Theres been much hype about President Obamas new plan to expand
preschool in the US. But while the presidents selling of his
preschool plan makes it sound like a new entitlement taxpayer-
funded preschool for all the White House fact sheet on the policy
makes it clear that the plan isnt universal at all. Rather, the
administration is proposing to work with states to fund expansion of
taxpayer-funded pre-K for lower income families.
In fact, the Obama administrations preschool plan is consistent
with the federal role in education and human services since the
Lyndon Johnson administration: targeted assistance for services to
the economically disadvantaged. And this is a good thing.
Research shows that children from poor families start school
substantially behind children from more advantaged backgrounds in
vocabulary, knowledge of the world, social skills, and pre-academic
content such as letter recognition, all of which are strongly
predictive of later school success. These differences arise because
well-educated parents typically spend many thousands more hours than
their poorly educated, low-income counterparts in interactions with
their young children that teach things that are important for school
Good preschool programs can make up some of these gaps in
experience and learning and thereby give children who would
otherwise start and stay behind a fighting chance. In a 21st
century global economy in which knowledge and skills are the
passports to prosperity, it is important to our nation as a whole
that all our children have a fair shot at a good education.
Of course, Mr. Obamas initiative has come face to face with the
reality of federal budget constraints, as the sequester or across-
the-board spending cuts begins to take effect. Those cuts will
stymie Obamas early childhood education agenda for the foreseeable
future, but expanding preschool for low-income families is still an
idea whose time has come. Based on what the White House has released
so far and some judicious reading between the lines, there are
several aspects of the president's preschool plan to applaud.
Targeting. Research suggests a much greater return on public
investment for pre-K programs targeted toward the disadvantaged as
compared to universal programs. The administration proposes to
provide funding to support program costs for children from families
that are no more than 200 percent above the poverty line.
Data and assessment systems. Requiring states to collect
information on quality, as the administration proposes, is the
necessary first step in improving services. We have learned from
rigorous research on K-12 public education that quality varies
widely by classroom and school. For instance, variations in
classroom quality in kindergarten are significantly related to
college attendance rates and labor market earnings. We also have
evidence of substantial variation in the quality of adult-child
interactions in child-care settings.
Curriculum. Childrens pre-academic skills including vocabulary,
knowledge of the world, letter recognition, and phonemic awareness
are strongly associated with academic outcomes during elementary
school. The administrations commitment to linking federal funding to
the requirement that preschool programs have a rigorous curriculum
is important and evidence-based.
Curtains for Head Start (as we know it). A recently released high-
quality federal study found that traditional Head Start programs
serving 4-year-olds do not enhance the academic, social, or health
outcomes of Head Start children as they progress through elementary
school. This is a serious blow to an expensive federal program that
has school readiness as its primary goal.
The sequester is expected to cut $400 million from the program
this year. But my surmise is that, wherever possible, the
administration intends to support the expansion of state pre-K
programs for 4-year-olds at the expense of traditional Head Start. …