Rethinking Pre-K: 5 Ways to Fix Preschool

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This is one of many reasons that Pew is calling for a paradigm shift: stop thinking about public education as K to 12 and start thinking about pre-K to 12. Once considered little more than day care, preschool (or nursery school) is regarded as a crucial beginning to a high-quality education. Part of a natural continuum of learning, these early years are too often separated from kindergarten and elementary school by artificial boundaries. Pew points to few bright spots in which pre-K has been integrated as a fundamental component of the public-education system, with dramatic results. In Kentucky's Whitley County School District, which began offering pre-K to all 4-year-olds in 1996, the program was so successful that by 2005 the district raised its academic standards for first grade because they were being satisfied by so many former pre-K students halfway through kindergarten. Meanwhile, on a national scale, experts know that existing preschool programs need better quality control — Head Start is particularly spotty — and yet preschool has been largely excluded from reform initiatives.

Reality check: Shifting the vernacular from K to 12 to pre-K to 12 shouldn't be too hard. After all, it wasn't all that long ago that K to 12 became a common household phrase. But families won't start thinking about preschool as a crucial part of the educational continuum until their elected officials do.

2. Strategically expand access
Some 27% of 4-year-olds in the U.S. were enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs in the 2009-10 school year. Factor in programs like Head Start, and the total rises to just 40% of 4-year-olds. That's not good enough. And as cash-strapped states start eyeing their already meager preschool funding — only six are serving more than 50% of their 4-year-olds — enrollments are being capped, and thousands of students who qualify based on income or developmental issues are sitting on waiting lists.

But skimping on pre-K budgets is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Economists have found that investing in preschool programs more than pays off in the long run. According to James Heckman, an economics professor and Nobel Laureate at the University of Chicago, pre-K programs for disadvantaged kids have a 7%-to-10% rate of return, which means that for every dollar a state spends on preschool, it will get back $60 to $300 from increased earnings and a decreased need for public services over that child's lifetime. "You can save a lot of money and get a lot better performance by starting early ... rather than putting it off and trying to remediate them later," he tells TIME. "There are real costs in delay." So while Pew isn't pushing for universal pre-K in this economy, it is urging states to expand access to all low-income students as a first step in the hope that eventually any child who wants to attend preschool will be able to.

Reality check: While state funding for preschool programs has more than doubled in the past 10 years to over $5 billion nationwide, the upward trend is beginning to reverse. The 2009-10 school year, the most recent year for which complete data is available, saw total state spending on pre-K decrease for the first time in a decade. "States waited as long as they could," says Ron Haskins, a senior fellow in the economic-studies program and a co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. "But after three or four years of serious cuts, they couldn't hold off any longer. Honestly, I'm impressed they waited this long."

3. Bring early-learning initiatives under one roof
Consider, the Pew study tells readers, the scattered system in Alabama, where child care, pre-K and kindergarten are all run by separate departments. It should come as no surprise, then, that early-learning advocates are trying to coordinate efforts and bring everything under one roof. The fractured governance is also exemplified by Head Start. An internal report last year about the preschool program — which is the largest in the U.S. thanks to the more than $7 billion in federal funds it receives each year — found that the program yields no lasting results. The report was devastating, but it was hardly the first time Head Start has been called into question. Conceived as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, Head Start is run by the Department of Health and Human Services rather than the Department of Education. It was based on a small, highly successful program in Tennessee but was rapidly scaled up to serve 500,000 3- and 4-year-olds by the fall of 1965. The first review that questioned its effectiveness was published in 1969.

Over the years, there have been calls, most recently during George W. Bush's first term in the White House, to move the program under the domain of the Department of Education. But Brookings' Haskins says that will likely never happen because the program is so firmly embedded in Health and Human Services that moving it may do more harm than good.

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