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Universal Preschool: The Science (and Magic) in Preschool for All

Kaya Chwals

Kaya Chwals

There is a lot of science behind the benefits of universal preschool education. The idea was first introduced in France in the 1800s; many developed countries have a strong history of educating all children early on. We don’t, and so a debate began, and science set about to study whether or not there’s any benefit to investing energy in developing young minds in a structured way.

Short answer: yes. The sevenfold savings Obama described in his state of the union speech highlights a study that shows a marked difference in lifelong achievement between high risk children who receive quality preschool education and those that do not.

In turn, one would argue to those who would be against universal preschool for financial reasons, the savings to society are seven times what they would be if these children were caught in a cycle of poverty that requires government aid or, frankly, prison costs. We have far more prisoners than preschoolers, more prisoners than anyone else in the world, and that plays a part in our national conversation about early education.

The hitch is that these children received, as the Perry study pointed out, “a high quality preschool program.”

If we were to enact universal preschool in America, what would such a system look like? Probably kindergarten, which became universal in the United States in the 1960s and 70s. I am very fond of kindergarten, but anecdotally, here are some goals I’ve heard in working with kindergarten teachers: 

  • Working Together
  • Being Patient
  • Learning to Take Direction
  • Learning to Sit
  • Learning to Wait

Learning to sit. Children need to be trained to sit for eight hours at a time. School looks like children sitting at desks, after all. And with cuts to crazy luxuries like recess, and afterschool programming taking on the tasks that have been excised in the school day, that need to sit can reach nine or ten hours.

I was once observing a kindergarten class where the children were practicing sitting, getting up, and getting into a line. Over and over. One child was literally pulling his hair in order to focus. It was like a topsy-turvy marshmallow study. And before I cast stone in glass houses, I had recommended that exercise in order to provide more structure to students in school.

So let’s just imagine for a moment that preschool for all has been passed. And rather than voucher, Head Start, or elective programs, preschool is standardized and present in public schools like kindergarten.

First things first, we should set up standards. Next, assessment measures to make sure we’re meeting the standards. A good place to start is taking some goals off of kindergarten’s plate so they can get to reading and writing. There’s the sitting. The waiting. And suddenly a room full of four-year-olds are pulling their hair.

A bit draconian, but I bring it up because there are a number of studies that question our reliance on the Perry study. These studies suggest there are not long-term, sweeping benefits to standardized education in early childhood. The idea that there is a limited impact of early childhood education shocked me when I first researched universal preschool. But consider again the “high quality programs” of the Perry study.

Unfortunately, when we look at standardizing education, that’s often code for getting decent programming into at risk areas that don’t receive a lot of care. And because of the current system of education, those areas tend to retain untrained or burnt out educators, administration that doesn’t always use money wisely, and attract limited outside resources.

While universal preschool for underserved communities is better than no preschool at all, history indicates it would be another institutionalized, if well-meaning, container for red tape. Little jewels guided by Reggio Emilia practices with thoughtful assessment will be exceptions across a vast geographical and cultural landscape.

This is extremely frustrating because their children matter. They matter as human beings, they matter as creative citizens of society, and they matter as investments in the fabric of American culture.

It’s also exasperating because preschool education isn’t particularly difficult to do well. Children are so fabulously interesting at that age, and with a little inventiveness they bloom.

Up until the age of six or seven, imagination and magic is neurologically hard-wired into kids as they learn what’s what.

There’s a marvelous little experiment done by Paul Harris in England. Researchers sat with children who understood the concept of “imaginary” and they imagined a monster or a puppy in a box in the room. After the playing, the adults reiterated that the game was imaginary and the children agreed it wasn’t real. Researchers then left the room and watched the children. If there was a monster in the box, the children steered clear of the box. If they had imagined the puppy, they took a peek into the box—just in case. Isn’t that wonderful?

I bring up the experiment because I love it, and because these kind of studies don’t come up when we argue universal preschool, and thus likely won’t be part of standards and assessments if universal preschool comes to pass.

In the meantime, I argue that we should invest in raising the profile of excellent preschool education programs, and fixing the kinks in Head Start and other initiatives.

Perhaps that can lead to more young people being exposed to the high quality programs Perry noted have a significant impact on children. Maybe this movement could even have an effect on the way we look at education for all children. Because I would still peek into that box, just in case.

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