Several recent studies demonstrate long-term benefits in enrolling at-risk children in early childhood education programs. This makes establishing universal public preschool seem like a slam dunk.
These studies found that preschool not only improved children’s learning, but also had positive ripple effects for years to come, including increased lifetime wages, fewer criminal convictions, higher high school graduation rates, and increased home ownership.
Yet, at the same time, other studies of both state-run universal preschool and federally-run Head Start programs have recorded disappointing results, showing educational advances reaped from those programs fading within one to two years.
Before expanding Head Start or instituting universal preschool on a nationwide scale, policy makers and education leaders should make gains towards shaping preschool programs that really work.
Combined with rigorous, organized research, allowing experimentation among different states’ Head Start programs could help uncover what approaches and tactics yield the best results. For this reason, Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, has suggested loosening requirements for Head Start programs to permit greater diversification.
There are numerous variables to test. Should programs have a comprehensive focus (as Head Start currently does), aiming to address health care and social needs alongside learning? Or, does that more inclusive approach dilute the educational mission, spreading the organization too thin to create significant gains in learning? Should preschool instructors be required to have a BA in early childhood education? What would happen if preschool teachers were paid more? (Right now, the average preschool teachers’ pay is below that of kindergarten teachers and even janitors and cooks.) Are vouchers an effective alternative means of supplying low-income children with a preschool education?
Unfortunately, we have not fully conquered the challenge of providing a preschool (or any level) education that serves all children well. Before establishing a widespread system that may end up failing its most vulnerable students, just as the K-12 system does now, we should invest in uncovering which approaches consistently yield the fantastic results discussed in the opening sentence of this article.
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