It's an unusual debate with a slew of evidence hailing it and then nearly vilifying it. One side claims formally teaching children before kindergarten, more commonly called early childhood education, is the heart of any good foundation for academic and social success. The initial molding of the young mind creates a powerful start for learning and critical thinking. This philosophy has led to a universal preschool program frenzy across states.
But some studies show that structured early childhood education is not all it's cracked up to be. One study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that toddlers who spend many hours in child care are more likely to turn out aggressive, disobedient and defiant by the time they reach kindergarten. But that could also be due to more parents with difficult children choosing to leave them in childcare for a longer time, others say.
In a first-of-its-kind study, the National Institute for Early Education Research just completed The State of Preschool: 2003 State Preschool Yearbook. It reveals that many state preschool programs are failing children. Few set high enough standards and fewer provide adequate funding. Forty states funded 45 state preschool programs in the 2001-02 school year. Georgia and Oklahoma are the only states that sought to provide universal access to preschool and enrolled more than half of their 4-year-olds in state programs. Oklahoma requires all preschool teachers to be certified. And New Jersey's Abbott districts' preschool program, which operates in 30 of the state's poorest districts, sets the highest standards in the nation, particularly requiring lead teachers to have a bachelor's degree and certification in early childhood education.
Two Sides of the Story
Tom Finneran, the speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, is leading the way for a no-cost, universal high-quality preschool for all three- and four-year-olds in his state through public and private providers. Early Education for All, which is expected to be up and running in the next four to five years, is estimated to cost up to $1 billion a year at its height, which should take a few years after inception.
Finneran wants a new, independently governed state Department of Early Education and Care, run by a new commissioner.
Finneran's quest started several years ago, as a result of conversations with teachers and respected educators, as well as Boston University Chancellor John Silber, who once remarked the state should stop paying for 12th grade and devote funds to early education. Silber was among the first early education advocates pointing to the rapid development of the brain before age 5. "They make points time and time again, often with a great deal of passion," Finneran says of educators. "They thought the major failing of American education was this missed opportunity with universal early childhood education."
But before the program starts, it's under assault. The Cato Institute--a non-profit public policy research foundation that seeks to broaden public policy debate to consider limited government, individual liberty and peace--opposes government-funded early childhood education. The group says, in part, that such programs should be a family's choice and funded with a family's paycheck. In addition, one Cato expert says early childhood education is not the end all, be all that some believe.
In this piece, District Administration proposes three points from Finneran and then counterpoints from David Salisbury, who is the director of the Center for Educational Freedom for the Cato Institute as well as an expert on education issues. Then Salisbury gives three points and Finneran counterpoints.
Finneran/Point: He acknowledges two previous landmark, longitudinal studies, the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study and the Carolina Abecedarian Project as proof of the great impact of high-quality preschools, even with long-term results.
The highlights of the High/Scope project shows that young adults born into poverty in the 1960s who attended a high-quality preschool program were less likely to be arrested, more likely to earn more money in their jobs, and more likely to graduate from high school. The Abecedarian project found similar results, with young adults in low-income families in the 1960s and 1970s who went through quality preschool had higher cognitive test scores, greater academic achievement in math and reading, and were more likely to graduate high school and pursue four-year colleges.
Salisbury/Counterpoint: He responds that both preschool programs were intensive and had quality teachers, which is not the norm for preschool programs nationwide. "It is not representative [of programs overall] and some of them were fairly intensive and high cost," he says.
For example, the Abecedarian project included children from low-income families receiving full-time, high-quality intervention from infancy through age 5. Each child had an individualized prescription of educational activities, consisting of games that emphasized language incorporated into the day. The High/Scope project included home visits to each mother and child on weekday afternoons, along with daily morning classroom sessions.
Finneran/Point: He notes that according to the High/Scope Perry study, for every dollar invested in quality preschools districts saves about $7 or more later because of reduced special education costs, as well as welfare and other social services not needed. More tax revenue comes from such children because they will be tax-paying adults. "It's a big one," he says of the point. "Though I'm not sure anyone can do a precise return on investment."
Finneran points to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. In the special study, members calculated the internal rate of return for the Perry School program by estimating the time periods in which costs and benefits in constant dollars were paid or received by program participants and society. They estimated the real, or adjusted for inflation, internal rate of return for the Perry study at 16 percent. And society in general saw a 12 percent internal rate of return based on that about 80 percent of the benefits went to the general public, in the form of less disruptive students who committed fewer crimes.
"Compared with other public investments and even those in the private sector, an [early childhood development program] seems like a good buy," the report states. "This analysis suggests that early childhood development is under-funded; otherwise, the internal rate of return on it would be comparable to other public investments."
Finneran is "convinced" that early childhood education would lessen special education referrals, which many times are results of behavioral problems more than academic deficiency.
Salisbury/Counterpoint: "That's very arguable," responds Salisbury. "There is a body of evidence that suggests the positive effects that are noted from some of the fairly more expensive and intensive preschool programs even tend to go away after one to three years."
