A Washington Post reader last October asked education columnist Jay Mathews to “start a discussion on the advantages (real and imagined) of pre-kindergarten.” The writer cited evidence that the effects of pre-k wear off and expressed concerns attempting to serve middle-class and at-risk kids with the same program might be “a sure recipe for a new middle-class benefit that shortchanges the poor.”
In response, Sara Mead of the New America Foundation laid out a case for universal pre-k (UPK) largely based on research demonstrating that all children, not just low-SES kids, would benefit. “It’s true,” she wrote, “that the high-quality, randomized controlled trials that demonstrated long-term benefits to participation in high-quality pre-k programs focused on low-income students.”
But data from more recent evaluations of pre-k programs suggests that these programs also have benefits for middle-class children. For example, a Georgetown University study that looked at children in Oklahoma’s universal pre-k program found that all groups of students participating in the program, including middle class kids, made learning gains as a result, compared to students who didn’t. But the greatest gains were for low-income and otherwise at-risk students. Other studies looking at state pre-k programs have found similar results.
Mathews’ correspondent observed that the middle class has to be included to build the political momentum to get a program passed. Mead cited research that shows a lot of working- and middle-class families can’t afford pre-k either. And she’s especially persuasive when she notes “the simple fact that we don’t restrict children’s access to K-12 education based on their parents’ incomes.”
In the end, the question of universal pre-k vs low-income pre-k is a political question. But the benefit of preschool for low-SES children can no longer be seriously disputed. There is no doubt that access to high-quality preschool programs helps. But the key phrase in that sentence is not access, but high-quality. Universal access to low-quality preschool would be a high-cost, low-value proposition. Data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows most programs in the United States are rated mediocre, and fewer than 10% meet national accreditation standards:
Across the nation child care fees average $4,000 to $10,000 per year, exceeding the cost of public universities in most states. Yet, nationally only 1 in 7 children who are financially eligible for child care subsidies is being served, and only 41% of 3 and 4 year old children living in poverty are enrolled in preschool, compared to 58% of those whose families have higher incomes.
Cracking the nut of ensuring high-quality is a work in progress. What we do know is that it is dependent on what teachers do in the classroom, not just what they have in the classroom.
In the end, I’m agnostic on universal PreK. It certainly would do no harm, and much good. But we must find a way to guarantee every low-income child a place in a high-quality preschool. If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, it’s not going to happen without a robust program that captures all of our most vulnerable, at-risk children.