My View: Not all preschools are created equal
"If it’s going to have an impact, preschool must be good," David L. Kirp writes. "Quality costs money, though..."
February 21st, 2013
05:00 AM ET

My View: Not all preschools are created equal

David KirpBy David L. Kirp, Special to CNN

Editor's note: David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, is the author of "The Sandbox Investment" and the forthcoming book "Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools."

(CNN) - Kudos to the president - his call for preschool for every 4-year-old, in the State of the Union address, is a bold and visionary idea. It’s what those who understand the power of early education to unlock children’s minds have been urging for years. It’s what I promoted when I served on the 2008 presidential transition team. But - and it’s a very big but - whether universal prekindergarten really makes a difference in children’s lives or turns out to be a false hope depends entirely on the quality of what’s being offered.

The plus-side first: It takes nothing away from the president’s boldness to note that early education, which used to be derided as baby-sitting, now enjoys widespread popularity. Scientists have learned how rapidly the brain develops during the first years and how much those early experiences build a foundation for later learning. “Skill begets skill,” as Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman puts it, and studies of marquee prekindergarten programs show its potential for lifelong impact. Economists have calculated that every dollar invested in high-quality preschool returns $7 - a figure that would make Warren Buffett envious - with greater educational achievement, higher earnings, fewer unwanted pregnancies, lower welfare costs, even lower crime rates.

Parents get it. They are voting with their feet by increasingly enrolling their toddlers in preschool. Voters get it, too. Polling done by First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization for children, shows that conservatives as well as liberals support early education. The biggest naysayers are the Republicans on Capitol Hill, but as with immigration reform, gun control, marriage equality and raising the minimum wage, they’re on the wrong side of history.

But expanding preschool isn’t enough. The research shows that if it’s going to have an impact, preschool must be good. Quality costs money, though, and lawmakers have often been loath to underwrite it.

They’re making the straightforward calculation that expanding the numbers of kids in pre-K gives them bragging rights with the voters, while improving teachers and insisting on a curriculum that’s based on evidence, not hunch, is a snoozer, politically speaking.

If this sounds cynical, have a look at what’s been happening across the country. The good news is that 39 states and the District of Columbia now provide some funding for early education, and the number of 4-year-olds in these prekindergartens increased to 28% in 2010-11, up from 14% a decade earlier.

That’s the upside. At the same time, though, many states have watered down their programs. Just $4,151 is spent on each preschooler, 15% less than in 2002. It’s about a third of what's spent for elementary and high school students. As you’d imagine, it buys an inferior early education, with pre-K teachers paid a pittance. And in preschool, like life, you get what you pay for. Bad prekindergarten doesn’t do a little good - it does no good at all and might even lead to more aggressive youngsters.

Consider the sad case of Florida.

A decade ago, the voters there made universal preschool a state constitutional right. While the voters demanded that these programs be “high quality,” they neglected to back up their words with dollars. The Sunshine State spends less than $2,500 for each kid, an amount that has actually shrunk in recent years. With little public oversight, it’s apple-pie easy to open a preschool and collect public dollars. Not surprisingly, the National Institute of Early Education Research, which issues an annual report card on the states, reports that Florida meets only three of 10 quality standards.

At the other end of the spectrum, New Jersey has invested in a model program for children living in the state’s poorest urban school systems. In both private and public preschools, qualified teachers earn salaries comparable to K-12 teachers, classes are small, the curriculum is solid and the programs get evaluated. Evaluations have shown that children who attend one of these prekindergartens do better in math and reading; they’re also less likely to have to repeat a grade.

I spent a year in one of those districts, Union City, a poor immigrant community across the Hudson River from Manhattan that does a remarkable job of bringing children into the educational mainstream. As everyone there will tell you, the explanation for Union City’s success starts with a preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds that passes the "golden rule" test - you’d be happy if a toddler you love was enrolled there.

There’s nothing right wing or left wing about good prekindergarten. Oklahoma, among the country’s most conservative states, has one of the best early education systems. GOP-dominated Georgia was the first state to adopt preschool for all. And in Alabama, another Republican bastion, Gov. Robert Bentley, backed by a coalition of early education advocates and business leaders, has proposed a 60% increase in the preschool budget. All three states require that preschool teachers study child development and set the bar high for teaching and learning standards.

