Friday, June 23, 2006

Perpetuating the Pre-School Myth

Roll Call (subscription required) is carrying an op-ed by Morton Kondrake in which he argues that to close the opportunity pap, U.S. kids need quality preschool. Fine, so far as it goes. But Krondake writes:
Political Washington, D.C., was understandably fixated on the outcome of the June 6 Congressional race in San Diego as a harbinger for November’s elections. But the defeat of California’s Proposition 82 could end up being more important for the country’s future.

Proposition 82 would have committed America’s largest state to provide preschool education for all its 4-year-olds. It was rejected by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.

That’s important because a mounting body of academic evidence shows that investment in quality early childhood education would be America’s surest way of closing a growing opportunity gap between its social classes — a gap likely to grow wider as the globalized economy places ever-greater emphasis on high skills.


U.S. community colleges create opportunities, but Sawhill said the research shows that quality early childhood education — better than what’s now available in the federal Head Start program — would pay the biggest dividends.

Which is why the failure of Proposition 82 is so dispiriting. Granted, it probably was overambitious, providing universal preschool rather than being targeted to the poor. And it was complicated by allegations of misuse of public funds by its chief promoter, movie director Rob Reiner.

Nationally, 65 percent of parents with college degrees enroll their children in preschool, compared with 34 percent for those who didn’t graduate from high school and 50 percent who did.

To make America really a land of opportunity, both parties should put it on their agenda to start educating kids at age three (empahsis added).
I almost don't know where to begin.

First, Proposition 82 was a poorly written, poorly conceieved and built upon a Robin Hood-esque funding mechanism that serves as a disincentive to bettering oneself financially. Its failures should be attributed to execution and marketing, as well as the simply bad idea. The fact that such a social program failed in one of the most liberal states should be an indicator that America simply is not going to embrace even more governmental intrustion into education of very young children.

From a purely libertarian standpoint, I have enough problems with all-day kindergarten being required as it is, but to have at least two and possibly three years of required pre-school is simply over the top. Add to that the rediculous cost of such a program and you can definitely count me out. If I want to put my kids in pre-school, that is my choice on my dime, not the government's utilizing my tax dollars for something I find totally irrelevant. I am not sure that three year-olds are ready for long days of pre-school, my daughter at age three did not have much of an attention span unless she was controlling what was going on.

But I also want to dispute where this so-called opportunity gap begins. I have no doubt that kids from poorer neighborhoods are less prepared when they begin school than kids of rich and educated parents. But, when students up to around the third or fourth do as well on international tests as their counterparts in other nations, I am not sure that we have that big of a problem. I believe that elementary school does a fairly good job with students of all backgrounds, accounting for natural disparaties between kids. When students get older, that is where the divergence begins, in the late elementary and early middle school years, a time when different social pressures begin to assert themselves.

Even accepting, arguendo, that early childhood education would be a boon to closing the opportunity gap, would not an increased focus on kindergarten and first grade reading, writing and math skills be a better use of tax dollars. I could even see smaller class sizes (a big concession for me given that I am not completely enamoured of the idea on a grand scale), or more teacher aides to help as a boost to getting younger kids the necessary skills. Spending money on hiring a huge number of new teachers (which the unions will love) and then finding more school space to teach these children seems to be an awful waste of resources.

Rather, I believe, more focus should be paid to the middle years, the grades between fourth and ninth, when the achievement gap begins to widen dramatically in international testing. This is likely to be our best "bang for the buck" in closing an achievement gap.

I have no doubt that an opportunity gap exists. Some of it is simply the nature of our social system. There is a spread of resources and some people are on the short end of the stick. They do not need to remain there, and personal drive, dedication and a real education closes achievement and opportunity gaps. Government spends almost $600 billion every year on education and they have not closed teh opportunity gap, why then should we throw even more money at a problem government has not been able to fix thus far.

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