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The Preschool Education Issues in America

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Every American toddler should have the opportunity to attend a high-quality, free preschool. Whether they go or not would be up to their parents or guardians, of course, but the opportunity should be there. We now know that most brain growth occurs before a child reaches kindergarten age. It is a fact that most American parents are working outside the home. Our economic competitors are already providing this opportunity for their 4-year-olds (and often their 3-year-olds), a fact that has implications for our economic health.

It's not that we haven't made a stab at creating preschool programs. Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" created Head Start back in 1965, but I would say (tongue firmly in cheek) that Head Start is a "failure." The federal preschool program for 4-year-olds was supposed to level the playing field for poor children, and it has not done that.

Educationally and linguistically, poor children are behind from the beginning. Parents with professional jobs speak about 2,100 words an hour to toddlers, while those in poverty about 600, according to a study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. The study says, "Between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 1,500 words spoken per hour." Of course, nobody speaks all the time, but just suppose that these differences apply to just five hours a day, 365 days a year for five years. That's a difference of more than 11 million words.

It's called "the vocabulary gap," and the failure to close that gap can lead to an achievement gap, which in turn can lead to dropping out of school, and that has social consequences for the individual and the larger society. It's all downhill, and it's not a pretty picture.

So, do we know what to do? Of course we do.

Do we do it? Of course not.

One reason for Head Start's "failure" was the misguided practice at some of its centers, where teaching the alphabet was actually banned in favor of teaching social skills. But the dominant reason for the persistent gap is the fervor with which middle-class and upper-middle-class parents have embraced preschool.

These parents enroll their own children in preschool because they know that 3- and 4-year-olds are ready and eager to learn. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that less than half of 3- to 5-year-old children below the poverty line were enrolled in some form of "center-based early childhood care and education program," compared with 60 percent of those at or above the poverty level.

The real disparity is seen, however, in terms of the mother's highest level of education: Just 35 percent of children whose mother had not earned a high school diploma were enrolled in a center-based program, compared with 73 percent of children whose mothers had a bachelor's degree or higher. And it doesn't take much to imagine some pretty big differences between the programs that these two different groups attend.

Why aren't the poor kids enrolled? Generally it's because we haven't created enough Head Start or other early education programs. To serve all the eligible children, we'd need twice as many programs as we have. Once again, we're talking the talk when it comes to helping poor children, but not walking the walk.

Shouldn't we be embarrassed about our approach to early education? Most industrialized countries provide free, high-quality preschool for 3-, 4- and 5-year- olds, regardless of family income. Almost all 4-year-olds in England, Luxembourg and the Netherlands go to public school; recent reports also indicate that 70 percent of German, Danish and Greek 4-year-olds go to public school, and over 90 percent of 4- and 5-year-olds in France, Italy and Spain are in public school.

We're the opposite: a patchwork non-system with weakly trained, poorly paid staff. The quality ranges from excellent to abysmal, the tuition from $15,000 to zero, the teachers' salaries from $45,000 or more a year plus benefits to as little as $8 or $9 per hour, without benefits.

In the United States, quality preschool is a seller's market, and even well-to-do parents endure "preschool panic" when they realize there's not enough quality to go around. One of the families in "The Promise of Preschool," our 2002 PBS documentary, moved from New York City to France while we were filming. Forced to choose between career opportunities for themselves and a decent preschool for their sons, they put their kids first.

In that same documentary, we visited a pre-school program in the south, where we found workers (most often parents who were called "teachers"). They explained how they taught reading to 4-year-olds:

"We cut out cereal boxes with the names on it. That's a reading thing we use," said Teacher One.

"Or a McDonalds sign," said Teacher Two. "Like you know, the parents will say, 'OK, where are we going?' and the kids, even though they can't read, recognize the letters."

"Or a Walmart sign," added Teacher One. "That's reading."

No, it's not, and no parent should be forced to send a child to be taught that way.

But earlier this year in Chicago we found a "system" that fails to provide even the minimum for about 30 percent of the neediest children. If you saw the NewsHour piece (embedded below), you had to have been impressed by the program that provides quality care and education for 10 hours a day, five days a week, year-round. But what was your reaction to the harsh fact that this wonderful program serves 149 children -- out of a population of 90,000? That's barely one tenth of one percent!

It's good that increasing numbers of Americans seem to be embarrassed about our approach to preschool, but it won't be easy for any state to create a quality preschool system, particularly in this economy.

I believe the effort will fail unless our goal is to create a system that's good enough for those with money, but make it available to everyone. As Ed Zigler, the founder of Head Start, has said, "Programs for poor people are poor programs."

So we ought to design preschool systems the way we built our Interstate highway system. President Eisenhower didn't create separate highways for rich and poor. Instead, we built an Interstate system that was good enough for people behind the wheel of a Cadillac, and no one driving a cheap Plymouth complained. If we follow that road map, the journey will be long, but we'll get there.

Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, grew up in a preschool family. What's more, he comes from Chicago, a national leader in the early education movement, thanks in large part to the late Irving R. Harris, a strong and successful advocate long before it was on most radar screens. Mr. Harris said, "We must remember -- the first few months of life are not a rehearsal. This is the real show."

That was back in the 1970s, on my NPR program. Today the science is crystal clear: Children living in poverty who have access to high-quality care and education during their first five years are more likely to develop the skills necessary to succeed in school and in life. We can close the vocabulary gap (as well as gaps in nutrition and health care).

As president, Mr. Obama has often spoken forcefully about the need for comprehensive programs that provide services for children from birth, that is, long before the age of preschool. Whether this will come to pass in these difficult economic times will be one of the most important stories of the next decade.

Me, I would get rid of senior year of high school and spend that money where it will do a heck of a lot more good, on early education. (Maybe cut subsidies for corn, et cetera, and use those dollars as well.)

What would you do?

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.