Rethinking Pre-K: 5 Ways to Fix Preschool

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Take two kids, one from a low-income family, the other middle class. Let them run around and do little-kid things in their respective homes and then, at age 5, enroll them in kindergarten. Research shows that when the first day of school rolls around, the child from the low-income household will be as many as 1.5 years behind grade level in terms of language and prereading and premath skills. The middle-class kid will be as many as 1.5 years ahead. This means that, by the time these two 5-year-olds start school, the achievement gap between them is already as great as three years.

When you look at findings like this, it's not hard to see why educators and government officials believe so strongly in the need for early-childhood education, particularly for low-income children. A half-century's worth of data has shown that reaching kids early helps them avoid repeating grades in elementary school, stay on track to graduate high school, earn more money as adults and spend less time in prison or on welfare. Recent studies have also pointed to third grade as a critical benchmark — if children are not performing at grade level by then, they may never catch up — making the years leading up to that point increasingly important.

And yet early-learning programs, because of the way they are financed and administered, are not part of the entrenched educational system in most of the U.S. The vast majority of states are not required to offer preschool, and some states have no pre-K programs at all. Many of the states that have long championed preschool still decide from year to year how many children get to attend, and the waiting lists of qualified kids are long — and sad.

All of this helps explain why the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts has invested 10 years — and some $100 million — in studying preschool and spearheading a movement to get states to offer more of it and in smarter ways. The initiative, called Pre-K Now, has made a lot of progress. The total amount that states spend on preschool has more than doubled in the past decade, enrollment nationwide has increased from 700,000 4-year-olds in 2001 to more than 1 million today, and three states that had no preschool programs 10 years ago (Alaska, Florida and Rhode Island) have joined the pre-K club. And despite the Great Recession, six states and the District of Columbia have opened their pre-K programs to all 4-year-olds, bringing the total number of states that offer universal pre-K to nine, plus D.C.

Early-childhood education is getting its own Race to the Top initiative (states have to submit their applications by Oct. 19 to win some of the $500 million in grants) and celebrity advocate (actress Jennifer Garner has taken up the cause). But for all its successes, Pew is wrapping up its 10-year initiative at a precarious time. Arizona recently cut its entire pre-K program because of budgetary constraints. Iowa came close to doing the same, and a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that the federal Head Start program it administers does not lead to lasting academic gains, casting a shadow on other, more rigorous early-learning programs.

Against this backdrop, Pew is exiting the pre-K stage with several hard-boiled recommendations. TIME got an early look at the report, Transforming Public Education: Pathway to a Pre-K-12 Future. Here are the highlights, plus a handicapper's guide to the chances of implementing these directives:

1. Stop thinking K to 12, and start thinking pre-K to 12
States are required to provide education for students in grades 1 to 12, which means that even in tough economic times, they can reduce funding only on a per-child basis. The same is not true for preschool. Only a handful of states are required to provide pre-K; all the others can choose to cap enrollment for low-income children or stop funding these programs altogether. "One of the reasons that it's easy in some states to cut back pre-K investments when times are tough is this idea that it's just a program for some kids, not something for all kids," Michele Palermo, coordinator of early-childhood initiatives at the Rhode Island Department of Education, is quoted as saying in the Pew report. "And we in the trenches are always kind of puzzled. ... You wouldn't just cut out second grade. Why are we just cutting out pre-K? And you wouldn't just provide second grade to some kids but not all kids."

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