Publication Type: Web Article
Year of Publication: 2004
"There is really a great deal of research out now on the benefits
of high quality publicly funded preschool programs," says Laura Reasoner Jones. "But we
teachers don't need the expensive research to see the benefits.
I see the benefits and the casualties every day."
Jones, L.R. (2004). Universal pre-school? It's a no-brainer. Teacher Leaders Network diaries. Retrieved from the Teacher Leaders Network 11 Apr 2008. Link: http://www.teacherleaders.org/old_site/diaries04_05/LJ18_04_05.html
Universal Preschool? It's a No-Brainer
Universal preschool. Now, that's a novel idea.
OK, I know I'm jaded. But policy wonks saying that free preschool for all children is a new and clever idea is just waving the red flag in front of us preschool special ed teachers who would give our children's college savings funds, such as they are, to get some of our students into free high-quality programs.
There is an interesting new spin on it that may do some good, though. In September, a report was released by the Committee for Economic Development suggesting that high-quality preschool is directly linked to economic growth. Another study, the much-watched Perry study from Michigan, showed higher high school graduation rates, significantly better incomes, and much lower rates of imprisonment in children who had been in the High/Scope preschool program 36 years ago. That is a cool study—imagine finding all those kids as grownups.
Strangely enough, all this reminds me of our NBCT recognition dinner last spring. In his opening remarks, one of the high-ranking school officials actually congratulated us NBCTs for reducing the incarceration rate of the students in our school system. At the time, I really couldn't believe that I heard him correctly, and since my friends sitting near me had not been paying attention, I couldn't get confirmation that he actually said that. But, maybe he was speaking directly to the preschool teachers in the group!
Seriously, there is really a great deal of research out now on the benefits of high quality publicly funded preschool programs. But we teachers don't need the expensive research to see the benefits. I see the benefits and the casualties every day.
Of the 12 children currently in my preschool Child Find caseload, only two do not attend any preschool program at all. One of these is by the parent's choice. Her little boy just turned three, and is still not a great talker, so I think she is right to keep him at home.
The other child was in a Head Start program in Massachusetts. When they moved here, all of a sudden they no longer qualified financially, even though the mom had stopped working and they had had another child. I did everything I could to make them financially eligible, including asking our Spanish-speaking social worker to go over the forms one more time to make sure I was understanding everything. But in our county, a family of six cannot make more than $24,680 a year and be eligible for Head Start. We—this family and I—live in the poorer part of the county, but apartments for families run at least $1600 a month. You do the math. It is killing this mom that her son is not in preschool anymore. She uses the little spare cash she has to create pretend-school activities to do when I am not there. I give her all the supplies I can spare from my basement cabinets so that she can continue to enrich his life.
Two of my other students are in substandard "chain" daycare programs. The parents are paying twice what they would pay in a small private preschool, and are getting significantly less quality for their money. Staff in these programs do not speak English well and the turnover is awful. The children spend up to 11 hours a day in these programs, and they are sure not learning much. But daycare is expensive, good or bad, and these parents have no choice — they work two jobs and need a program that will keep their children those long hours.
The remaining eight children are enrolled in private church or synagogue-sponsored programs. This is not to say that they are a particularly religious bunch—but that is how preschool is provided in this county. Two of these families attend these wonderful preschools because I personally brokered scholarships for them. The other kids are lucky—their parents can afford the very reasonable fees, and the schools have space for them. The children get qualified teachers who want to be there and great programs with small classes. It is as the saying goes: "For to all those who have, more will be given."
Gosh, wouldn't it be nice if all children started out with equal educational opportunities? Isn't that what it is supposed to be about?
Some tips for researchers and policy makers
The policy makers and researchers who support universal preschool would do well to talk to us in the trenches because we can see even more benefits than they are currently measuring:
Parental involvement – A good preschool program gets the parents involved in education at the very beginning. Programs like Head Start or High/Scope have parent groups, mandatory involvement, training, and other components that help parents learn that they must become and remain an active part of their children's education all through school. Parents are offered opportunities and support for growth so that they can identify their own strengths, needs, interests and problem-solving skills. Through family partnership agreements, staff and parents collaborate to set family goals and develop strategies to meet those goals.
Health and developmental screening – A good preschool program looks out for the whole child, in partnership with programs like Child Find and local doctors and dentists. Health or developmental problems do not discriminate by income levels—all kids can benefit from these services.
Nutrition services – Good preschool programs provide nutritious meals including breakfast, A.M. snack, lunch, and/or P.M. snack. These may be the best meals kids get during the day.
Early exposure to English – I have 12 children in my caseload right now, and five different home languages: one Russian, one Vietnamese, one Chinese, one Arabic, and four Spanish-speaking families. When I last looked, Kindergarten was taught in English. These kids are learning both their home languages and English and will be able to function and learn much better than some of their neighbors due to their participation in preschool.
Comfort level with school in general – To me, this is one of the most important parts of good preschool programs. When teachers make parents part of the educational team from the very beginning, children will benefit for years in the future. Early childhood programs teach parents how to support and advocate for their children in a large school system.
I read the negative comments from the conservative organization quoted in the news articles, and I think, "I would love to see big corporations take this on as a challenge."
So, big business, here's the challenge: Fund four preschool classrooms in each public school. Train teachers well, and pay them what they deserve. Buy finger-paint and picture books instead of limousines and corporate jets. Come in and volunteer, bringing your staff. Give your staff paid time off to work in the preschools. Invest in the future. It will pay off for you in a smarter work force, and in economic growth, no matter what the skeptics say.
How could it not? Education always pays off in the end.