Building Blocks For Every Kid

When my children were newborns and I was spending most of my time watching television while nursing, I saw a program with pediatrician extraordinaire T. Berry Brazelton in which he repeatedly stuck out his tongue at an infant on camera. The point of the exercise was that the infant responded to the doctor in kind. My own children did the same. I stuck out my tongue, they stuck out their tongues. The conclusion was inescapable: babies are nowhere near as stupid as they look.

Since then scientific research has compellingly reinforced this notion. Children, it turns out, begin learning at an astonishingly early age, even in those months when they appear to be doing little more than poking themselves in the eye. Toddlers are constantly seeking out new stimulus and information, their brains working away at a rate that is to an adult mind what a race car is to a lawn tractor. What kids learn between infancy and the time they begin kindergarten is, most scientists believe, the bedrock for all the rest of their intellectual development.

Which makes the need for a system of universal voluntary preschool in this country undeniable.

There is strong empirical evidence for the benefits of existing high-level programs that provide play and stimulation for toddlers and infants. One of the best known of these, the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, did a follow-up study of young adults who'd been enrolled as babies and found reading scores, school retention and employment rates significantly higher than among their peers. A report on 2-year-olds in Early Head Start, the expansion of the government preschool program, showed that after a year kids had improved language skills.

And a study of grown graduates of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Michigan discovered that their risk of getting in trouble with the law was significantly less than that of kids who had not been in the program. This last may have contributed to the formation of the strange-bedfellows coalition of the year. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an alliance of researchers, doctors and police chiefs ranging from Brazelton to former New York police commissioner Bill Bratton, is rallying behind early-childhood education as "one of our most powerful weapons against crime." Yet a distinguished group impaneled by the National Academy of Sciences produced a report that highlighted a staggering disconnect between the revelations of research and the inertia of public policy.

Many of the most highly touted government-funded preschool programs are aimed at poor children, whose parents are assumed unable, unwilling or unavailable to give them the stimulus to get their tiny synapses moving. But the notion that middle-class mothers spend their day in a joyful succession of teachable moments is just a fairy tale. Many of them are at work, leaving their kids in centers that range from good to barely adequate, or with unlicensed and untrained caregivers who, ironically, may be the very same poor women whose own children are seen as in need of special intervention. Even those who stay home have a hard time keeping things lively. A lot of toddlers are in front of the TV, a lot of moms burned out. The average college freshman has five different professors working part-time on her education. Yet we expect the greater task, of teaching a toddler, to fall on the shoulders of one human being, often an undereducated or exhausted one, 24/7.

Why have policymakers preferred to focus on testing, the most joyless of all educational pursuits, when any parent who has ever put a Rugrats backpack on a 3-year-old can tell you that that's when excitement about school, classrooms, learning, is so high it's practically a chemical element? There is certainly the typical good-old-days resistance, the notion that an unstructured life that was good enough for grandparents should be good enough for grandchildren. Perhaps those grandparents forget how free children were a century ago to educate themselves in fields, on farms, in the neighborhood, how younger children were taught by older siblings in the long-gone large families, and also how much work, how many jobs, required brawn instead of brains. Some of the opposition to preschool has to do with a reasonable fear of flashcards and film strips, a terror of putting pressure-cooker kids under ever greater pressure at an ever more tender age. And certainly some has to do with a sub rosa view of the role of women, of motherhood as martyrdom, the same view that leads to disapproval of middle-class moms who will leave their kids to go to work (as well as disapproval of poor moms who won't).

But there are good models to allay those fears and trump all those outmoded archetypes. For more than a century the French have had a national voluntary ecole maternelle, a low-key learning and play program for children between the ages of 2 and 6 that virtually every family uses. It is the educational equivalent of well- baby health care, a long-view approach not only to teaching kids but to building citizens. By contrast, our national attitude is reminiscent of those people who get their health care on an emergency basis at the hospital, expensive and at the wrong end of the continuum: Head Start is underfunded, prisons do a booming business. This is shortsighted stupidity.

Maybe early-childhood programs raise subsequent reading scores, and maybe they don't. Maybe they cut down on crime, and maybe they don't. Maybe making them available will result in a future work force of imagination and increased intelligence. Or maybe these programs will simply make life more interesting for children and easier for parents, which is a considerable affirmative good. Certainly a widespread preschool initiative like the one under consideration in California would put money back in the pockets of many mothers and fathers, who are paying now for a patchwork of programs they know intuitively their curious little kids need. We have learned that children are teachable at a very young age. How teachable the policymakers are is now the critical issue.