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Behind at Age 3: Why Preschool Needs to Be a National Focus

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Restructuring or at least revamping the U.S. K-12 education system merits the political attention and media coverage it has been getting. Big names are surfacing in education, like Rhee, Christie, Black, Klein, and Gates, drawing a wider audience and pushing educational issues into the mainstream. While education reform may be a pressing issue at the national level, I am fearful that one of the most pivotal parts of the education system -- preschool -- is glossed over and almost forgotten. Especially with the recent pull of a measure that would boost early education funding, the national sentiment seems apathetic when it comes to preschool.

The evidence of how instrumental quality preschool education is for children is too compelling for anyone to deny. When my students entered my classroom, at age 3, almost all of them were significantly behind on the developmental continuum. Every one of them would be considered "at-risk" or "disadvantaged" based on socio-economic, racial, and other indicators. Not only were their language and cognitive skills lacking, but socially, they struggled to engage with toys properly, let alone each other. Whatever the causes of these deficits, it was apparent that the only chance my students had at future success lay in my ability to get them on grade level by the end of the year. It was not hard for me to see that these kids, who were academically and behaviorally posited for difficulty in the public education system, needed the absolute best learning experience to get them on track before entering school.

Like the rest of the ed system, the preschool-age kids that need the most support at school find themselves with the least qualified instructors. Even though Head Start Standards call for "highly qualified," certified and experienced teachers, the reality in many low-income preschool centers is sub par. If there is any question about the incentives for working in the public school system, then I think people would be astounded at how poor the environments in some preschools are. The working conditions in many Head Start and early childhood programs are ridiculous, and the pay is even lower than the average elementary teacher (Head Start teachers make $20k less than public school teachers in some states). Without any substantial supportive networks, each center is left to deal with the challenges and stresses of teaching and administration in isolation.

In 1965 the United States recognized the need for excellence at the early education level for underprivileged children, and Head Start emerged to give low-income children access to a preschool education. In the 1980s, demand for quality full-day childcare rose as legislation mandated that low-income parents work longer days and homelessness escalated. As a result, Head Start operators partnered with other funding agencies to extend their services. Though Head Start requirements call for highly qualified teachers, the added stresses and minimal compensation that teachers received when the working day grew detracted from the overall potential for superb educators.

Head Start teachers are required to attend professional development sessions, conduct home visits, meet with parents throughout the year for progress and planning updates, plan detailed, individualized instructional units, maintain comprehensive student portfolios, organize education binders, and hold weekly team meetings. Additionally, they are largely responsible for classroom upkeep and environmental modifications. Not least, Head Start teachers work daily with students to provide learning opportunities that extend beyond kindergarten readiness and touch on self-help skills, health, safety, and nutrition. Furthermore, a major tenet of early childhood is lifelong education, resulting in many teachers enrolling in school full- or part- time in addition to being in the classroom. Even as a life-long overachiever, being a highly involved, yet minimally supported preschool teacher was hands down the most exhausting thing I've ever done.

Head Start attendance is correlated with growth across cognitive, social-emotional, health, and parenting practice domains. Plus, studies have shown that when Head Start agencies are present in communities, local children are much more likely to attend preschool. These findings, though positive overall, do not shed light on the lingering issue of the achievement gap. A 2005 Head Start impact study outlines a serious failure in the Head Start community: "The mean performance of Head Start children was still below the average performance level for all U.S. children, by about one-third of a standard deviation." One might argue that any preschool is good preschool, especially if there are proven gains that span several domains. However, the evidence shows that Head Start, even with quality Performance Standards is leaving children with scores drastically below national norms for achievement.

Head Start providers are often the only access points that low-income students have to education at an early age. Because there are very few (if any) incentives for people to stay at centers, these services appear to fall short of excellence, resulting in student knowledge below national norms, and so even if they impart students some benefits, these programs do not afford their attendees with equal opportunities for success.

These children face challenges in other dimensions of their lives. No doubt it is easier for many people to blame parents for early learning deficits. The social return on a stellar preschool education is so incredible, that I would hope we could agree that it's worth the investment. This isn't a call for a policy overhaul; Head Start is a very well-developed program, and preschool education is of utmost importance. My goal is to give a little reminder to the education world that when we ask for positive reform, we should not forget pre-K. We absolutely can't afford to drive out good teachers with absurd working conditions.