But there is one thing that we've known with great certainty for decades: Preschool works. In research reaching back to the 1960s and confirmed again and again in Michigan, Illinois, New York, Connecticut and elsewhere, we've seen overwhelming evidence that students who attended one year of preschool are less likely to be held back a grade, require special education or commit crimes, and more likely to score well on standardized tests, to graduate high school, and even to own their own homes.
"There is no other grade in school with as much research done on it as prekindergarten," says Walter Gilliam of Yale's Child Study Center. "There's such compelling data that these programs have a positive, measurable impact."
It's not enough data, though, for the White House, which last week convened a summit headed by Laura Bush on early childhood learning. The summit was not a discussion of how to make preschool available to more children, nor was there a statement of support to find more funding for existing programs. Rather, the two-day conference of 400 education and community leaders ended with Laura Bush reminding us to read to our kids, and education secretary Rod Paige announcing yet another task force on preschool. This one, Paige said, will raise public awareness about the need for early childhood cognitive development, and "ensure that the Head Start and preschool programs we support are doing the right things and getting results."
That sounds nice, but it means nothing to folks like Dick Mahar. The superintendent in a small rural school district in Pine Plains, N.Y., Mahar is preparing to tell parents that this year's New York State budget will prevent the district from offering a pre-K program in the fall that parents and community members had lobbied for and the school board has approved. Nor will it help Head Start, the mother of all preschool programs, which under Bush's budget received just a $125 million increase, which is not even enough to pay for the cost-of-living adjustments for Head Start workers. (In his campaign, Al Gore pledged to spend $50 billion on universal pre-K). It also will mean nothing to the 1.7 million four-year-olds starting government-funded preschool programs this fall.
Mahar, for one, is disappointed, largely because he's seen the benefits of a preschool program firsthand while serving as principal at a private Catholic school in the 1980s. When standardized test results came in for the school's two kindergarten classes in Mahar's first year on the job, he was surprised to see that one class performed markedly better than the other, despite the two sections having equally good teachers. "I asked the one teacher why her kids were doing so well, and she told me that it was because she got all the students who went through the pre-K program. She requested them, because they were better prepared."
By the end of his tenure four years later, Mahar had quadrupled the size of the school's pre-K program, and made sure that there were equal numbers of its graduates in the kindergarten classes. Now he's hoping to bring the same benefit to public school children in his district, where about one-quarter of pupils are poor enough to qualify for a free- or reduced-price lunch. "I'm telling the parents who signed up it will hopefully go forward in the future," Mahar says. "But unfortunately it's not going to help your children, not this year."
And that's a shame. Why, with all the unknowns in education, won't we get behind a proven program like pre-K? Instead of spending hundreds of millions more dollars researching it, let's commit to it, before another generation of four-year-olds misses out.