Preschool has long been the privilege of those who could afford the luxury of an early education for their children. Over the past few decades many factors have converged to move the perception of a preschool education from a luxury to a “right”. It has all happened in such a confusion of good intentions that the big picture has become obscured. The new rally for universal preschool is pushing an unnecessary burden onto financiers, educators, parents, and worst of all, children.
Select the scene “1970s”. Push play then fast forward at 16x speed. Two working parents becomes the norm. Nearby extended families are a thing of the past so parents place children in daycare instead of with grandma. Toy company advertising conditions parents to believe that very young children need specialized enrichment. Private preschools become abundant. More and more day cares become licensed as preschools to be more attractive to ambitious parents. The internet creates a global community. Americans come to view American students in competition with students in other countries. Press Pause. You already know where this story is going, but this story has a select-your-own ending so let’s get a few of the plot points straight.
What was kindergarten created to be?
The 19th century brought forth research in child development that was led by Robert Owen, J.H. Pestalozzi, Fredrich Froebel and Maria Montessori. Their collective creation of early childhood education, that we have come to know as kindergarten, was intended to be an introduction to formal schooling by fostering the maturity of confidence and emotional development through play rather than formal instruction. As recently as the 1970s, kindergarten was still intended to be a child’s first experience of school. Teacher would expect children to arrive at kindergarten physically and mentally healthy. Throughout the school year children would be introduced to the structure of a classroom setting, guided and unguided play, math and reading concepts, and perhaps, if the child is blessed with intelligence and maturity, some children would progress to a level of proficiency in math and reading.
In short, the kindergarten of yesteryear, that was intended to educate students ages 4 to 6, looked a lot like what we think of as a modern preschool, which is typically for children ages 3 to 4. A big difference, aside from younger students, is that kindergarten is a publicly funded part of American public schools. Preschool is not — yet.
Preschool is the new kindergarten.
The September 2008 issue of Parents Magazine includes an article entitled “Why Preschool Matters”. It is a question and answer format with Parents advisor Robert Pianta, Ph.D., dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He is asked, “Should children really be doing academics in preschool?” He answers, “I definitely believe that they should… Today’s children are growing up in a very complex, interconnected world, and the earlier we start equipping all of them for that world, the better off we’ll all be.”
Let’s assume for a moment that Dr. Pianta’s view is not an adult concern inappropriately misplaced onto the backs of pre-school age children and that all 3 to 4-year-old children should receive formal education in math and reading skills. What is the rush?
We have moved the bar.
Dr. Pianta says, “Kids have such widely different experiences in their preschool years that when they enter our formal education system, the levels of readiness vary enormously. That makes it very difficult to have an early-elementary-school curriculum that’s appropriate for all kids.” What Dr. Pianta is saying is that some children have had the privilege of formalized early education and now we don’t know what to do with those who have not. Instead of accepting that a preschool education can be an advantage for some, who may in fact go on to excel at a higher than grade-level rate throughout their school career. He would make that advantage a universal “right” for all children, regardless of how impractical that is financially (for us) and developmentally (for children).
There is no overlooking the fact that 3 and 4 year old children are not universally intellectually and developmentally equal either. There will always be developmental inequalities in children because of factors ranging from genetics to home environment. If we were to embrace Dr. Pianta’s reasoning, that we need a homogenizing tool to ready students for learning, in a few years time we would be pointing out the need to equalize development of incoming freshmen to preschool, pushing a request for uniformity on ever younger children.
Instead of rushing to raise the bar for all kindergarten age children, let’s first consider the alternatives. Germany doesn’t view this difference in “readiness” as a problem. Their schools have a practical solution built in to accommodate that difference. In addition to the “Kindergarten”, there is the “Schulkindergarten” (school kindergarten), which is for children of school age who are not considered sufficiently mature and which therefore serves as a kind of preparatory school for primary school. Or we could flip that coin over and take a cue from some American schools that offer Advanced Kindergarten Classrooms. These are learning environments specifically designed for academically advanced kindergarten students. These classrooms provide a curriculum that accelerates state and district kindergarten standards according to student academic readiness.
There is no harm in promoting students who arrive at kindergarten with an advanced level of learning, but what is the benefit of expecting all children, regardless of socioeconomic origin, to come prepared with same? Why are we in such a hurry to speed children down an educational path when early childhood development experts would say that young children naturally learn everything they need to be learning from nothing more than existing and playing?
We just want what’s best for our children.
There is no question that every child should be loved, cared for, spoken to, read to, shown the world, allowed to play, and morally guided. Nobody of conscience would willfully withhold those benefits from a child. The fact is, however, that all families are not created equal. And that is okay. There are good families and there are good-enough families. Some families value education. Some do not. Some value education, but can not afford preschool. All of that is okay. We have a public school system that guarantees every child the benefit of an education from kindergarten (pre-primary school) through secondary school graduation.
Everyone involved in this universal preschool debate really does have children’s best interest at heart. We all want children, young and old, to have successful school careers and graduate with skills that will enable them to pursue gainful employment. What parents of young children need to remember is, it isn’t time to worry about that yet. We hear about high dropout rates and students graduating without sufficient skills to secure a job, but guess what? Educators have put their thinking caps on and are coming up with some very creative ideas that are starting to turn those scary stories around, and none of them involve starting formal education at a younger age.
Some states have reevaluated the required courses for high school graduation and made adjustments so that graduates will be better prepared to seek employment out of high school. There is a greater emphasis being placed on proficiency in math, science and foreign language skills. States are also adjusting their methods for evaluating proficiency prior to graduation, more stringent methods for assessing mastery are being utilized. Also, use of online and hybrid (online combined with in-class) courses are helping would-be dropouts to both stay in school and achieve mastery of the course material by providing a self-paced learning option that is available to them 24 hours a day.
The American public education system is good. Many would say that it could use vast improvement, but funding improvements is always a challenge. Funding universal preschool would be one more drain on the resources of a public school system that is already making do with ever constricting budgets.
Who would truly benefit from a universal preschool system?
- Two-income families are stretched to find money for prolonged daycare, so publicly funded preschool seems like a very attractive opportunity.
- Those who advocate for the welfare of young children would prefer to see those children in a safe and structured school environment rather than some less-than-desirable daycare situations.
Those are both noble and worthy concerns, but are they public concerns to be addressed with public funds?
Should the formal education of 3 and 4 year old students be a “right” or continue to be a privilege?
Are those who advocate for a free universal preschool education for 3 and 4-year-olds really asking for free daycare, funded by the public school system?
Some funding options.
All current options involve some level of public funding: expanding state school funding to include preschool; public money plus ongoing private fundraising; publicly funded vouchers that can be used at public or private preschools; and parents applying their child-care tax credits to preschool tuition.
Universal preschool would be a tremendous expense. It is important to understand that “universal preschool” is in large part code for “publicly funded daycare”. Yes, young students would probably benefit from the enrichment provided in a quality early learning environment, but to what degree is debatable, whether it should be required is even more debatable, and at what cost is a grave consideration.