babies?

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