Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is weighing in on preschool with an article about the challenges of creating programs that maximize best outcomes for children.

Called “Preschool is for Real,” the article starts by noting that children and teachers are doing a lot of hard work.

“Imagine yourself as a preschooler. Everything’s an adventure, from pretending you’re a superhero to chasing a butterfly to painting a self-portrait. There is so much to explore, discover and learn at preschool, and it all feels like play—hours and hours of play,” the article says.

“But behind all the fun and games, preschool teachers have one very serious goal: To prepare children for kindergarten and future academic success. To achieve that, they have the daunting task of helping young children learn specific social, emotional, physical, linguistic, cognitive, literacy and math skills, which are defined in state learning guidelines or standards. All this sounds very much like school, although preschool teachers make it all feel like play.”

Shari Funkhouser, a North Carolina preschool teacher with 18 years of experience, explains the pressure this way, “There’s always a push to make preschool look more like school.” She adds: “With that comes a push for more data, which leads to more assessments. But no test can really measure all the important growth that occurs in preschool.”

Why preschool? First because of “how critical the early years are developing brains.” And second to address “the widening achievement gap between rich and poor children.”

But, while preschool enrollment is growing, many children are left out: “an estimated 52 percent of low-income kids and 25 percent of moderate- or high-income kids arrive on the first day of kindergarten unprepared, lacking in many of the skills considered essential to learning.”


Preschool Challenges 

Many studies point to the effectiveness of high-quality preschool programs, and so does Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman. However, considerable obstacles remain.

“Along with concerns over the disparities in achievement, however, come concerns over parental rights, big government and a growing ‘nanny state,’” the NCSL article says.

“Maintaining parental choice is essential to many who believe government should stay out of family decisions. Like North Dakota Senator Tim Flakoll (R), chairman of the Education Funding Committee, they believe ‘parents should be the first teachers of kids.’

“With that in mind, lawmakers in North Dakota funded a new preschool program specifically to support parents—many of whom have recently been drawn to the state by its booming economy. ‘We have job openings for nearly everyone who needs work in the state, so this is really helping out these working parents,’ Flakoll says.”

Another challenge is settling the issue of whether or not preschool’s benefits last.

“David J. Armor, George Mason University professor emeritus of public policy, argues in the Washington Post that ‘the few top-quality studies out there reveal few, if any, lasting benefits.’

“Others disagree. It’s difficult to know which skills will diminish over time and which will persist or even appear later. ‘That is, early measures may not capture the full long-term impact of the program,’ says Rob Grunewald, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The bank got involved in preschool issues over concerns that our future workforce would be ill-prepared and lack the skills needed to lead our country.”

And as we’ve blogged, Upjohn Institute economist Timothy Bartik has found that the long term benefits of preschool include increased job opportunities and higher lifetime earnings.

Another challenge: ensuring program quality.

“Lawmakers have targeted improvements to areas that directly influence quality,” however, “Finding qualified teachers may be difficult.” And, “Salaries don’t exactly attract people to the profession. Although preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees can make more than $40,000 a year, depending on the type of preschool, the nation’s average salary for all preschool teachers is less than $30,000.”


Innovation and Patience

The good news about preschool is that states are functioning well as laboratories of innovation.

“Utah has experimented with a couple of interesting ways to address problems of school readiness, grade retention and special education rates in 2014.

“To finance a new statewide early education program for more than 3,500 children, lawmakers approved legislation, sponsored by Representative Greg Hughes (R), that creates a School Readiness Board to negotiate ‘results-based’ contracts with private entities.”

And: “In 2008, the Legislature established a digital in-home preschool program called UPSTART. The program, supported with state funding, recently won an ‘Investing in Innovation’ federal grant. As part of the program, a learning coach contacts families on a weekly basis in English or Spanish to help monitor and improve the child’s progress. Statistics show that, regardless of their ethnicity or socio-economic status, children in the program are making gains in school readiness skills.”

Here in Massachusetts, cities such as Boston are improving quality and building out a mixed delivery system.

“How effective will all this new investment in high-quality preschools be?” the article asks. “Finding out will require patience—at least 10 or so years of it. Meanwhile, preschoolers will continue to be preschoolers, playing tag, learning the alphabet, singing songs. They will learn and grow and develop. And those in high-quality preschools will likely show up on the first day of kindergarten, prepared and eager to sail through the next 12 years.

“Teachers don’t need statistical proof to measure that kind of success. ‘We know where they were when they arrived and, large or small, we can see the changes,’ says teacher Funkhouser.

‘We know we have made a difference in their futures.’”

And as the article notes, “Starting school behind sends most children on a scholastic trajectory that limits their educational choices and affects their future academic and workforce success.”

By contrast, expanding high-quality preschool programs promises to promote children’s social, emotional, and academic well-being and to prepare them for lifelong success.