What's Going On in Preschools Today?
“Early-childhood education is the next wave of education reform,” says Joan Lombardi, director of The Children’s Project, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan initiative to increase public, private and civic investment in children and families. Lombardi is also the facilitator for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Early Education Exchange, which recently issued the report Set for Success: Building a Strong Foundation for School Readiness Based on the Social-Emotional Development of Young Children.

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There are several driving forces behind the push to improve preschool education, according to Lombardi and Ross Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of NebraskaLincoln and an expert on school readiness:

• the increase in the number of two-earner and single-parent households. More than 60 percent of the 19 million U.S. children under age 5 are in some sort of out-of-home care on a regular basis;

• recent advances in scientific understanding of brain development, which has led to the realization that the early-childhood years are a crucial learning period; and

• growing recognition by policymakers that some children have more opportunities than others, and good early education should be part of an education system for all kids.

The National Picture

An emphasis on early learning is a priority of the Bush administration and an issue that has bipartisan support. Over the last decade, a wave of new and expanded preschool initiatives has moved throughout the United States. The initiatives – and their funding sources – vary from state to state, but 39 states, and the District of Columbia now provide preschool or pre-kindergarten that is in some way linked to the public schools.

Georgia is in the forefront – the head of the preschool class,” says John Merrow, an education journalist and co-producer of the PBS show Frontline, which aired his documentary “The Promise of Preschool” this past fall. “The state requires all school districts to offer preschool classes to all students, and it pays the bill with money from its state lottery.”

Overall, 70 percent of Georgia’s 4-year-olds – some 60,000 children – are now in some form of publicly subsidized preschool.

In November 2002, Florida voters gave their support to an initiative that would provide free preschool to every 4-year-old in the state. Other states have indicated that serving all preschoolers is their goal, but they are targeting the neediest children first. The range of new state initiatives comes in addition to Head Start, the 35-year-old federally-subsidized preschool program for low-income children, which funds slots for only about half of the eligible children.


Universal Preschool

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the nation’s most influential organization of early-childhood educators, notes that things are moving  in the right direction.

“We firmly believe that every child and family should have access to a quality preschool,” says Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of NAEYC. But Willer is quick to clarify what she means by this. “When people hear ‘universal preschool,’ they imagine the public schools all beginning at age 3, but that’s not the way it’s going to happen. Our public schools are overcrowded already.”

Coordinating with existing childcare providers to make preschool accessible for all children is a much more realistic goal, according to Willer. And she emphasizes that making sure that the existing programs are of high quality is still a central goal.

Merrow notes that the move toward universal preschool would bring the United States in line with other nations. He points out that virtually every other industrialized country provides free, high-quality preschool for children regardless of family income.

“Preschools are available across Europe. Almost all 4-year-olds in England, Luxembourg and the Netherlands go to public school. So do more than 70 percent of Greek children of preschool age, more than 80 percent of Spanish children and more than 90 percent of those in Germany, Denmark and Italy,” Merrow says.

By comparison, in the United States only 12 percent of preschoolers attend programs in public schools. (The number is higher if you include childcare and private preschools.)

The Push for Academics

While educators wait to see whether President Bush’s promises of support for early-childhood education will translate into federal funding and expanded access, one thing is certain: the push for accountability and standards, a central theme of the No Child Left Behind Act, is having a marked effect at the preschool level.

“States are getting pressure from educators to develop school-readiness indicators that they can use to screen young children before they enter kindergarten,” says Lisa Klein, vice president of the Kauffman Foundation. More and more preschools are feeling the pressure to develop cognitively based formal curriculum because such an approach produces skills that can be easily measured (such as mastering color names, letters and numbers, etc.).

Setting academic standards, and making students accountable, may work at the elementary and high school levels, but early-childhood educators are worried about its effect on preschools.

“Unfortunately, the trend now for preschools is to create kids who can come out reading and writing and doing math,” says Klein. These are not necessarily bad things, she notes, but research evidence from the National Academy of Sciences and the Set for Success report has demonstrated that the best way to acquire those skills is to first have a really good social and emotional development base. What worries Klein is the trend toward emphasizing academic skills to the exclusion of social and emotional skills and development.

“Children are the eventual losers if we try to pit the mind against the heart,” Thompson agrees. “We need to recognize that both are important, and indeed, for minds to learn, the social and emotional preparation needs to be there too.”

Kindergarten teachers agree that their greatest challenges are often not the kids who don’t know their numbers, but the kids who lack the social, emotional and self-regulatory skills necessary to be in a classroom.

“It’s the kids who can’t sit still, who can’t pay attention, the ones who have a lot of trouble following directions,” says kindergarten teacher Michelle Shapiro. “Very often they also have trouble getting along with other kids.”

Shapiro’s observation reflects what studies have shown: that the element of school readiness that concerns practitioners most is children’s social-emotional and self-regulatory abilities – not their “academic” achievements.

Parents are concerned about these issues too. NAEYC reports receiving numerous phone calls from parents upset that the emphasis on academics is becoming overwhelming at some preschools, forcing them to withdraw their children and seek a more balanced environment.

A Balanced Program

In the face of this debate, how should parents go about choosing a preschool? The most important thing is to visit the school and see for yourself what happens there, Willer says. Approach the school as if you were a child and consider how your child would respond to the setting.

“You want the sense of an experience that is challenging, but reachable, not too easy, not too hard,” she says.

You can also see if the adults interact with the children appropriately, in a manner that demonstrates care for the child as well as a focus on learning.

Once Sherry Jankowski, mother of a 5-year-old daughter, had satisfied her needs in terms of location and hours, she found she had several choices.

“I looked for a school that was both nurturing and academic, that would strike a balance between learning and play,” she says. When she found this, Jankowski interviewed the director, took a tour and sat in on classes. She believes that it’s important to do all these things, and to check out the school more than once.

Katarina Holtje, an early-childhood educator and author of Start Them Off Right! A Parent’s Guide to Getting the Most out of Preschool, also sought out a balance of work and play as she researched a school for her 4-year-old son. “I definitely have no expectation that children should be able to read and write, coming out of preschool, although they should be exposed to these skills,” says Holtje. “I believe that learning should be fun, and it should always be done through play with preschoolers.”

For mom Linda Shaw, the quality of staff was one of the deciding factors when she chose a preschool program. She felt that it was crucial to find a likable person who was respectful of her twin daughters. As she puts it, “A good rapport with the teacher is the best thing you can have for peace of mind.”

Thompson also advises that a good preschool has well-trained teachers who are sensitive to what a young child’s mind becomes engaged in, and uses this as a learning opportunity, rather than creating a learning opportunity and channeling the child in that direction.

Reason for Optimism

As to the results of the ongoing debate over what children should be doing at preschool, Thompson is optimistic. “It’s wonderful that people are now looking at the early-childhood years as being so important,” he says.

But he adds a note of caution: “Kids simply don’t learn without the kinds of supportive relationships, and the self-confidence, and the curiosity, and the capacity to cooperate with others, that all learning involves.”

He echoes the concerns of many in the early-childhood community who want parents and policymakers to keep in mind, as access to preschool programs expands, that giving kids a solid social and emotional development has value in itself and is also the foundation for all future learning.

See also:

What to look for in a preschool or childcare program.

More resources about preschool and early education.