Can Washington, working in partnership with the states, produce more New Jerseys and Oklahomas? There’s no faulting the administration’s blueprint, which sets quality standards for preschool, expands Early Head Start for 2- and 3-year-olds and offers support that enables parents do the best they can.

Will the reality match the high hopes? Stay tuned.

The opinions expressed are solely those of David L. Kirp.

soundoff (55 Responses)
  1. Faith

    It's a great idea, but the problem isn't early education. It's grade school. The average first grade class has 30 children to 1 teacher. And as the school work becomes more difficult as they go through the grade levels nothing changes. Instead of putting money into preschool it need to go back into public schools. We need more teachers. As of right now preschool ratio is 1-12. They are learning just fine the way they are. They just need to learn their basic abc's, numbers, shapes, and write their names and be kids and play. It's impossible for a fifth and sixth grade teach to teach 30+ kids. They are slipping through the cracks and getting kicked out of school because no one has the time or patience for them. Preschool won't do them any good if we don't fix our grade schools.

    February 28, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  2. Grace

    Preschool is a great idea but won't do much good unless we fix the grades the kids are going into afterward. Schools have far too many kids per class and far too little in the way of supplies and technology. Let's get what we have going now going better before we spend money on teachers for four year olds, who should be taught preschool activities at home by their parents. Getting parents involved earlier can only help later. About a third of the kids in my grandson's 1st grade class can't write their first names or read a very simple book, I'm talking hop on pop type books. Our kids have so much more to learn these days that these things should be known before 1st grade or those kids are going to be in trouble. We don't need to hire teachers for four year olds. We need parents to put down the remote and pick up a pencil, paper and a book and get to work teaching their kids the basics.

    February 27, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • Faith


      February 28, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  3. beachman6865

    Of course the best and most important "pre-school" is caring parents that read to their children. Of course, those that have no interest in parenting depend on the schools for this nurturing, and blame them when kids go wrong later in life.

    February 27, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  4. Andrew

    2, 3, & 4 yr olds in school?? When are they going to have time to just be kids? Kids need to play to burn off some energy. In Texas no everyone can go to pre-k, you have to qualify to put your kids in pre-k. The article above made it seem like anyone can go. Maybe in other states but not here in Tx.

    February 26, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
  5. St eve

    Get a life and learn what it means to be an American. Some people struggle and some have it better. My mother was left with three young kids while she was donating her time as a teachers aid. I had two pairs of shoes two pair pants and 4 shirts to last for one while school year. I can remember washing those pants every other day and yes they were bell bottoms if you know what that means. Not to mention the lack of food. We were just trying to keep a roof over our heads. My dear mom I live her so much. When we went to the grocrey store everything she bout was with a coupon if there was no cupon it wasnt going home with us. She was hired in by the school for $5 dollars an hour. She went on to be the head secratery and then to the district office and then to the local college as head if personal. Not to bad for single mom whos dad was sold for food in the great depression. America is a place were people come together no matter what race they are and they help each other through the tuff times. I am an Native American Indian before you speak do some history and learn to indore the hard ships of life and be happy. A child is an act of God so don't forget it. If you can't handell it the heat then get out of the kitchen. So please stop putting your cheap 2 cents in because it's not worth it. Maybe you should have been on the Tral of Tears and then you will start having a clue if you dont know rhe Tral of Tears then look it up and tell me. If I have afended anyone I do appoligize. St eve.

    February 26, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  6. Welfare Lover

    I have a better idea. Children need to be taken to pre-pre-pre-pre-schools directly after birth. This gives them the best chance to succeed in life. Also I will not have to take care of them and hear them screaming when I am at the welfare office.

    February 26, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  7. mav78

    why the media are so bias? Commy news network-MSNBC-ABC-NBC-CBS are extremely liberal bias, Fox is extremely GOP bias. AWAKE AMERICA!

    February 26, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  8. doitindc

    Obviously this is a hot-button issue for many parents, but I was not expecting the comment firestorm I just experienced! Wow!! Maybe we should all take a second to cool off and read a book to our kids. For suggestions, head over to my brothers and sisters...

    February 26, 2013 at 12:28 am |
  9. St eve

    Let me ask you all a one question can you remember any thing before 5 yrs old?