Salisbury points to the study, Universal Preschool is No Golden Ticket by Darcy Ann Olsen, analyst at the Cato Institute. The study, published in 1999, states that Head Start, the nation's largest and best-known early intervention program, has failed [see sidebar]. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reviewed the impact studies on Head Start and concluded the program had "no meaningful, long-term effects on the cognitive, social or emotional development of participating children," the report states.
And the private James S. McDonnell Foundation shows research to support claims that early education tends to produce an "early bounce" on intelligence, but children that did not attend early education tend to catch up to peers that did, Salisbury says.
Even the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis says initial studies of early childhood programs found only short-term improvements in cognitive test scores, with non-participants' IQs catching up within a few years.
Finneran/Point: Two-parent families with at least one parent at home with young children during the day are nearly nonexistent these days, Finneran says. More families have two parents working or just a single parent without the support and help from other family members. "You have a generation of kids who are at risk," Finneran says. "One of the best ways to minimize risk to children... [and alleviate parents' concerns] is if they know there is universal, all-day, high-quality [using well-trained teachers] early childhood education in their community."
Salisbury/Counterpoint: "I don't think that's really logical because what he's saying is that the childcare arrangement these families are making now are inferior over what the government would provide," Salisbury responds.
He points to a report from the National Center for Policy Analysis that claims studies have established that high-quality parenting is better than high family income and high-quality child care in contributing to children's academic ability in years to come. According to A Hard Lesson in Family Economics: In Day Care, You Get What You Pay For, by Sue Shellenbarger, experts advise working parents to limit the hours children are in the care of others, since too much time away from parents has been linked to behavioral problems later.
Salisbury/Point: The American K-12 school system is not incredibly successful as is, Salisbury says. "The problem in K-12 education is not in the early grades but it's the older grades." According to studies undertaken by the Koret Task Force on K-12 education, which the Hoover Institution brought together as part of the Initiative on American Public Education, public schools are failing kids. In studying public schools, the Koret Task Force found the school year is several days shorter than it was 30 years ago, fewer teachers specialize in their subject areas than they did in 1983, and students don't do any more homework than students in the early 1980s did.
National Assessment of Educational Progress scores have also remained fairly stable over the past few years.
With the failure of the public school system, the downward extension of public schooling to three- and four-year-olds is "ill conceived" and irresponsible, the Cato report claims.
Finneran/Counterpoint: "I'm not challenging the validity of that [the point that the longer students are in school the worse they do] but it's a head-scratcher," Finneran responds. Finneran is quick to point out that in 1993, billions of dollars in state aid went to K-12 education for a state education reform. "We expect accountability and performance from our teachers and students," he says, explaining state assessment tests in fourth, eighth and 10th grades to determine student strengths and weaknesses. "I do not see any retreat if we like what we see and we're determined to keep it moving forward even in the midst of a horrific recession," he says.
Salisbury/Point: Preschool could even be dangerous, Salisbury says. Edward F. Zigler, director of Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale and co-founder of Head Start, argues against mandatory participation and claims formal schooling may be premature and "dangerous" for young children, Salisbury points out. He cites research showing that premature schooling can potentially slow or reduce a child's overall development by replacing valuable play time. Salisbury adds that when a child is so young, at age 3 or 4, research shows that the "best" education is at home with a loving adult where the child can play with toys and feel secure. "If you look at it, the motivation for parents, in most cases, is for an academic head start and that's desirable. In other situations, childcare is the motivation," Salisbury says.
Finneran/Counterpoint: A loving, nurturing environment can rarely be replaced in preschool, Finneran admits. "I'm not sure anyone can take the place of a devoted parent," he says.
But he also sees how children can bond "very quickly" and in a "very productive way" with good teachers. A well-thought out education program with play time, singing, rhymes, sitting with a dedicated, kind teacher, learning about animals and planting flowers--"I see all of that as being a part of a legitimate early childhood education offering," Finneran says.
Salisbury/Point: The 1999 Cato report shows that quality early education could cost more than $5,800 per child per year, which was one estimate. Preschool programs that improve student achievement and social adjustment are "very expensive," which the average universal preschool programs are not, Salisbury adds.
"Should low-income people subsidize higher-income people?" he asks. "I just think this universal preschool is a non-problem. I think politicians get good PR out of it. Since when should the state be responsible for doing this? The government doesn't do many things very well. And public school is arguably one thing that it doesn't do very well."
Salisbury is quick to say that if some parents want preschool, that is their prerogative. "I think private preschool has ... value," he says. "But what we're talking about here is taxing one family who may not wish to use preschool to pay for preschool for another family," who may be wealthy or at least be able to afford it, he says.
"It should be the parent's decision," Salisbury adds. "Parents should decide how many days [they want], for how many hours, what kind of environment they want."
Finneran/Counterpoint: "I think it is going to be expensive," Finneran responds. "There is no way to sidestep that charge or assertion."
Teacher salaries would likely improve being that they are "woefully paid" and given that a good program will entail teachers having "the appropriate degrees and enthusiasm, tone, disposition and patience," he says.
But he notes Cato brings up a fair point. "It's not my intention to spend taxpaypers' public dollars for that" meaning preschool for those in Wellsley or Needham, highly affluent communities near Boston, Finneran says, in part because those families will likely use private schools regardless.
Angela Pascopella is features editor.