Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Universal Pre-K Bandwagon: Is Universal Prekindergarten an Idea Whose Time Has Come? If the Experience of Half a Dozen States Is Any Guide, the Answer Just Might Be Yes

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Universal Pre-K Bandwagon: Is Universal Prekindergarten an Idea Whose Time Has Come? If the Experience of Half a Dozen States Is Any Guide, the Answer Just Might Be Yes

Article excerpt

A QUIET revolution in our thinking about 4-year-olds has occurred. Two generations ago, we thought that they should stay at home with their mothers. Then, as women joined the work force in record numbers, we decided that 4-year-olds could spend substantial time in a day-care center without turning into bed wetters, biters, or bullies. Today many parents think that 4-year-olds ought to enroll in a prekindergarten program that helps to prepare them for school. These parents think of preschool as a public good, not a luxury or a necessary evil.

Preschool is not a new idea, at least not for disadvantaged children. The Head Start program, which originated in 1965, sought to give poor preschool-aged children the skills they would need to succeed in school. Head Start currently reaches half of eligible 4-year-olds and a smaller number of younger children. What is new is the emergence of state-funded pre-K programs for all children, irrespective of income. Six states have now committed themselves to UPK (universal prekindergarten), and more are on the way.

Ten years ago no state had a universal pre-K program. Then in 1995, Georgia established one, followed by New York in 1997 and Oklahoma in 1998. After a brief hiatus that coincided roughly with the states' acute fiscal problems, the march toward UPK resumed. In 2002, West Virginia agreed to phase in UPK over a 10-year period. Later that year, Florida voters approved an initiative that mandated the establishment of a UPK program in the fall of 2005. In 2004, Massachusetts agreed to phase in UPK over a 10-year period. The UPK bandwagon is moving forward.

How did our thinking change? Like most education reforms, UPK owes a lot to public dissatisfaction with our public schools. If our public schools were doing a better job, UPK would be far less popular than it is today. UPK is on the agenda because huge numbers of children are not performing at grade level, huge numbers of disadvantaged children lack basic skills, and huge numbers of advantaged children lack motivation.

Yet UPK is an optimistic kind of reform. Unlike charter schools and vouchers, UPK does not give up on our public schools. Rather, it assumes that public schools can succeed, if only they are given a fair chance. The key is that children need to arrive at the schoolhouse door ready to learn. If they do, then public school teachers can shape today's youths into the citizens and workers of tomorrow.

NERVOUS ABOUT NEURONS

In the 1990s, the popularization of research into early brain development helped to build public support for the notion that the seeds for a child's success or failure have already been sown well before the first day of school. A Carnegie Corporation report, Starting Points, highlighted the "critical importance" of brain development during the earliest years of life. (1) A Newsweek cover story, "Your Child's Brain," explained that different regions of the brain mature at different points in time, suggesting that there are "windows of opportunity" for early learning. "If you miss the window," Newsweek warned, "you're playing with a handicap." (2)

Beyond brain research, scholarly studies showed that pre-K programs actually work. Often attention focused on truly superior early-intervention programs, such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project, which yielded dramatic long-term gains but which were not directly comparable to garden-variety pre-K programs. Later, scholars examined state-funded pre-K programs and found that they produced less dramatic but nevertheless substantial cognitive improvements. (3)

Armed with some evidence and motivated by similar ideas, UPK advocates pursued different strategies in different states. Public officials were pivotal in some states, advocacy groups and voters in others. The issues were highly visible in some states, largely invisible in others. The funding stream was specified early in some states, left for future debate in others. …

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