    Please be honest with yourself. If you can, it would only be a few memories that you can count on one hand. It would also be something or a spacific event nothing before it and nothing after it. To start kids in school at 2-3 or even 4 yrs old is crazy. At that age can you remember how to get home from the local convenience store? I don't think so unless you live at the store. That tells you a child's mind is two young. The soon to be retirement age will reach 70 yrs old. A child first goes to school and then they enter the work force and will work until rhet retire. Do you see picture here first we get money for you and then you pay use money just about until you die. Whe should be more focused on bring the moms home from work to raise our children with love. Not sending our kids to a public school. Let me give you a fact the Alum Rock School district in San Jose Ca witch is the district my kids belong to has a 10% graduation rate. It has been this way for more than 6 yrs with no change. Did you here me only 10% graduate and about the same 10% go on to collage. So you mean to tell me that putting my child in the school at 2 yrs old it's going to get better.

    What ever your on it will run out.

    Let a kid be a kid and learn to create jobs that will allow the mom's stay home.

    If I have offended any one I am sorry but please wake up!!

    February 25, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
  10. wjw33

    Hi Mr. Kirp,
    My kids (3&5) thank you.
    Citizen USA

    February 25, 2013 at 5:20 am |
  11. zekrusher

    First of all, this article comes from a professor at Berkeley. There goes any hope of prestigious information and intellect being relayed. Second, not a mention of parent involvement. A child needs the encouragement and educational backing of their parental units to have even a glimmer of hope for that child to succeed. Lets focus a tad more on promoting family values first. Minor things like, marriage and limiting the number of baby daddies per person. Lets reinstate morals and ethics. Amazingly, education becomes important and voila, an educated child comes forth. This article was rubbish

    February 24, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
    • lerianis

      zekrusher, you fail to realize that the parents are out making money in order to keep their families fed, clothed, warm, etc.

      They don't have time after their 8-10 hour days (more like 12-14 with lunch breaks, getting to work, preparing for work, etc.) and 60 hour a week jobs to hang out with their children anymore, reading to them and doing other things. If you want that, you have to give the people enough money that they only have to work 40 hours a week maximum.

      February 25, 2013 at 7:55 am |
      • Heidi

        If you make reading to your kids a priority, you make it happen. Maybe it means you don't go to bed until 2am instead of 1am if you have to take care of paying bills, cleaning , laundry whatever after your kids go to bed. But isn't that small sacrifice on your part now worth it if they reap such a benefit from it for their rest of their lives?

        February 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • St eve

      I like your words peace

      February 25, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
  12. Fail Burton

    What good is pre-school if they live in a culture that detests books?

    February 24, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  13. momofthree


    February 24, 2013 at 12:16 am |
  14. Dan

    Has almost no long-term impact on a child's education. True, they're ahead of their peers in short term, but by 3rd grade it all evens out. How's this for a novel concept?, foster child/parent bond and recognize vital role of parents in education of our youth. Far more impact than socioeconomic factors

    February 23, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • Alice in PA

      Look at the long term studies. Kids in Head Start have high graduation rates than those without. They are more likely to go to some type of post secondary education. These two things go a long ay towards breaking the cycle of generational poverty. There is a lot more going on than just standardized test scores. We need to abandon this myopic view of only looking at test scores which merely provide a snapshot of whatever the test measures.

      February 24, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
  15. Alice in PA

    No preschool should have kids seated at desks for any measurable period of time. Preschool must not be about worksheets, drilling, and test prep. In fact no schooling should be like that. Even high school should not have kids always glued to their desks in rows. Think about it – as adults , how many of us are not able to get up and walk around during our jobs?

    February 23, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Tom

      So, like daycare, taxpayer paid for.

      February 24, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
      • Alice in PA

        NO! People do not need to be doing worksheets in order to be learning. They do not need to be sitting continuously at desks to be learning.

        February 26, 2013 at 6:47 am |
  16. Chani

    You people are all insane. Absolutely insane. I'm not sure when I got into a time machine and popped back to 1955, but I'd like to go back to somewhere reasonable, please.

