With preschool education, we talk the talk — but don’t walk the walk

Every American toddler should have the opportunity to attend a high-quality, free preschool.  Whether they go or not would be up to their parents or guardians, of course, but the opportunity should be there. We now know that most brain growth occurs before a child reaches kindergarten age. It is a fact that most American parents are working outside the home. Our economic competitors are already providing this opportunity for their 4-year-olds (and often their 3-year-olds), a fact that has implications for our economic health.

It’s not that we haven’t made a stab at creating preschool programs. Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” created Head Start back in 1965, but I would say (tongue firmly in cheek) that Head Start is a “failure.” The federal preschool program for 4-year-olds was supposed to level the playing field for poor children, and it has not done that.

Educationally and linguistically, poor children are behind from the beginning. Parents with professional jobs speak about 2,100 words an hour to toddlers, while those in poverty about 600, according to a study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. The study says, “Between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 1,500 words spoken per hour.” Of course, nobody speaks all the time, but just suppose that these differences apply to just five hours a day, 365 days a year for five years.  That’s a difference of more than 11 million words.

It’s called ‘the vocabulary gap,’ and the failure to close that gap can lead to an achievement gap, which in turn can lead to dropping out of school, and that has social consequences for the individual and the larger society.  It’s all downhill, and it’s not a pretty picture.

So, do we know what to do?  Of course we do.

Do we do it?  Of course not.

One reason for Head Start’s “failure” was the misguided practice at some of its centers, where teaching the alphabet was actually banned in favor of teaching social skills. But the dominant reason for the persistent gap is the fervor with which middle-class and upper-middle-class parents have embraced preschool.

These parents enroll their own children in preschool because they know that 3- and 4-year-olds are ready and eager to learn. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that less than half of 3- to 5-year-old children below the poverty line were enrolled in some form of “center-based early childhood care and education program,” compared with 60 percent of those at or above the poverty level.

Preschool

The real disparity is seen, however, in terms of the mother’s highest level of education: Just 35 percent of children whose mother had not earned a high school diploma were enrolled in a center-based program, compared with 73 percent of children whose mothers had a bachelor’s degree or higher. And it doesn’t take much to imagine some pretty big differences between the programs that these two different groups attend.

Why aren’t the poor kids enrolled? Generally it’s because we haven’t created enough Head Start or other early education programs. To serve all the eligible children, we’d need twice as many programs as we have. Once again, we’re talking the talk when it comes to helping poor children, but not walking the walk.

Shouldn’t we be embarrassed about our approach to early education?  Most industrialized countries provide free, high-quality preschool for 3-, 4- and 5-year- olds, regardless of family income. Almost all 4-year-olds in England, Luxembourg and the Netherlands go to public school; recent reports also indicate that 70 percent of German, Danish and Greek 4-year-olds go to public school, and over 90 percent of 4- and 5-year-olds in France, Italy and Spain are in public school.

We’re the opposite: a patchwork non-system with weakly trained, poorly paid staff. The quality ranges from excellent to abysmal, the tuition from $15,000 to zero, the teachers’ salaries from $45,000 or more a year plus benefits to as little as $8 or $9 per hour, without benefits.

In the United States, quality preschool is a seller’s market, and even well-to-do parents endure “preschool panic” when they realize there’s not enough quality to go around. One of the families in “The Promise of Preschool,” our 2002 PBS documentary, moved from New York City to France while we were filming. Forced to choose between career opportunities for themselves and a decent preschool for their sons, they put their kids first.

In that same documentary, we visited a pre-school program in the south, where we found workers (most often parents who were called ‘teachers’). They explained how they taught reading to 4-year-olds:

“We cut out cereal boxes with the names on it. That’s a reading thing we use,” said Teacher One.

“Or a McDonalds sign,” said Teacher Two. “Like you know, the parents will say, ‘OK, where are we going?’ and the kids, even though they can’t read, recognize the letters.”

“Or a Wal-Mart sign,” added Teacher One. “That’s reading.”

No, it’s not, and no parent should be forced to send a child to be taught that way.

