25: The Importance of Teaching Tots

Given the strong evidence of its benefits to society, preschool education for the poor--and perhaps all children--is a must

Equality of opportunity. It's that long-cherished American ideal that citizens can shape their destinies regardless of the circumstances they are born into. Since at least the early 1800s, the U.S. has seen education as the ticket to success, especially for poor and working-class children. What's more, for leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, it was canon that no democracy could function properly without a literate populace. Out of this tradition grew the movement for compulsory public schooling from kindergarten to age 18.

Now, after years of research on the topic, it turns out that starting an education even at age 5 or 6 is too late. Children form basic cognitive abilities in their earliest years, and those who don't get exposed to letters, numbers, and social skills at home quickly lag behind those who do. Poor children typically enter school a full year and a half behind their middle-class peers in language ability, studies show. So millions of kids start their lives with an educational deficit.

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That's why we have to get 'em while they're still tots. Short of wiping out poverty altogether, the U.S. should offer preschool education to the children of the poor--and maybe even to all children. Providing disadvantaged kids with the chance to learn numbers and letters would make a lifelong difference. They would do better in school and as adults, when they would more likely become productive workers. "Children learn more in their early years than they ever will again," says Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. "With the dissolution of the extended family, the best way to support early learning is with publicly funded pre-K."

The benefits to society make the hefty price tag well worth it. Providing preschool for all low-income children would run about $25 billion a year. But this would be more than offset by lower arrests, higher tax revenue, and a better-prepared workforce. In fact, top-notch programs have provided a payback of nearly $4 for every $1 invested in poor children's early education, according to studies of pre-K attendees into early adulthood (table). Those figures have caught the attention of politicians in both parties. Some Republicans like the idea. Democrats do, too, including Vice-President Al Gore, who in 2000 proposed spending $50 billion a year to offer preschool to every 3- and 4-year-old. Although his idea went nowhere, it's fast becoming more accepted that prekindergarten, at least for children from low-income families, is a prerequisite for a fair society.

Studies show that pre-K benefits children at all income levels, but poor kids clearly reap the most. A University of Kansas study in the early 1980s reached the breathtaking conclusion that 3-year-olds with professional parents use more advanced vocabularies than mothers on welfare--to say nothing of the 3-year-olds of those mothers. "These children lack the kind of environment we just presume most kids will be exposed to," says Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Early intervention, though, can produce remarkable results. The Carolina Abecedarian Project followed 111 indigent North Carolina kids for 21 years, starting in the 1970s. Half were enrolled in an individually tailored education program from infancy to age 5, while a control group received only nutritional supplements. The program ended when the children entered kindergarten, after which those in both groups attended comparable public schools. The result: The pre-K attendees were less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, or bear children out of wedlock. By 15, fewer than one-third had failed a grade, vs. more than half of the control group. At age 21, the preschooled were more than twice as likely to have attended a four-year college.

Even scaled-back pre-K can help. Graduates of Chicago's Child-Parent Centers, which provide educational and family-support services to poor inner-city children, finish high school more often and get arrested less often than their counterparts who don't attend. Toddlers get a similar leg up from Head Start, the federal preschool program that currently serves 900,000 poor 3- and 4-year-olds across the country. Only 30% of 4-year-olds whose mothers are on welfare can count to 20 out loud or write their name correctly, according to a study of kids in California, Connecticut, and Florida. In contrast, 53% of Head Start children, a comparable demographic group, could count to 20, and 66% could write their first names.

Because the home environment is so critical to development, some programs work with parents as well. Susan Wagner Day School in Riverdale, N.Y., which serves about 200 kids from diverse economic backgrounds, requires parents to spend time at the center, particularly when their children first enroll. "In part, we do it so they learn teaching strategies they can incorporate at home," says Executive Director Joyce James.

A program in Vineland, N.J., called Impact, focuses on pregnant teenagers, giving classes on fetal development and newborn care to some two dozen young women. After they give birth, Impact teaches the kids while the mothers attend school. Each afternoon, the moms take parenting classes before they return home. Most of the teens get their high school degrees, and some even go on to college, which would have been highly unlikely without intervention.

A typical part-time preschool runs about $4,000 to $5,000 per child per year, and about double that for a full day. Providing a mix of services for the poorest 3- and 4-year-olds--about 1.3 million kids--would cost around $10 billion a year, according to W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Expanding the program to all 3 million low-income children would lift the price to $25 billion. But even with the least costly route, "you would get an array of long-term benefits that are an order of magnitude greater than the costs," concludes Barnett.

Right now, too many kids don't get to develop their fertile little minds just when they're most primed to learn. Of course, helping them do so won't automatically deliver that long-promised equality of opportunity, given the sorry state of many schools. But it would be a start. Until every child shows up on that first day of kindergarten properly prepared to learn, America will continue to fall short of one of its bedrock ideals.

By Alexandra Starr

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