Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Targeted, Not Universal PreK: Universalizing the Preschool Experience Is No Way to Achieve Lasting Gap Reduction. Instead, Invest in Education for Preschoolers Who Need It the Most

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Targeted, Not Universal PreK: Universalizing the Preschool Experience Is No Way to Achieve Lasting Gap Reduction. Instead, Invest in Education for Preschoolers Who Need It the Most

Article excerpt

The universal-preschool-advocacy machine is running a bit low on gas. Its drivers are feeling neglected by the Obama Administration, semi-abandoned by their longtime funder at Pew, and thwarted by the parlous fiscal condition of nearly every state.

This upsets them, of course, but it's no bad thing for the country, which needs to take a deep breath and ask whether universal is the right approach to preschool.

I've concluded that it's not. Not because preschool is in any way undesirable. To the contrary. My own granddaughters are getting plenty of it because preparing them to succeed in school is a top priority with their parents--and their grandparents. But for three important reasons, universal is the wrong policy to impose on the United States in 2010.

Reason #1: The overwhelming majority of three- and four-year-olds already have access to various forms of preschool. No, it's not always terrific, but their parents, many of them aided by a slew of federal and state programs, have found the means to pay for it. The United States benefits from an extensive, complex, and vibrant market in preschool and daycare, one with a host of providers and subsidy programs meeting many different child needs and family situations. To layer a new, publicly financed, universal program on top of all this would be a costly and unnecessary windfall for millions of households and be too clumsy and standardized to address the diversity of family preferences and challenges.

Reason #2: The children in greatest need of serious help in their early years are a relatively small population of kids for whom no universal program on anybody's horizon would be anywhere near sufficient. They are, for the most part, the severely impoverished progeny of young single mothers, many of them members of minorities and few of them with much education of their own. These youngsters (and their parents) require intensive interventions from the get-go, not a few hours a day when they're four years old. Yet, "universal" programs end up being tax-financed free rides for many millions of families and not nearly enough for the smaller population of kids who need major-league assistance.

Reason #3: The early childhood-education fraternity has not entirely accepted the concept of school readiness even though that is the main argument for any sort of publicly funded prekindergarten. (That many parents need childcare while they're at work mines a totally different policy vein.)

Much of the preschool world is queasy about setting academic expectations or mandating sophisticated curricula for its programs, much less aligning these with state (and, increasingly, multistate, even national) K-12 standards. It's queasier still about results-based accountability, whereby kids are assessed to determine whether they have the skills, knowledge, traits, and attitudes to succeed in kindergarten and beyond, and providers are judged according to their prowess at equipping their young charges with those attributes.

That's the seminal failure of Head Start, for example. Its four-decade-long refusal to view itself as a curriculum-based, school-readiness program is the primary (and wholly unsurprising) reason it's been so ineffective--as study after study has shown--in preparing its disadvantaged participants to prosper academically when they reach primary school.


I'm not talking about heavy-duty academics for three- and four-year-olds. Nobody expects them to do algebra or read Dickens. This is about shapes, colors, and sounds, the difference between big and little, fast and slow, up and down. It's about learning the meanings of more words, following a story, responding to questions, being able to express a preference or recount an activity, etc. Such cognitive attainments--coupled with adequate motor skills, reasonable self-control, healthy attitudes, and acceptable social behavior--make an enormous difference in youngsters' school success and, according to some studies, in later life. …

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