But earlier this year in Chicago we found a ‘system’ that fails to provide even the minimum for about 30 percent of the neediest children.  If you saw the NewsHour piece (embedded below), you had to have been impressed by the program that provides quality care and education for 10 hours a day, five days a week, year-round.  But what was your reaction to the harsh fact that this wonderful program serves 149 children — out of a population of 90,000?  That’s barely one tenth of one percent!

It’s good that increasing numbers of Americans seem to be embarrassed about our approach to preschool, but it won’t be easy for any state to create a quality preschool system, particularly in this economy.

I believe the effort will fail unless our goal is to create a system that’s good enough for those with money, but make it available to everyone. As Ed Zigler, the founder of Head Start, has said, “Programs for poor people are poor programs.”

So we ought to design preschool systems the way we built our Interstate highway system. President Eisenhower didn’t create separate highways for rich and poor. Instead, we built an Interstate system that was good enough for people behind the wheel of a Cadillac, and no one driving a cheap Plymouth complained. If we follow that road map, the journey will be long, but we’ll get there.

Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, grew up in a pre-school family. What’s more, he comes from Chicago, a national leader in the early education movement, thanks in large part to the late Irving R. Harris, a strong and successful advocate long before it was on most radar screens. Mr. Harris said, “We must remember — the first few months of life are not a rehearsal. This is the real show.”

That was back in the 1970s, on my NPR program.  Today the science is crystal clear: Children living in poverty who have access to high-quality care and education during their first five years are more likely to develop the skills necessary to succeed in school and in life.  We can close the vocabulary gap (as well as gaps in nutrition and health care).

As president, Mr. Obama has often spoken forcefully about the need for comprehensive programs that provide services for children from birth, that is, long before the age of preschool. Whether this will come to pass in these difficult economic times will be one of the most important stories of the next decade.

Me, I would get rid of senior year of high school and spend that money where it will do a heck of a lot more good, on early education. (Maybe cut subsidies for corn, et cetera, and use those dollars as well.)

What would you do?

41 Responses to “With preschool education, we talk the talk — but don’t walk the walk”

  1. Joan Countryman 06. Apr, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    John, we are being penny-wise and foolish – even given these difficult economic times. I wouldn’t get rid of senior year but I’d certainly add early childhood education. We are shooting ourselves in both feet and the head when we don’t provide quality public education all. Our democracy won’t work without it.

  2. David Hornbeck 06. Apr, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    I totally agree. It’s insane to continue to not do as you suggest. Just this morning in the NY Times, it is noted that the year that U.S. children move to being majority-minority has moved from 2023 to 2019. The vast majority of African-American and Latino children, ages six weeks to five do not have quality developmentally appropriate early childhood opportunities and support. We should provide such opportunities because it’s the right thing to do. But note the following also. We are approaching the point that there are only 2 people working for every person who is drawing social security (in 1950 the ratio was 16 working for each retiree). It will not be long before more than one of those two people is non-white (many already are). At the same time the baby boomer retirees are majority white and will play an important role politically in determining whether the person supporting them in their retirement years is educated and well-employed (or not). The necessary changes do not take place overnight. They are generational. We must begin now as you suggest instead of pursuing the proposals by the majority in the House of Representatives to cut 60,000 Head Start staff slots in the current round of budget proposals.

    • John Merrow 06. Apr, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

      I like the self-interest argument, but can you get some Tea Party types to pay attention to that?

      • David Hornbeck 07. Apr, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

        The only chance I think would be to build a political base in several of the districts of tea party types and either beat them or change them…at least some of them may be ordinary elected officials who are susceptible to organized constituent voice. If not, beating them becomes the option. To build such an organizing base, however, will require that middle to progressive road sources of funds…foundations and wealthy individuals become a lot more like their right wing brethren (Coors, Scaife Mellon, Koch and company) and intentionally set out over a long term to make the organizing happen.

