Blog: The Educated Reporter

Getting It Right on Preschool For All

Earlier this week the Senate approved a $1.5 billion increase to funding for Head Start, as well as $750 million in new money to help states provide higher-quality early learning programs.EWA’s 66th National Seminar was recently held at Stanford University, and we asked some of the education reporters attending to contribute blog posts from the sessions, including one examining President Obama’s universal preschool proposal.Today’s guest blogger is Suzanne Bouffard of the Harvard Education Letter. The full podcast of the session can be found hereStream any session from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes. For more on early learning, visit EWA’s Story Starters online resource. 

Preschool teachers will tell you that it’s not all about what you do in the classroom, it’s also about how. The same is true when it comes to preschool policy. That’s the advice of panelists who spoke at EWA’s national seminar session about President Obama’s proposal to provide preschool access to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. Responding to questions posed by Karin Klein of the Los Angeles Times, the panelists expressed concerns about the details of the proposal. Echoing current debate among the early childhood community, they grappled with how to strike a balance between an ideal policy and a realistic one.

Obama’s push to embed the new preschool classrooms in the K-12 system raised red flags for Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and Sterling Speirn, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which supports efforts aimed at vulnerable children and families. Fuller and Speirn fear that preschool classrooms will be forced to look like elementary school classrooms, with more worksheets, skill drills and testing. That’s not appropriate for 4-year-olds, they say, who learn by actively exploring their environments and who need to develop academic, social and emotional skills at the same time.

Fuller believes that Obama has made a mistake in failing to bring community-based preschool providers to the table with K-12 educators. He and Speirn pointed to the experience and skills of community providers, especially when it comes to engaging and empowering parents. They suspect that school-based teachers have a harder time building trusting relationships with parents than those in community-based centers, which tend to hire staff that share families’ cultures, languages and neighborhoods.

As part of Obama’s plan, preschool teachers would be required to hold bachelor’s degrees, like K-12 teachers. But there has been little evidence to suggest that this leads preschoolers to learn more, according to Fuller. On the other hand, there is evidence that children benefit when their teachers have training in child development. Klein is concerned that the Obama plan could go into effect before there are enough teachers who meet the bachelor’s degree requirement, creating the kind of K-12 teacher shortage seen after California began mandating a maximum class size of 20.

Obama is proposing to cover all 4-year-olds from families living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, using a cigarette tax and supplemental state funds, with the proportion of state funding increasing over time. But Fuller believes that the program should be more targeted. He cited research that low-income children benefit more than middle-income children, and reported that those least likely to have access include low-income children, particularly among Latinos and Asian Americans.

What if there were enough teachers with the appropriate skills to serve the children who need preschool the most? Speirn believes that one year of high-quality preschool still wouldn’t be enough, because research shows that gaps in cognitive skills and knowledge begin at birth. He advocates for providing educational and social supports to children and their families from birth to age 8, saying, “We need a revolution. You either decide you’re going to invest in success, or you pay for failure.”

But that’s a big leap, said Ron French, senior writer at Bridge Magazine. French reported that many eligible children in the state of Michigan – approximately 30,000 – have not been able to access preschool programs because of a lack of available slots. Since Bridge ran a series on the issue (Michigan’s Forgotten Four-Year-Olds) the state’s governor has requested a large expansion of preschool funding, and French sees that as a big improvement that shouldn’t get lost.

While delving into the details of the Obama plan, two of the panelists summed up the current debate among the early childhood community. “I just don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” French said, to which Speirn responded, “And I don’t want the imperfect to be the enemy of the good.”