Early Childhood

The State of American Preschool, in Six Parts

By Lillian Mongeau — September 13, 2016 4 min read
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For the past six months, I have been reporting and writing a six-story series for The Hechinger Report and The Atlantic on how the United States has ended up well behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to investing in young children.

While there are many ways to invest in children younger than 5, I chose to focus on preschool since it is the early-years program most closely correlated with K-12 education, my primary focus as an education reporter. As I explained in my first story:

...the fate of all children is largely determined by their first years on this planet. Forming healthy relationships with adults early on lays the foundation for future healthy relationships. Exposure to language through stories, songs and conversations sets the stage for academic achievement. Playing outside to master gross motor skills, creating art to master fine motor skills, pretending to be a doctor, chef or firefighter to learn teamwork, building a tower of blocks to learn basic physics lessons—all of these activities are critical preparation for a successful school and adult life. The most straightforward way to ensure all children have such experiences is to provide free or affordable high-quality preschool for them when they are 3- and 4-year-olds. ... Nearly every industrialized country has recognized [this] and begun offering a version of universal public preschool for its children. Not the U.S. On every level -- local, state and federal -- this country invests little to nothing in the first five years of a child's life, putting us decades and dollars behind the rest of the developed world.

Why don’t we invest as much per young child as other industrialized countries? There are many complicated factors ranging from a deep-seated American reluctance to let government into family life to a commitment to lower taxes than many of our European counterparts. Both conservative and liberal thinkers interviewed for the series cited limited funds as one reason not to expand our current programming.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, answered the question bluntly: “I think we value our children less than other nations do. I don’t have an easier or softer or kinder way to say that.”

And so I set out to gather the exact details of what we are spending on the early years, how we’re spending it, and what we know works.

“Reasonable people can disagree about solutions,” Katharine Stevens, research fellow and early education expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, reminded me several times during my interview with her.

Stevens wants to know why advocates are so eager to believe that a public schools system that hardly leads the international pack can be expected to offer the high-quality preschool programs research has shown make a difference for children.

“I think we need to be thinking more in terms of pilot projects and support and incentives for states to be experimenting with things,” Stevens told me, “rather than pretending that we have a national public consensus about what needs to be done and that we know the right way to do it.”

Right now, we as a country are acting more or less as Stevens recommends.

On the one hand, we do spend billions each year on preschool. Head Start alone, the federal government’s preschool program for poor children, cost $9.2 billion in the 2016 fiscal year. But we still serve only a fraction of the poor children eligible to enroll because there’s not enough money to pay enough people to serve all of the children living in poverty in America.

Most states also spend millions of dollars per year on preschool programs that are as yet too small to serve all the children who qualify for them. And while states and cities have been adding to their preschool budgets and creating or expanding preschool programs in recent years, the comparatively slow pace of change is leaving us increasingly far behind on early education compared to other developed nations.

“At the current rate, it will be another 50 years before states can reach all low-income children at age four, and it will take 150 years to reach 75 percent of all four-year-olds,” writes Steven Barnett, director the National Institute for Early Education Research, in his introduction to the 2015 State of Preschool Yearbook.

To explain where we are at and how we got there without glossing over the complexity of our current preschool landscape was hard. I spoke to teachers, advocates, researchers, policymakers and skeptics from Boston to Colorado; New York City to Portland, Oregon. I traveled to England to see how they have managed to provide subsidized or free care and education for all of the country’s 3- and 4-year-olds. I dug into the research on and history of Head Start. And I secured an exclusive interview, albeit via email, with Hillary Clinton on her extensive plans to lead the country in a new direction on early education and family policies if she becomes president.

In addition to writing six stories, I worked with a developer to create an interactive map that shows the intersection of quality and availability of public preschool in the U.S. and a timeline of the major early education policy changes dating back to the late 19th century. We also ran the interview with Clinton, who could be the first president to enter the White House having spent much of her 40-year career focused on early childhood issues, as a stand-alone Q&A.

There were moments when the sheer volume of all the information I was taking in made it seem like I would never synthesize everything into a single comprehensive storyline. I think I did finally manage to do that; to create a comprehensive portrait of the current state of our patchwork system of educating our country’s littlest learners. And my main takeaway is: It’s complicated.

It’s true that we have not fully committed to educating children under age 5 in this country, poor or otherwise. We pay most of our preschool teachers low wages that are not sufficient to retain the most high-quality instructors. We do not provide young families with the economic help—in terms of free or subsidized care—that many desperately need. Some of our biggest statewide programs, like those in Florida and Texas, aren’t great.

At the same time, a few cities, like Boston, have exemplary public programs. A few states, like Oklahoma, offer universal preschool. Much of the research other countries base their preschool programs on comes from American universities. Most of the public programs we do offer are of decent quality, if not sufficiently accessible. And, perhaps most notably in the current political climate, Republicans and Democrats, even those in Congress, have a history of working together on this issue.

We are behind the rest of the developed world, and it remains to be seen which way things will go from here.

Photo: Boston Public Schools’ students play at the water table in their preschool classroom. Boston offers preschool free of charge to a majority of its students. (Lillian Mongeau/The Hechigner Report)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.