  3. Mary M, 06. Apr, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Your post presents an excellent case for preschool programs. I have a comment on your discussion of weak reading instruction (“cutting up cereal boxes” and references to signs.) The purpose of preschool programs is not to teach reading in the way it’s taught in first grade or kindergarten. Robust and rigorous research (such as Hart and Risley) point out the importance of other, more appropriate activities referred to as emergent literacy. These include, language development, book/print conventions, phonemic awareness, etc. One of the techniques research supports is directing children’s attention to “environmental print” like cereal boxes and signs. It tells the child: these are words, words have meaning, we use printed words in many ways, look at the word–this is what it sounds like.
    Referring to environmental print is not the ONLY emergent literacy strategy, but it is widely used even in the best preschool programs.

    Best practice would not support “holding children back “if they are ready to read. However, early readers still need support for emergent literacy fundamentals like language development, vocabulary, narrative skills, etc.

    • John Merrow 06. Apr, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

      Perhaps you are right that those women knew enough to know that context matters, and so on, but that wasn’t the feeling I got. I didn’t think they had a clue, to be honest.

  4. Jose Arevalo 06. Apr, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    As a parent and as the husband of an early childhood professional, I agree with everything being said here so far. But, something that caught my attention from one of the comments was “Our democracy won’t work without it” what a true statement! Our children are the most valuable assets we have and we must treat them as such by providing them with educational opportunities that start very early in their lives.

    Thank you John!

  5. Ken BErnstein 06. Apr, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    I have a couple of worries

    1. Not all children are developmentally ready to handle the same level of learning about reading at ages 3-4. There are risks of turning some kids off if we push them too hard

    2. the second we start demanding the government fund such a program the next thing we know some people will be demanding tests to ascertain the effectiveness. Just what we need – formal tests for 3-4 year olds, when the psychometricians will tell you we can get reliable results across the board earlier than 3rd grade.

    Having said that, I think there are value to having a setting where kids can be learning how to learn. But I offer a different suggestion. Might I suggest that those interested in an early childhood approach with more than half a century’s experience – successful experience – explore the Reggio Emilia approach? Some will not be happy, because they want the focus to be on learning to read. I suggest based on the experience of Reggio Emilia, and how the program has been successfully implemented elsewhere, that people step back from this emphasis on reading in isolation and explore what has already been strongly demonstrated to be effective.

    • John Merrow 06. Apr, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

      Agree completely. There’s lots of insanity we have to stop, and high on the list is this pushing down the curriculum. Folks, our most successful grades are K-2. We ought to be pushing UP, doing what works down there (lots of relational stuff, for one thing) in the grades above K-2.

      I like that the French provide pre-school for all, but agree with David Kirp that it’s far too structured.

      • Cindy 21. Apr, 2011 at 12:11 am #

        One of the reasons that Reggio Emilia has been so successful is that there is community support and funding for doing this. The understanding is that it is the right of children to have a strong, developmentally appropriate program and the right of parents to use such services.

        Unlike the U.S. where we are still arguing over whether this is solely the parents’ responsibility. It is our society’s respnsibility to ensure that the youngest, most vulnerable members of our society receive the care & education that will support them becoming happy & healthy, productive members of our society. Which is why Italian communities such as Reggio Emilia have made the choices they have on behalf of their children. Would that we were so fortunate!

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    • Aaron 12. Apr, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

      Hi Ken

      What did you mean when you wrote that we cannot get reliable results before 3rd grade? I am an educator in a district that just instituted a growth model and we are using MAP testing for students in kindergarten through 2nd. If you have a citation for your conclusion, I would be appreciative.

  6. Gail V Ritchie 06. Apr, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    I agree, John–we could fund quality preschool if we stopped subsidizing corporations like GE and the Billionaire Boys Club with tax breaks that this country can’t afford.

    • John Merrow 06. Apr, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

      we need some slogans, some bumper sticker messages
      “Education, not Ethanol”
      “Students, not Soybeans”
      Or, to steal from GM’s “Engine Charlie” Wllson, “What’s good for early education is good for America.”

  7. Jack McCarthy 07. Apr, 2011 at 3:22 am #

    John–

    You really should visit AppleTree Early Learning in Washington, DC. We don’t have to eliminate Senior year of high school. We can eliminate the money we currently spend on special education for the children who never learned to read on time or the children whose behavior is a response to their knowledge that they are hopelessly behind in the third or fourth grade.

