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Preschool for All: Getting It Right

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I never, ever thought I would hear a president of the United States, much less a president in the State of the Union address, call for universal preschool. But two nights ago, I listened to President Obama do just this:

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That's something we should be able to do.

Using well-known data from the three gold-standard studies of early childhood education--HighScope Perry Preschool Project, the Abedecarian Project study and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, the president, cited the business case:

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road ... Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.

He said that, in fact, we are doing this in an increasing number of states:

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children -- like Georgia or Oklahoma -- studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.

But he also recited the realities -- that fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program and that most families can't afford private preschools, and that casts a shadow on children from low-income families that would "shadow them for the rest of their lives."

The more concrete plans for this proposal were just released by the White House at 6 a.m. today, but even before this announcement, the usual groups have taken their usual sides. Many say that it is unaffordable. Others cite the recent Head Start study showing the early gains can fade out by third grade. So clearly, the devil will be in the details.

We can get it right! Having been part of this research, practice and debates for several decades, here are my cautions.

  • The focus will be on the states -- the president is proposing a federal-state partnership -- and that of course, is as it should be. A number of states have been working on this for years and have come a long way.
  • The focus, according to the president, will be on academic standards, but years of research shows that we are making a false dichotomy between academic and social-emotional learning. When children are engaged in learning, they are learning socially, emotionally and intellectually. This is imperative!
  • Rightly, the president is focusing on well-trained and paid teachers; small group sizes; and a rigorous curriculum. This is important but if the focus is just on children learning content without promoting executive function skills (the how of learning), we won't see the results we need or expect. We must pay attention to the growing body of literature that shows when children learn executive function skills, they are more likely to thrive now and in the future. And if you look closely at our three gold-standard programs (as I have done), that is exactly what they did!
  • To serve most low-income children, we need a "surround strategy" that addresses these families' other needs -- in the sense that Promise Neighborhoods and Community Schools are doing successfully. Thankfully, the president is proposing health and related services, but these need to serve the families as well as the children.
  • To ensure long-term results, we can't assume that a year of preschool is like a vaccine. We need to start earlier, as the president is proposing with expanding early Head Start, child care and voluntary home visiting through competitive grants. But again, what we do in these programs will make all of the difference. It can't be just preschool, watered down for younger children.
  • We also need to continue our efforts into the grade school years to really see results. I suggest we tie these early childhood initiatives to the Core Common State Standards, which also argues for promoting executive functions (like critical thinking and focus and self control) in appropriate ways in the early years.
We have an amazing opportunity and we can get it right this time!

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