Preschool, Preschmuel?

Lauren Young

I envy Working Parents readers who live outside New York City. Right now this tiny island off the coast of the United States is in a tizzy about preschools. That's because the population of New Yorkers under the age of four grew 26% between 2000 and 2004, according to the U.S. Census, but the number of preschool spots remained the same. Supply has not caught up with demand.(Ladies and Gentleman: I’ve figured out my next career move.)

This was the week when parents found out whether or not their kid got into preschool. Needless to say, there are a lot of bummed parents out there. Yesterday afternoon I received desperate voice messages at work as well as on my cell phone from a friend who is expected to give birth to her second child in the next two weeks. From her labored breathing, I was certain she was minutes away from delivery. It turns that she was hyperventilating because her toddler didn’t get into preschool. Now, maybe you think this is not grounds for hysteria, but I cannot blame her, considering she applied to 11 preschools. Another friend applied to two preschools, and her son got put on the waiting lists at both.

To get a sense of how bleak it is out there, look no further than's New York message board. There are dozens of postings this week about preschools such as: “I hate the idea of moving to the suburbs - hate it - but all of this preschool anxiety has freaked me out about the ongoing process…I guess I have to move. Or: “This preschool thing is causing so much tension among my friends.”

Last May, we moved away from Manhattan—to Brooklyn—to escape some of that insanity. Or so I thought. Right now my son is on waiting lists at two schools, and we still haven't heard from a third school.

New York certainly isn’t the only city dealing with this phenomenon. A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a great story about London's preschool wars, which left me thinking: Egads. I’m glad I don’t live in London!

But how important is preschool—really? The stereotype among New Yorkers is that our kids won’t get into Harvard or Yale if they don’t get into the right preschool. While that may be far-fetched, the truth is that a pre-kindergarten education has real benefits. To find out what they are, I checked in with Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University and one of the leading researchers on the value of a preschool education.

Q. What are the benefits of preschool?
A. There are two stories here. One has been studied since the 1930s, and especially since the 1960s, among children in low-income families. They start school far behind without a preschool program. That can make the difference between the spiral up to success, or a spiral downward to failure. It’s the whole story of being held back. Getting put into special ed. Dropping out of school. Crime. Teenage pregnancy.

The kids who go to preschool are more likely to graduate high school, have a skilled job, save money, have a family, own two cars. There is a cognitive path—they learn stuff about vocabulary and reading and math, but also they learn how to get along with other people and take personal responsibility.

When you are preschooler, it means paying attention to stuff that your teacher wants you to pay attention to—and it also means not just taking the truck from the smaller kid. When you are 27, it means you don’t blame your boss for having problems at work. Bosses think that is important. Preschool gives you those hard skills and soft skills. It is important that a child is successful in school and can get along with people—we can’t put a dollar value on that.

Q. Is there a difference in terms of the way preschool impacts lower income children and middle-income kids?
A. We only started to look at middle-class kids recently. Maybe middle-class kids aren’t making as big of gains as poor kids, but they are making gains. I was shocked: More than one in 10 middle-class kids will fail a grade. More than one in 10 will drop out of high school. If we want to solve those problems, we can’t do it by focusing on poor kids. As a parent, I would not be very comfortable with a 10% chance that my kid will fail out of school. There are huge economic returns on the investment in preschool, especially if we can cut a child’s risk of school failure in half.

As much as we worry about how far behind children in poverty are behind the average kid, we don’t worry about how far behind the average kid is from where all kids could be. We’ve created a national blind spot.

Q. What’s happening with preschool education on a national level?
A. Oklahoma instituted a state-wide pre-K program in 1998. It’s just starting to ramp up. It has now essentially reached everyone. New York is very committed to a universal preschool program, but nothing has been done about it for the last five years. Georgia and Florida are by far closer to universal preschool programs than other states. West Virginia, Illinois, and Vermont are making progress.

Q. Does it matter if your kid doesn’t go to preschool?
A. What matters is that your child has a good learning experiences for both hard and soft skills, and those can happen anywhere. Keep in mind that as working parents you have to pay for so many hours (of childcare). Your dollar really gets stretched. If only had to pay for 10 hours a week, I might be okay. I could buy pretty high-quality coverage for many of those hours. But if I have to buy 30 to 40 hours of coverage, it’s hard to buy high quality. So even if my kid is in a full-day program, it’s probably not going to be as good as I like.

Q. What kinds of experiences can replace a preschool education?
A. There is a lot you can do as a parent (to simulate the preschool experience), although doing at home is hard. Art and music classes can be good substitutes. But there’s no right answer for every child. Figure out what’s good for your child. Some kids may like different things, and others may like one comfortable place to go on a regular basis.

Update: My son got into a preschool (the one we hadn't heard from yet when I posted this entry). And the friend who applied to 11 schools received several acceptances.