Preschool Expands Nationwide

In the 1970 and '80s, the notion that three- and four-year-olds should be taught in classrooms was a provocative idea. Today 40 states spend about $4.8 billion a year providing schooling for preschoolers. Although a bill to create universal preschool in California recently faltered, state legislators across the country are finding that preschool—which has been associated with higher rates of high-school graduation and, later in life, employment—is a good investment. Last month, as Sen. Ted Kennedy looked on, President Bush signed a bill into law that expanded Head Start, which provides early education for poor children. In his book "The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics" (Harvard University Press), author David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, explains the importance of keeping educational quality high for our littlest learners. Kirp spoke with NEWSWEEK's Peg Tyre. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is driving the expansion of state-funded preschools across the country?
David Kirp:
What's driving it is the good long-term research that shows that if a child goes to preschool they will have a higher income, are less likely to be involved in crime, more likely to graduate from college and have happier lives. There is also brain science that has shown the incredible importance of brain development in the earliest years.

Why did you write this book?
I was walking on the beach with a friend who is pediatrician who was telling me about this incredible data on the lifelong benefits of high-quality preschool—and how the pre-K movement was spreading across the country. And at the same time my sister-in-law was trying to find a preschool—a good one—for her child. And what I realized is, though pre-K is becoming more common, there's a gap between the research, which is clear about the benefits of high-quality preschool, and the kind of programs that are actually available to people.

You argue in your book that this very gap could hurt the pre-K movement. How?
The danger is that politicians will do it on the cheap. Last year 29 governors mentioned preschool in their state of the state addresses. But it's easier to claim credit for getting more kids into preschool than it is to claim credit for better preschools. There has to be a continued push on the part of parents to make quality, not just quantity, part of the issue.

But what does quality preschool look like?
It's a good question, because parents don't often know. What you don't want is pre-K, using the term loosely, being provided by a neighbor down the street who has three-syllable words posted but spelled wrong and puts the eight kids she's in charge of in front of the television. A quality preschool class is lead by a well-educated, well-trained, responsive teacher. There should be small classes and developmentally appropriate activities built around a child's cognitive, social, physical and emotional development.

OK. But what should parents be looking for when they tour a pre-K class?
Many parents think they want a classroom that is orderly, with kids learning their letters and numbers by the time they are three. But that is education in the narrowest sense. Quality pre-K has more to do with structured play and is less about skills and drills. There should be more noise, more play, more controlled and creative chaos.

Don't children need an academic-type pre-K in order to get ready for kindergarten?
I think in this environment, with No Child Left Behind, there is a hyperemphasis on numeracy and literacy at the expense of other aspects of learning. They worry about what will happen to their kids when they get to school, and so they put pressure on them early. But that's a mistake. Before kids can learn, they need to have experiences being social, regulating their emotions, to play in groups. Those are all important lessons too.

Are there specific pre-K approaches parents should look for?
There are a number of outstanding models. For instance, Reggio Emilia, which is based around art and creativity, and High/Scope, which emphasizes hands-on learning and encourages children to be active, engaged learners, are two very good ones. The good news about pre-K is this: there is pretty much one bad model—the skills-and-drills model, which emphasizes rote learning and where children are given "repeat after me"-type experiences. But there are many, many good ones.

Does Head Start provide a high-quality pre-K experience?
For the most part, yes. The problem with Head Start is that it is very limited. It only reaches the poorest of the poor—and it only has enough money to serve half of the eligible kids.

Are we going to see the spread of preschools continue?
I believe that it's got to. It's good science, good economics and good demographics. Most mothers work. Kids need experiences so they can grow and develop. It is widely recognized now that preschool is the easiest place to start.