    AppleTree won one of the highly-coveted Investing in Innovation “i3″ awards to bring our effective, evidence-based preschool instructional model, called “Every Child Ready” to scale. What’s more interesting is that many of the conditions for successful expansion of quality preschool exist–except for one–a hostile and expensive real estate market in which effective preschools have to compete against K Street lobbyists for space.

    Last friday, 33 foundation leaders visited AppleTree’s Columbia Heights campus through the First Fridays tours organized by City Bridge Foundation. Visitors were briefed on evidence-based instruction and professional development. They toured joyous classrooms where the little ones are making extraordinary gains on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test in a warm, nurturing environment that is highly intentional, yet really, really fun and engaging.

    AppleTree is closing the achievement gap before children enter kindergarten and we are building three new preschools to nearly double our enrollment from 320 to 620 children this fall. I think you would learn a lot and really like what you see.

  8. Joe Nathan 07. Apr, 2011 at 11:04 am #

    John, in 1985 the National Governors Association issued Time for Results, a report that made recommendations in 7 key areas. One of those was early childhood – urging significant expansion of quality early childhood programs. I know about this because I was the coordinator of the project. The research you cited has been known for more that 25 years.

    What puzzles me is why Congress has not used that research. There have been progressive Presidents, and there have been a majority of members of Congress willing to try to help youngsters. During some of the Clinton years there were huge surpluses.

    So why didn’t Congress follow up on this? While high quality early childhood is not a silver bullet, it certainly would have considerable value.

  9. John Bennett 07. Apr, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Please don’t cut the senior year – add graduation requirements to make the diploma emblematic of at least some significant learning. My experience at the university level suggests far mor HS graduates are not college-ready than one would ever imagine (no shock or even surprise there, right?); I suspect employers would agree for grads entering the job market.

    The temptation is always to hold out hope that there is a magic bullet or a clip full of them that will turn around bad situations – lousy education for far to many kids (more than one???). THEY NEVER HAVE AND NEVER WILL EXIST!!! I am quite confident without having the data that the Dionne quintuplets didn’t learn the same way. If a “magic bullet” wouldn’t work for them, how can we expect one to work district-wide let alone nationwide???

    The national dialogue is good to allow us to begin to understand what the problems are in general, PERIOD! To solve those problems takes local education committees finding not broad solutions but differentiated solutions. Who cares what a five year-old should or should not do; what is important I believe is what little Johnny Bennett is ready to do when HE turns five! Then facilitate his efforts.

  10. Joan Countryman 08. Apr, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    Excellent discussion. I don’t think education is a zero-sum game, hence my support for adding quality pre-school program and against subtracting senior year. The operative word is quality. High quality pre-school is different from K-2, and high quality 12th grade is different from 11th, or the first year of any post-secondary education.

    And I agree about the magic bullet. The answer to all those questions about the best way to teach …..(reading, arithmetic, science, art) … is No, there isn’t one best way, Yes, inquiry works, and memorizing works, and phonics works, and whole language works and …

    As for enlightened self-interest, we need to raise the level of discourse and get the nation to understand that our democracy won’t work without quality public education for all.

  11. George Dewey 08. Apr, 2011 at 11:27 pm #

    John,
    As usual you have a gift for zeroing in on the heart of a problem. As a veteran high school teacher well into his 5th decade, I would comment on the expressions and engagement of virtually all of the children filmed on that Newshour clip in Chicago. Too often, when one looks at the faces and level of involvement of children being filmed, you sense a recognition of the filming event itself. Like the videos of National Board candidates in their classrooms, one learns a lot about the quality of education being offered by the level of peer- and instructor-engagement and the faces of students being filmed. Besides this, I found the vast majority of facial and physical movements to indicate children who found interest, delight, absorption, and recognition in their involvement in learning. These qualities need far greater emphasis throughout our pre-college educational experiences than they do with our current obsession on scores and testing.

