Back in March 2009, President Obama tagged early childhood education “as the first pillar of our education reform agenda.” He noted at the time that “some children are enrolled in excellent programs. Some children are enrolled in mediocre programs. And some are wasting away their most formative years in bad programs.” He made a challenge to states: Develop cutting-edge, high-quality early learning programs that prepare preschoolers better for kindergarten, and the federal government will offer financial incentives. He followed up with the Early Learning Challenge, a preschool portion of the Race to the Top initiative, which encourages states to compete for grants to implement innovative programs in education.
The president returned to the theme with new vigor in the State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, promising to expand opportunities for early learning and to support all 50 states in providing access to high-quality preschool for all low- and moderate-income children. Under his proposal, federal funding would cover 4-year-olds in families with income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. States would have incentives to offer full-day kindergarten. Child-care providers also would be able to compete for grants to serve 3-year-olds and younger.
“Hope is found in what works. … If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here,” the president said Thursday, promoting his agenda in Decatur, Georgia. He lends appropriate enthusiasm and a sense of urgency to raising the quality of preschool education.
Research makes it clear that disparities in educational outcomes begin early, when children are deprived of the variety of stimulating experiences that enhance cognitive and emotional development and as a consequence start school already lagging behind their peers. The long-term impact of disparities shows up in dropout rates, low economic productivity and other problems.
The president is justified in pushing for effective preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. Still, the proposal faces skepticism that promises to be a formidable barrier. For one, critics point to Head Start, the public program for low-income toddlers, and note that the gains are limited, mostly dissipating by the third grade.
Yet an important factor at work is that most preschool programs available to low-income families, including Head Start, vary widely in quality, as do the grade schools to which the students move. Moreover, studies have identified several positive “sleeper” effects of exposure to high quality early education programs, such as higher college attendance. All of these strengthen the case for raising the quality of the teaching, curriculum content and standards in all preschools.