NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 22, 2009

President Barack Obama has pledged to spend $10 billion more a year on "zero to five" education, and his 2010 budget makes a $2 billion "down payment" on that commitment. Any number of congressional leaders want more preschool, as do dozens of governors. Not to mention the National Education Association and the Pew Charitable Trusts.  At least three states are already on board.

Underlying all this activity and interest is the proposition that government -- state and federal -- should pay for at least a year of preschool for every American four-year-old.   One rationale is to boost overall educational achievement.  Another is to close school-readiness gaps between the haves and have-nots, says Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education, is most recently the author of "Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut."

Instead of launching vast new pre-K programs for all, policymakers would better serve American children by focusing on three genuine problems, says Finn:

  • Delivering intensive, targeted education services -- preferably starting at birth and including parents as well as children -- to the relative handful of children (one or two of every 10 babies) who would truly be unready to succeed in school without heavy-duty interventions.
  • Redeploying pre-K funds and revamping existing programs, beginning with Head Start, to emphasize the cognitive side of kindergarten preparation (e.g., pre-literacy skills such as letters, sounds and shapes) and judging the effectiveness of such programs by the readiness of their graduates.
  • Beefing up school-reform efforts so that the classrooms poor children enter have high standards, knowledgeable teachers, coherent curriculums and the ability to tailor instruction to children's readiness levels -- and to cumulate gains from year to year rather than dissipate and squander them.

Done right, preschool programs can help America address its urgent education challenges.  But today's push for universalism gets it almost entirely wrong, says Finn.

Source: Chester E. Finn, Jr., "The myths about pre-k," Dallas Morning News, May 20, 2009.


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