  12. Joe Nathan 10. Apr, 2011 at 1:48 am #

    While the subject focuses on early childhood, since Mr. Dewey commented on the National Board, I will add a brief comment. I’ve know a number of National Board certified teachers. Some terrific, some not. I also talked with the first director of the National Board who made it clear that he had no particular interest in what families or students thought about the quality of these teachers. This is unfortunate. Some National Board members also have made it clear that they don’t think part of the process should be evidence – using multiple measures – that the teachers are improving student achievement. The National Board seems to be a good effort to examine their practices. But as a tool toward closing achievement gaps – not much help there.

  13. Karen Nemeth 11. Apr, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    All well and good up to that point where, as you say, parents should have the choice as to whether they bring their children to preschool. No matter how hard we push for high quality preschool programs, there will still be those families who can not make the commitment to get their children there. And many of the families who can’t – or are afraid to – are the families that need the most support. So I toss a reminder into this discussion: If our goal is to make high quality preschool available, we can be satisfied with serving only some of the children. If our goal is to help ALL young children get the early experiences they need to be happy, healthy and ready for school – then maybe we should be thinking about improving home visiting programs with special attention to reaching immigrant families. And you know – this means doing a better job of preparing both teachers and home visitors who are bilingual and/or who have skills to work effectively with multiple languages.

  14. Tim Bartik 12. Apr, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    John:

    You are quite right to point out that our society has not made a commitment to large scale implementation of high-quality early childhood programs.

    However, I am not sure that it makes sense or is even a reasonable demand to identify specific sources of financing for early childhood programs, such as the senior year of high school. If the senior year of high school were to be eliminated, the most plausible way to do so would be to meld high school more with post-secondary education, and the high school funds would probably end up providing partial financial support for post-secondary education.

    In any event, my broader point is that the costs of even large scale implementation of early childhood programs are modest compared to the size of government budgets. I elaborate on this in a blog post commenting on your blog post, but I calculate that even full-scale implementation of three proven early childhood programs (universal pre-k, Nurse Family Partnership, Educare) would have annual costs equal to 1.3% of all governmental revenue, and 2.8% of state and local governmental revenue. At that modest percentage, it is possible to identify many modest tax reforms or spending reforms that would suffice to fully fund early childhood programs. For more on this, see my blog post at http://investinginkids.net/2011/04/12/financing-early-childhood-programs/

    Another point is that eventually, when the former child participants grow up, these early childhood programs are probably self-financing. These programs reduce special ed costs, increase tax revenues, reduce crime control costs, and reduce welfare system costs. In the short-run, they probably raise property values by enhancing school test scores, which has been shown to significantly raise home values.

  15. Julie Niles Petersen 13. Apr, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    Great article, video, and comments! I especially loved the analogy of the interstate highway system.

    I am a product of Head Start. Out of the seven children in my family, only two of us had the opportunity to go to Head Start. We are the only two who went on to college. I attribute a lot of our success to Head Start and the parental education my mother received in the program.

    I am very familiar with the Hart & Risley study and I know that those who grow up in taciturn homes tend to be taciturn parents, or those who do not talk a lot. Through parental education, I think my mother learned that she needed to talk with us and read to us–she had grown up in a taciturn home and did not have good role models when she was young. Through the parental education program, she also learned the importance of taking children to the library. We are the only two who were taken to the public library every Saturday. She made sure we had access to books.

    I blogged about the Hart & Risley study in the past and I cannot believe that this information is still so widely unknown. If you are interested, here is a link: http://twrctank.com/2010/04/15/what-happens-in-the-home-before-kids-start-school-affects-their-vocabulary-and-overall-academic-success/

    Here are my thoughts:

    1. First, we need to get the word out to parents that they need to talk a lot with their children and read to them, too. In other words, we need to share the findings of the Hart & Risley study with parents. Why? Because as Karen Nemeth pointed out, even if we make high-quality preschool free for all, some parents still will not send their children for one reason or another. Therefore, parents need to know what an important role they play in their children’s academic success. Many just don’t know. Perhaps we could require at least five hours of parental training before babies are released from the hospital. That training would explain the importance of reading aloud and talking with their children. We could even ask the parents to sign a promissory note saying they will read and talk a lot with their children so that they will not enter school with a disadvantage–one that they could prevent. The size of a child’s vocabulary when they enter school is highly correlated with academic success.

