Big Idea: Universal Pre-K to Teach Children and Create Jobs

If we made the effort to reach the majority of toddlers who don't have access to early education, we'd reap benefits across the board.


The snarky back-and-forth of the 2012 presidential campaign may be entertaining, but this is our once-every-four-years chance to mix it up over the big challenges the United States is facing. We're launching the Campaign for Big Ideas to make the run for the White House smarter, bolder, and a lot more ambitious.

It might surprise you to learn that only 58 percent of 3-to-5-year-old Americans are enrolled in any type of organized child care or early education program. The number is even lower—just 51 percent—among poor children. And less than a quarter of American kids attend preschools led by certified teachers; children in less school-like child care settings, like day care centers or in-home care, are often looked after by caretakers earning an average of less than $10 per hour, most of whom have no formal training in education or child development. Research shows that over the past two decades, the education level and salary of early child care workers have consistently declined.

Meanwhile, in cities like New York and San Francisco, the children of the elite vie for seats in top private preschools, which charge as much tuition as private colleges and employ teachers who hold college and graduate degrees.

Any radical rethinking of American public policy ought to start with a consideration of one of our most politically neglected populations: The majority of 3-to-5-year-olds who have no access to high-quality, low-cost educational options. As scientists have learned more about the brain, they've concluded the early years are the most crucial ones for cognitive development. Seventy-five percent of middle-class kindergarteners can write their own names, compared to just about half of poor kindergartners. The typical middle-class 5-year old can identify all 26 letters of the alphabet on her first day of school; a 5-year old living in poverty may know only two letters. By first grade, middle-class children have double the vocabulary of their low-income peers.

All these early literacy skills are associated with success in elementary school and beyond: Third-graders who aren't proficient in reading are four times less likely than proficient readers to graduate from high school. Regularly reading to babies and children can close these gaps, but poor kids are at a serious disadvantage there, too: Seventy-four percent of mothers with a college degree read to their young children every day, compared to just about one-third of mothers with a high school degree or less.

If we want to fight poverty and equalize educational opportunity, we cannot ignore the disparities that develop before a child ever enters the public education system as it is currently construed. We must follow the example of our developed-world peers and create comprehensive child care and early education systems that reach kids starting at age 3 at the latest—which would also create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for adults.

In Finland, the government maintains a high-quality, universal public preschool program, and parents can drop their babies and toddlers off at 24-hour, government-run day care centers, where at least one of every three staff members is required to hold a college degree. In France, parents of all children older than three months have the right to affordable child care, provided by either the government or a private facility, and with tuition charged on a sliding scale according to parents’ income.

To build an early education system more like the ones we admire abroad, the American federal government will need to step in with financing, incentives, and policy directives. The Obama administration took a crucial first step last May, when it created the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which distributed $500 million in competitive grants to nine states willing to invest in early childhood learning. Another $133 million will be distributed through the program this year, but only five states are eligible to apply. With many more states cutting early education budgets, the Race to the Top funds are ultimately a drop in the bucket, and will not significantly expand access to high-quality learning opportunities for the youngest children.

In recent years it has become de rigueur to criticize America's one national preschool program, Head Start, which educates about 1 million of our poorest 3- and 4-year olds, or about 12 percent of the total preschool population. Though it is true that many of the academic benefits of Head Start seem to dissipate by the time a child reaches fifth grade, this is likely due to uneven quality control across the 49,200 local Head Start programs, as well as to the disadvantaged public elementary schools in which Head Start students tend to enroll. To address these problems, the Obama administration is making moves to withdraw funding from low-quality Head Start providers and redistribute the dollars to new agencies potentially better able to provide a good education.

Studies of small preschool programs in Michigan and North Carolina found lasting positive effects—from higher test scores in high school to lower rates of joblessness, homelessness, and incarceration in adulthood. From these studies, we know what the best practices are in early learning: well-trained teachers working with small groups of children, paying attention not only to their literacy and numeracy skills, but also to their social, emotional, and physical development—from playing cooperatively with peers to learning to zip up a jacket to gaining the confidence to ask adults questions when one is curious or confused. Children develop these skills much faster when their caretakers speak to them in vocabulary-rich, purposeful dialogue, multiple times per day. Early childhood educators need special training to learn how to effectively engage children in these skill-building activities and conversations.

Guaranteeing universal access to preschool would benefit children, of course, but also their parents and the overall economy. First, extending the social contract to 3-and-4-year-olds would acknowledge that our public education system can no longer run on a pre-feminism model that assumes mothers of young children don’t need or want to work. Second, improving lifetime educational achievement by reaching all children as early in their brain development as possible would increase economic mobility. And third, universal preschool would create many new jobs for early education teachers and teachers' aides. Those jobs might be especially attractive to low-income, single women, who raise some of the most vulnerable children and have been subject to waves of political posturing from the likes of Mitt Romney, who believes in the “dignity of work” for poor mothers but whose policy proposals would do little to provide them with dignified employment opportunities. One innovative way to involve needy working moms in an early-education renaissance: create “charter colleges” that train early childhood educators through lots of in-classroom practice and mentorship, without forcing them to fulfill all the requirements of a traditional bachelor’s degree.

A public early education system has the potential to fight poverty and joblessness—two key drivers of the low tax revenue and stagnant growth that have created our current budget deficits—among two generations simultaneously. In any rational country, that would be a national priority.

Illustration by Bijan Berahimi\n
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