Preschool for all — or for the poor?

President Obama wants to spend $75 billion over 10 years on Preschool for All, partnering with states to provide “high-quality” preschool to 4-year-olds from families under 200 percent of the poverty level.

“The path to college begins in preschool,” writes Lisa Hansel on the Core Knowledge Blog. Closing achievement gaps in elementary or middle school is very, very difficult, she writes, citing Chrys Dougherty in ACT’s College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning.

“Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge,” writes Dougherty.

One study found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge of the world was a better predictor of those students’ eighth-grade reading ability than were early reading skills. This is consistent with research showing that reading comprehension, particularly in the upper grades, depends heavily on students’ vocabulary and background knowledge….

What makes a program high quality? It’s not cheap. Successful preschool programs in Boston and New Jersey hire well-educated teachers and pay them well, reports the Christian Science Monitor.  In addition:

They are full-day programs open to all students of a certain age group, regardless of family income.
They offer curricula linked to system-wide educational standards.
School districts monitor preschool teacher and student improvement on an ongoing basis.

In Boston, preschoolers made significantly greater gains in vocabulary, math and “executive function,” which includes working memory and paying attention to a task. The gains could be seen in third-grade test scores.

New Jersey offers high-quality pre-K in 31 low-income districts. The gains “are still visible in language, math, and science scores in fourth and fifth grades,” reports the Monitor.

“Everyone should applaud programs that are generating big gains for children who desperately need to be ready for school,” said Grover Whitehurst, director of Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. However, we don’t know what factors lead to success, he says. The federal government should not require preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, for example.

High-quality preschool costs $8,000 a year per child, estimates the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers. The group suppors universal preschool rather than targeting help to disadvantaged students.  

In essence, taxpayers would fund pre-K through 12th grade for all students. (And the most effective programs work better if kids have two years of preschool.) Children who aren’t learning vocabulary, general knowledge or self-control at home can benefit from preschool. Most kids don’t need it.

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  1. The idea of sending everybody to college is totally absurd. 25% of the US population has IQ’s below 90. Among the poor its probably more like 50%. Meanwhile college graduates with substantial debt are serving coffee at Starbucks. This is getting completely ridiculous.

  2. facebook_ruben.stutter.1 says:

    President Obama is basing the proposed preschool programs upon Prop 10 – the California First 5 program.

    Maybe preschool could be a decent idea, but for pete’s sake, do not base any such federal law on the completely dysfunctional First 5’s – 20 forced resignations and over $300 million recently admittedly directed to be spent illegally is tax dollar malfeasance. There’s a lot wrong with the structure of that law – let’s not make the same mistake twice.

    Check out the First 5 watchdog site at

  3. SuperSub says:

    And when these students hit middle school, all the improvement will have disappeared because of the poisonous home culture that put them behind in the first place. Head Start is like treading water…it’s only useful if you get pulled out of the water quickly…otherwise you still drown.
    Honestly, the best thing for these disadvantaged children at this point, given the practically-guaranteed heredity of negative cultural values, is to follow MSNBC’s advice and make children from these communities wards of the state and ship them off to government boarding schools.
    Of course, I mean “best” in the sense that it’s best to get shot in the head instead of developing terminal cancer.

  4. Not that it’s going to make the slightest impact on proponents of universal pre-K but this latest push for the policy occurs against a backdrop of widely-acknowledged failure of Head Start so, how’s this differ from Head Start?