    2. We also need more physicians in the Reach Out and Read program. This program trains physicians in important early literacy development and they go over this information with parents during well-baby visits. In these visits, children are given a free book to take home. Research clearly shows that access to books is of great importance. It also shows that children living in poverty have very limited access to books.

    3. For funding purposes, perhaps we could save some tax dollars by requiring high-stakes tests for schools with great scores every three years or so, rather than every year. These tests are expensive and my guess is that their scores will not go down if we do not test them every year.

    4. Rather than formalized testing in the preschools, perhaps there could be an annual audit where people go to the schools and record how many words are being spoken every hour, how many books are being read to children a week, how many books are available for students to take home, what types of parental improvement programs are being offered, how much nutritional value there is in the food children are being served, and what types of free health care is available for the children. As the saying goes, what gets tested is what gets taught. From everything I’ve read, these are six very important things that are necessary for academic success.

    5. It would be wonderful to find celebrity figures who are willing to promote this cause and hold charity events each year to raise money for the education of our nation’s children and our future success as a country.

    • John Merrow 14. Apr, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

      Amen to the first four, but I don’t like the idea of early education being presented as a charity. Rather, it’s an obligation and a necessary investment. The trouble with charity is that it can as easily be withheld–and often is. Perhaps donations in cash and star power could be used to remind and persuade people of the importance of early education, but the core expense is a national obligation.
      Thank you for sharing your own family story. That’s what more Americans need to understand. Maybe a concerned celebrity like Dolly Parton or John Legend could frame that story, interview your Mom and you? Ordinary folks would be drawn in by Parton or Legend and then would stay for the heart of the message.

  16. SunnyRoad4 17. Apr, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    Head Start programs are problematic due to NCLB. Children enter the room and are expected to attempt to write their names. What appears to be idle chatter is discouraged in favor of writing skills for which the children have no foundation. This is in the curriculum not simply a teacher’s fanciful way of looking smart before unknowing parental eyes.
    Many of these children NEED to be socialized and taught important skills through multiple intelligence opportunities. These are sorely lacking because of NCLB.

  17. kathie Sarles 27. Apr, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    We should never have a conversation about universal preschool without first having a similiar one about parternering with the home/ family. Parents make the difference.
    I agree that we must as a community emphasize the early years and educate the public to the cost benefit analysis of money being spent on the early years rather than with the teens. We seem to now understand the need for preventitive measures for a healthy overall person, but do we understand as a nation about the preventitive benifits of early education for a healthy and educated working public?

    As an early childhood special education teacher directing the early intervention program in my area i am amazed by how limited many parents are when discussing what type of learning environment( home and/or school) is best for healthy development. Parents and preschools must partner and the discussion of one should always be coupled with the other. Obama’s model is a good one for infants, but that model should be looked at for the 3s and 4s as well. Maslow understood it best when he created his hierarchy: if we are still fighting for the basics of food and security then learning will have to take a back seat.

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  22. frederica 20. Jan, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

    Dear John,
    What wonderful points you bring up in your posting. We definitely are talking the talk, but not the walk in this city and country. I am a school board member at a struggling parochial school that is trying to truly become a divese quality community school and provide good education to its 148 kids. It has been a strugle securing funds and making payroll for our dedicated teachers and staff, while the city and state continue to award us the same allotment per child for our upk services for the last five years. Besides that, they are willing to see us spend money to deplete the allocation marked for toys and other spendings, rather than foster a sense of frugality, given the new economic reality or the current fiscal crises at all levels. The church that has been overseeing the school is also facing financial hardships since its endowment funds have been shinking, as we all know too well. We are considering closing or securing funds from private sources that would like to support this small gem in Queens county. Any help will be most appreciated. thank you for listening. Regards to you and your staff.

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