    February 22, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
  17. Mhenry

    Whatever happened to parental responsibility? Having children is a privilege, not a right. If you cannot provide a safe and healthy environment for a child, don't have one. If you can't afford (with time or money) to teach, love and nurture a child, don't have one. It is not the government, nor society's responsibility to provide an adequate environment for everyone's children.

    February 22, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • Tom

      The mentality now is for kds to be popped out every year and supported from delivery room to grave for all generations to come.

      February 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
      • zekrusher

        So sad, but so true. It is so easy to get birth control yet many don't. Unfortunately, the many who don't are the ones who shouldn't be reproducing. It's a vicious cycle and tax payers are getting screwed. Asking people to pay for someone else's poor choice is ludicrous. Working class and rich are sick of it. As a society we need to pull our own weight and stop over populating!

        February 24, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
    • julibear

      Its almost impossible these days for a couple to get by without two incomes. If every household in America waited until they could afford to have one parent stay home, no babies would be born. The fact is that work has become so all encompassing, pay hasn't kept up with inflation, and if you want to have kids you're going to need help from someone (government, family, etc) in order to feed, clothe and educate them. Otherwise– perhaps this would be your preference– only couples with stay at home moms would be able to afford to have children. I believe its a country or society's duty to make sure the children are properly educated. Parents cannot do it alone-they are not qualified to educate their own children to age 18, they cannot afford to, and most do not want to.

      February 23, 2013 at 10:29 am |
      • momofthree

        Thank you Julie. I just had a really long comment to this article that CNN deleted and it said pretty much the same thing. I was told I couldn't have kids at all and worked after (miraculously) having the first two. My paycheck netted three dollars and twenty-four cents after taxes, all of our insurances, and childcare. We did not qualify for daycare assistance. After asking for BC at my last physical, the nearest clinic my insurance would pay for informed me that they were Catholic run and wouldn't prescribe it. Now number three is on the way and I can't work due to health problems in the pregnancy, however, I am st home FT with two small kids and no help because my husband is gone for his job for weeks on end. We didn't ask for this to happen to us and I would love to work, but we simply cannot afford daycare costs on one income and with me at home, no government agency will help. It is a major problem in the US.

        February 24, 2013 at 12:28 am |
  18. Meg

    Jim, no one is calling for mandatory preschool. The idea behind universal preschool is making it available to all. Free for anyone who wants to attend. It would not be mandatory school. For many low income working parents it would make a huge difference in their lives. Those who have the means to explore and pay for other viable options will always and forever have the choice to do so.

    February 22, 2013 at 8:43 am |
    • Tom

      Free, are you kidding me? The working schmucks will pay for it and the retirees in increased property taxes, who are you kidding.

      February 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
      • Joe

        Yeah it is really too bad that retired people have to pay for schools. It is not like people can retire at 65, and severaly end up living for 30 years so the kids who they pay for preschool end up being their Doctors or anything like that.

        February 28, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • Jim

      Low income parents are going to chose free preschool over paying for daycare even if their child isn't ready for full time school. LAUSD has a pre-k program for kindergardeners with late birthdays because there's such a problem with low income parents enrolling their kids in kindergarten when they're nearly a full year younger than most of the class. Parents don't care if their kid isn't ready, they just don't want to pay for daycare. If it's free, it will mean low income kids are enrolled- ready or not.

      February 23, 2013 at 3:08 am |
      • julibear

        I dont blame them! Do you know how much daycare costs? Its not that they don't want to pay for it, its that its simply not affordable. Many parents face the choice of working long hours, never seeing their kid and paying for daycare, or quitting their jobs and turning to welfare or subsistence level living to care for their child. Its absurd.

        February 23, 2013 at 10:32 am |
      • momofthree

        I am so with Julie. When I was working, we paid almost $2,000 a month for two kids to go full-time. It is absolutely ridiculous today and sadly necessary if you work. Dang CNN for deleting my comment. I covered all of this.

        February 24, 2013 at 12:35 am |
  19. Jim

    Preschool has become kindergarten. That's great unless you have a slow maturing boy who can't sit still. How many more little boys will be diagnosed with ADHD when mandatory preschool rolls around. Schools get extra money for kids with IEPs so surely they'll be pushing for every 3-4 year old boys, especially those with late birthdays to get diagnosed because they're driving the teacher crazy.

