Feature

Pre-school: Could it close the education gap?

In his State of the Union address, Obama proposed a program that would give all U.S. 3- and 4-year-olds access to “high-quality” pre-school education.

Compared with the rest of the world, said Mary Sanchez in The Kansas City Star, we are “a wealthy nation of dummies and dropouts,” lagging far behind other countries’ educational performance. But President Obama now has an ambitious plan to close that gap. In his State of the Union address, Obama proposed a program that would give all U.S. 3- and 4-year-olds access to “high-quality” pre-school education. The new program would be run at the state level with federal oversight. It’s unclear where the funding would come from, said Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post, but universal pre-K programs would “more than pay for themselves over time.” Studies show that children from chaotic inner-city homes who attend high-quality pre-school not only acquire book smarts, but develop critical “non-cognitive skills,” such as delayed gratification, planning, and cooperation. These students end up going further in school, paying more in taxes, and saving society a lot of money with much lower rates of teen pregnancy and incarceration.

Sadly, that’s a myth, said Darcy Olsen in NationalReview.com. Studies showing the dramatic benefits of pre-school were conducted back in the 1960s and ’70s and involved only a few hundred students, each of whom received intensive academic intervention costing a whopping $18,000 per pupil a year. A more realistic guide to what we can expect is the national Head Start program for disadvantaged kids, which spends less than half that amount per pupil. A recent study of Head Start’s 47-year record by Obama’s own Department of Health and Human Services concluded that “pre-school has no lasting impact on children’s future educational success.” While most children do show some immediate benefits from pre-school classes, the study found, those gains have usually “disappeared by the third grade.”

It’s true that Head Start’s “outcomes are dismal,” said David Brooks in The New York Times, but some state programs across the nation, including ones in Georgia, Oklahoma, and New Jersey, have had much better results. They’ve shown that pre-school really can give children “significantly better lives,” but only if the teachers are well-trained and held to “rigorous performance standards.” The Obama plan acknowledges this reality: It gives states the flexibility to design and adjust their own programs, with the federal government measuring results and enforcing high standards. Pre-school can make a big difference if it’s done right, said Suzy Khimm in WashingtonPost.com. Oklahoma’s successful program, for example, requires teachers to have college degrees and training in early-childhood education, and has a 10:1 ratio of students to teachers. That would be a hard sell because of cost, and “skimping on quality to save money could undermine the entire effort.”

Another threat to this idea is too much hype, said Joan Walsh in Salon.com. Despite Obama’s lofty promises, pre-school is not “a social-policy silver bullet” that solves all the educational and social problems rooted in poverty. Still, when pre-school programs are well-designed and staffed by trained teachers, they seem to be “the single best intervention to break the cycle of chronic poverty.” So why, then, isn’t Obama focusing on “at-risk kids, who have the most to gain from pre-K, rather than launching a new universal program”? asked Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. Why isn’t he proposing a smaller-scale experiment to see if pre-schools really do work? Here’s why: Obama has such a strong “ideological commitment to an expansive government” that he believes he can “overcome any obstacle” with enough funding and top-down regulation. “We know this works,” Obama says, when in truth, we don’t.

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