President Promotes Universal Preschool
President Obama called for universal preschool education in his 2013 State of the Union Address. He said his administration plans on “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education,” Mr Obama maintains, “can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
Critics hope Obama isn’t relying on the tired and tiny 1962-67 Perry Preschool Project for his predictive evidence. Results for 58 children in an excellent program, analyzed by individuals personally invested in positive outcomes, should not be used to predict any result that could actually or logically be obtained in a nationwide, federally funded program.
It is unknown whether the crime-stopping, budget-saving, academic-boosting program suggested is Head Start on steroids or an entirely new idea. If it is more Head Start, the evidence shows it is a bad investment. Obama has said, “It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.” Head Start doesn’t work.
Head Start has been shown to be a 48-year, $180-billion-dollar boondoggle, so will it be discontinued as a federal program? Head Start claims to provide not just academic readiness for school, but a “comprehensive services” program for children from birth through kindergarten, including expert help in socio-emotional development, health care/health status and parenting practice, but the program has little to no positive results to back up its extravagant claims.
Neuroscience and sociological knowledge increasingly show the importance and long-term effects of experiences in a child’s early years. However, there is no evidence that experiences in a school setting are necessary in these early years.
The actual value of preschool is debatable. Worldwide, “some enthusiastic providers of preschool education like Sweden, Norway, France, Belgium and Denmark do not score particularly highly on attainment in later education.” Further, “establishing the precise link between time in preschool and later achievement is difficult.” (The Economist, 02-09-13)
Many American parents are concerned that a comprehensive federal program may result in eventual mandates to send even very young children to school. Some states have already lowered the age of mandatory attendance at schools. Finland, which is considered the educational leader of the 40 developed countries, using various measures including international test scores and graduation rates, doesn’t start formal learning until a child is seven years old. Although most Finnish families take advantage of free pre-K offerings, before age seven children only play at “school” and there is no reading or math presented to them.
Another problem with preschool is that it can stress children not ready for formal learning. For example, Florida pulls out and individually tests the 184,000 4-year-olds in state-provided pre-K, using a new standardized assessment that only measures academic readiness: “literacy, numeracy, and language development.” Problems also arise in that these assessments include no measures of social or emotional development. (Education Week, 09-26-12) This early focus on academics and testing is exactly what successful Finnish schools do not do. In fact, Finnish schools do not believe in “the culture of testing.”
Some of the foreign high-achieving countries do rely on early introduction of academics and heavy testing, but some would argue that American culture is more closely aligned to Finland than to the mainly Asian countries that rely on long school days, heavy testing, and one-size-fits-all instruction.
What works in Finland is “well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students.” (Wall Street Journal, 2-29-2008)
One suggestion for better academic and personal outcomes for children is improved elementary schools, with excellent and motivated teachers, where kindergarten and first-grade classrooms allow students to blossom into the little readers and mathematicians they can be, according to their individual abilities. Sound idealistic? No more so than Obama’s unsubstantiated, unfounded and expensive promises.