    My daughter was very advanced and did extremely well at a preschool focusing on academics. My son was not ready for such a place. Instead we sent him to a Waldorf preschool and redshirted him. The extra year of not being forced to sit at a desk made a huge difference. Not all 3.5-4 year olds are ready for preschool, not at least the preschool that's going to give kids that much of a head start on kindergarten at least. Some kids need an extra year of daycare or staying at home and being a little kid.

    February 22, 2013 at 5:33 am |
    • julibear

      Good for you Jim. What about the family living on $60k per Waldorf the way to go for them with an annual cost of $8-10k per year?

      February 23, 2013 at 10:41 am |
      • momofthree

        Amen, but try 45-50k, which is the boat we're sitting in. It's really like you're punished in America for having kids. If my husband and I had no kids and were each working, we could easily make $100k per year, but with each successive child, all costs go up and you get to a point where you are paying for the privilege to work. Especially when you have no family, health issues, and don't qualify for aid. This is definitely a soap box for me.

        February 24, 2013 at 12:39 am |
  20. blametheparents

    We don't need more years of school, we need more involved parents. We need wages that allow a stay at home parent. My almost 5yo hasn't ever been in school but reads, writes, and does addition/subtraction. Children individual attention, not to be in a room of kids their age.

    February 21, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Nate

      You hit the nail on the head! Never happen though. Parents need the school to watch the kids while they work. Companies get to pay everyone less if every home has two incomes.

      February 21, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • julibear

      Agree, but how many parents can afford to stay home and educate their children? Unfortunately not many. Staying at home with your kids used to be the norm, now it is a privilege of the few. Parents who cannot afford to stay home with their kids but do so anyway end up with food stamps or on other govt assistance, which is also not ideal. The solution is better care options for young kids, provided by the govt. England, Sweden, Scotland, Germany, etc etc have free childcare almost from birth, and parents are compensated for taking up to a year off of work to care for their newborns. Those are societies that care about the family and children. Those kids will grow up to be loved, cared for, educated and healthy and will surpass our spoiled, dumb, fat, insecure, indebted kids in the future.

      February 23, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • momofthree

      Now this I don't agree with based on my experience. My oldest loves to make new friends and she is extremely adaptable to new environments and situations, as well as deeply respectful of her elders and I credit all of that to being in daycare. My youngest has been home with me the most and while smart, she is definitely behind socially. I think kids need that constant contact with peers and to be comfortable in a classroom as early as possible because eventually, they will be graded on all of their abilities. For me, it is difficult because none of my friends with kids live nearby and I have no family, but I will concede that those who have children that have those resources available can be as strong socially as the ones who are used to going to "school."

      February 24, 2013 at 12:47 am |
  21. empresstrudy

    I am so tired of this. The answer to not enough school is more school hours. 1050 hrs is all kids get. If you want more make them be there MORE. Make them be there at age 3 and let them rack up 1600 hrs a year.

    February 21, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • Gaby

      I don't agree with that. We just need better teachers too. Not just to teach to make a living or just to get it over with. Being a teacher is a job that you must be very dedicated and willing to do stuff that not normal people would do. Our hours are perfectly fine. Kids just need time to comprehend everything that is taught to them. There are so kids that do not get things fast, but there are others that do.

      February 21, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • julibear

      Totally agree with you Empress. Hours have been cut relentlessly for the past 40 years in the name of budget cuts. We also need better teachers and parental involvement. School throughout the summer months, with breaks scattered throughout the year so that learning is retained.

      February 23, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  22. casakate

    California, however, allows credentialed teachers to teach preschool with only 12 preschool college units and no experience. This is WRONG – teaching preschoolers is NOTHING like teaching elementary students.

    February 21, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • zburrrr

      You are right. Preschool is a glorified daycare for getting students ready to go to a real school. Kindergarten is much of the same while learning how to read. What really effects the students ability to a head start is parents that promote learning. We had a family live with us from Louisiana, the youngest child was 7-8 years old and couldn't read. Parents didn't care and the logic this child picked up was "All i need to know is how to count the money". Parents are the key to a childs success. If the child doesn't have a mentor, nothing else matters. If we wanted to be really successful we could follow China. Set standards and when students fall behind, send them out to work manual labor for the rest of their lives while the determined and brightest move on in education.

      March 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm |