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The Standards of Play: The Need for Regulation in Prekindergarten

Publicly funded prekindergarten is one of the few issues in our politically divided climate that has garnered bipartisan support. In liberal Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo has pledged “a Pre-K seat for every four-year-old whose parents want it.” In conservative Alabama, federal dollars have been poured into expanding early education programs. Across the country, taxpayers are happily footing the bill for the expansion of prekindergarten. From Seattle, where residents overwhelmingly supported property tax hikes to fund an overhaul of existing preschools, to San Antonio, where a “pre-K 4 SA” program was made possible through a higher sales tax, Americans see free early education as a necessary investment. Though approaches to early education differ based on party identification, polling data show Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of providing free prekindergarten programs. But what exactly these programs entail remains unclear.

         Considering the benefits of universal prekindergarten, it becomes clear why the issue has attracted politicians from both sides of the aisle. Recent studies show early education to be one of the most effective ways to close the income achievement gap—the widening discrepancy in education outcomes between rich and poor families. The earlier a dollar is invested in a child’s life, argues Nobel laureate James Heckman, the greater the return. Proponents of expanding publicly funded preschool, when faced with protests over cost, point to the money to be saved by avoiding future intervention in a student’s education. Money put toward robust early education programs is a small price to pay when compared to the cost of remedial classes and repeating grades. Studies also show early education programs may allow governments to spend less on criminal justice and public health care in the long term, as children who attend prekindergarten have been shown to be in better health and have less involvement in the criminal justice system.

         While hopes for what prekindergarten will accomplish are sky-high, what prekindergarten should consist of is harder to determine. Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Ben Mardell cautions that making prekindergarten programs “first grade for four-year-olds” will not be effective. Unlike older students, children of this age will not respond well to drilled numbers and letters and instead learn “through play and active, integrated forms of learning.” The developmental needs of a four-year-old are substantially different from those of a six-year-old. This does not mean they are any less important, only that the benchmarks of quality education may be harder to measure. The potential benefits of prekindergarten programs are vast, but the programs must be high-quality if they are to pay substantial dividends. But what does “high-quality” mean in terms of children playing?

         In Seattle, four-year-old Ngoc-Minh-Ang Nguyen sat at a table arranging colorful vehicles, making a repeating pattern of purple and green trains. Across the country, in a New York City prekindergarten, markers of a great classroom were teachers who laughed often and an orderly sandbox. To the untrained eye, what makes a great prekindergarten classroom great is not obvious. Fortunately, experts have pinpointed several clear quality benchmarks: low child-teacher ratios; small class sizes; highly-qualified teachers who hold a bachelor’s degree and participate in continued professional learning and a curriculum that allows children to follow their curiosity, learn to relate to others, and become skilled in emotional and physical regulation. More than anything, prekindergarten classrooms should foster a joy of learning. As the first introduction to school, prekindergarten has the power to negatively or positively shape children’s feelings toward institutionalized education for years to come.

         In practice, these principles mean teachers should create opportunities for students to converse with one another, structuring activities in small groups, for instance, rather than whole-class discussions. A high-quality classroom should also have instructors who kindly inform children about misbehavior rather than reprimanding them and teachers who pose questions to their students throughout the day to prompt process-oriented thinking. A balance between guidance and free-form play should be struck: Children should play with blocks, but with a goal in mind. This type of nurturing and structured classroom should be the standard for all American early education programming. Unfortunately, the quality of prekindergarten classrooms state to state varies even more than access to programming itself; recent research has concluded only a slim portion of preschools currently provide what is regarded as “excellent quality” programming. 

Moreover, the United States is in a unique position on the world stage, lagging behind other advanced industrial nations in access to early education and academic achievement with only 69 percent of four-year-olds participating in prekindergarten programs. In Japan and the United Kingdom, nearly all four-year-olds are enrolled in early education, and international achievement scores reflect this early intervention. Rising superpowers India and China have recently made bold new commitments to early education: China aims to expand preschool access to 80 percent of three- and four-year-olds, while India has made education for children ages three to six free and compulsory. In Sweden, even one-year-olds can toddle through the doors of publicly funded preschools. The US must consider early education if it is to keep pace internationally and prepare a globally competitive workforce.

         Rather than focusing our efforts on establishing uniformity in quality across American prekindergarten programs, our ability to ensure high-quality, federally funded prekindergarten is under threat. The Trump administration has quietly rolled back Obama-era regulations that improved the quality of Head Start programs. One of the Obama administration’s boldest initiatives with regards to the federal program was to mandate a full-day, 180-day school year for all Head Start pre-schools. The research motivating this decision illustrated children attending full-day programs tended to fare better academically than their peers participating in part-day programs. However, the Trump administration, arguing program flexibility will better meet local needs, has proposed shortening the length of the Head Start day once more. 

Also concerning is the Trump administration’s decision to move the Preschool Development Grants to the Department of Health and Human Services and the removal of the Department of Education’s authority to promote quality standards. This roll back in standards and the undermining of high-quality, federally funded prekindergarten must be met with an equally aggressive response. The benefits of early education will only manifest in America if we fight for quality programming.         The prospects of what early education can provide – a dramatically reduced achievement gap, healthier students with lower rates of criminal activity, a generation of children eager to learn – are understandably compelling to Americans across the nation. But these promising outcomes will only come to fruition if prekindergarten programs are of high quality across the country. The bipartisan support behind the expansion of universal prekindergarten provides a rare and exciting opportunity. Leveraging this rare moment of political unity, we can and should ensure American children have access to robust, less variable prekindergarten programs; the quality of education for our nation’s youngest cannot be overlooked. The toy-train conductors and sandcastle architects are the future of this country – it is time we treat them as such.

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