Pre-K Movement's Momentum

Commentary | October 9, 2007
Related Issue(s): K-12 Education

Early childhood education is becoming a hot topic across the country, as the positive benefits of providing pre-kindergarten-aged children with a quality education become more apparent. David Kirp, pre-k expert and author of The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics, echoed this sentiment at an Education Sector author talk this month moderated by Co-director Thomas Toch. Along with guest panelist Joan Lombardi, director of The Children's Project, Kirp discussed the growing political importance of the pre-k movement.


"There's really this perfect storm of research coupled with this amazing, sort of apparent understanding on the part of 30 governors who put pre-k in their state of the state speeches this year that this is one of those issues that you really can do well, by doing good," said Kirp, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley.

According to Kirp, who is also an Education Sector nonresident senior fellow, the pre-k movement is not just limited to pre-k, but involves all forms of early childhood education, including the federal Head Start program, community childcare programs, public school programs, and private school programs. A growing body of research that shows a strong correlation between student outcomes and a high-quality early childhood education is fueling the issue's importance. Everything from grades, to persistence to higher education, to prison time has been shown to be positively affected by early childhood education. 

This research also has convinced states to spend $2 billion over the last three years on early childhood education.

"The notion that taxpayers are willing to spend $2 billion dollars to provide something of value to somebody else's kids—it's astonishing. In fact when I think back, I don't know of a social program where you actually have a service being provided," Kirp said.

Yet, despite the growing trend, there are still many obstacles in the way of universal pre-k. For starters, there's the issue of determining the type of curriculum to teach in a universal pre-k system. Some advocate a looser, play-to-learn approach, while others want a more structured program. Kirp, however, fears that having too rigid of a structure, focusing heavily on simply preparing preschoolers for grade school, will do nothing more than induce anxiety among both parents and students, creating a sort of "No Preschool Left Behind" act. And for Lombardi, the answer is not so resolute. "I don't think this is an either-or discussion," she said. "I think the most important thing is to have it be engaging."

Another issue is whether to expand pre-k universally for all students, or expand it for certain groups of students. Again, Lombardi doesn't believe it is an either-or proposition, but rather one of which one should come first. According to Lombardi, deciding who gets targeted is more of an issue played up in the media, than one played out in communities across the country.

"I think all of us want universal access to good programs for all children. What the public sector pays for, particularly what they pay for first and in times of limited dollar, I think is a tougher call," Lombardi said.

Ensuring educational quality in an expanded pre-k program is also of great concern. The fear is that expanding pre-k will not benefit the students who need the help the most. Without adequate financial support, simply expanding pre-k, even with quality standards in place, will not lead to positive results, Lombardi believes. And Kirp maintains this is especially dangerous given what he believes to be the credit-claiming mantra of politicians, who might lose interest in the issue if they cannot show large-scale results.

"Politicians are credit claimers. This is a new hot issue. They will count numbers; they won't focus on quality," Kirp said.

Despite these challenges, both Kirp and Lombardi remain optimistic.

"This is for a bunch of reasons … pre-k, a program for 3- and 4-year-olds, is where a lot of the effort is being put, and where the money and the energy is being put, but it’s the beginning of the story, not the end of the story," Kirp said.

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