Why Preschool Isn't Enough

As President Obama knows, early childhood education is a must. But without proper K-12 follow-up, its benefits could simply fade away.

magnifying2-top.jpgPresident Obama visits a pre-K classroom on February 14. (Reuters)

At a Georgia preschool last week, President Obama sat in a tiny wooden chair and played a science game with a group of four-year-olds. He held up a magnifying glass and peered playfully at the little boy next to him. For a second it looked as if he was trying to figure him out.

It is an apt metaphor of where our country stands on education these days. Obama's preschool plan builds on a decade's fascination with studies on brain growth. We recognize the importance of children's early years in setting the foundation for social-emotional intelligence and strong academic skills. Yet instead of bringing early learning to more children, we remain frozen with our magnifying glasses.

What holds us back? One factor is "fade-out" -- the concern that preschool's ability to help disadvantaged children may fade over time, not lasting beyond kindergarten or first grade. A big sticking point in today's debates revolves around a recent study tracking children who attended a year of Head Start, the federal government's pre-K program for children in poverty.

Compared to a control group, kids in Head Start scored modestly better on tests of literacy and social-emotional growth a year after being in the program. But by the third grade, the children were performing no differently than the control group. And even outside of Head Start -- such as in states like Oklahoma, which has a high-quality preschool program attended by a majority of children -- reading scores for fourth graders are still mediocre.

We need an honest conversation about what is happening in these cases. Early childhood advocates are right to direct attention to long-term studies on high-quality programs. Even the oft-cited Perry Preschool program showed fade-out effects at first, and yet significant differences showed up by adulthood between those who received high-quality preschool and those who didn't.

But we also have to acknowledge that fade-out does exist -- and it's telling us something. The low achievement of disadvantaged children can't be simply fixed in one or two years of good preschool. Instead, we have to build on what children learn in those preschools and match it with challenging but playful instruction in kindergarten and the early grades.

Picture a kindergarten classroom today. On the first day of school, teachers welcome children with vastly different experiences: Some kids have been to good preschools or have parents who read to them, encourage them to "use their words" instead of hitting, and try to explain why the sky is blue. Other children arrive without knowing how to recognize their names, use a crayon, or avoid acting out.

Teachers must teach to all of these students. That means the children who have been to good preschools -- which could, in fact, include Head Start children -- get little more than a repeat of what they already learned in preschool, minus the blocks and nap times.

Presented by

Lisa Guernsey and Laura Bornfreund

Lisa Guernsey directs the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Laura Bornfreund is a senior policy analyst there.

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