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Tensions Within The Universal Preschool Crowd


Another seemingly overlooked article comes from the most recent NYT Sunday Magazine, in which Ann Hulbert charts the growing tide of interest and action towards universal preschool (Universal Prekindergarten). We all know that, of course. But Hulbert points out a couple of worthwhile reminders.

First, that increasing access creates quality problems (spending per pupil is going down, see chart). Second, that the kind of preschool that advocates would design for low- and middle-income children is not the "free play" preschool that progressives (and wealthier families) seem to want for their own children. Advocates are pushing UPK in "notably wonky, rather than warm and cuddly, terms," notes Hulbert in her roundup of recent books by Fuller and Kirp, focusing on cost-effectiveness and brain research. So do we end up with a two-tiered system replacing the current patchwork, or a mix of progressive and readiness? I don't know. For her part, Hulbert thinks that a dose of structure might not be such a bad thing for kids, rich and not so. For my part, I think that recent experience with the SCHIP suggests that anything on this front is going to have to happen in 2009 at the earliest, and even then will face an uphill battle.


Are we really wondering whether it's OK for well-off preschoolers to be taking a trip to the apple orchard while poor preschoolers are filling in worksheets?

Whatever happened to democratic equality as the purpose of free public education in America? Where we say we're trying to help every child reach his full potential as an American citizen? Does that square with a two-tiered system, beginning in PRESCHOOL?

I'm not naive enough to think that a de facto tiered system isn't already in place, pretty much everywhere. Nor am I an expert in Pre-K pedagogy. But there's a difference between "structure" and developmentally inappropriate push-down of basics curriculum. Perhaps we should take a good look at excellent early childhood programs in countries outstripping us in the international comparisons race, and see how they deal with their 4-year olds. What would Finland do?

As a National Board certified preschool teacher I expect all preschool students to be challenged in all of the domains, social, physical, and cognitive every day. I teach Head Start, part of the two tiered system already in place. I tried to enroll my son in a program that was more of the "free-play" style program that upper class parents choose for their kids. I pulled him out because the free play was so free they couldn't guarantee my son's safety or development in any of the domains. The lead teacher was so consumed with addressing social issues of two students that most of the class "free played" all day with incidental supervision.
High standards need not indicate drill and kill for poor kids and free play for rich kids. It can mean high expectations for all.

Quality is not a class issue it is a programmatic and professional issue. If the expansion of services comes with a commiserate expansion of professional training, pay, and respect, the two tiers will not be so far apart.

Of course, the benefits are going to be presented in a wonky fashion because that is how policy is made these days.
Most of my students I have had for two years (since they were three) could communicate, read, write, or empathize with any of the students from the next "tier" of pk because they have been provided with quality services, not because their parents have a certain size paycheck.

At this stage in a child's development socio-economic factors are not as much of a factor in their school success because they have not entered totally the culture in which they are living. My students still have a chance to be a child from poverty instead of a child OF poverty because of their educational opportunities.

Truthfully, k-2 could be a little more like PK and still be highly effective and academic in nature. What if a second grade teacher thought about approaches to learning and mathematic problem solving? Wouldn't we all be better off if teachers started paying as much attention to teaching students how to learn as well as what to learn?

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