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Preschool Benefits Warrant Scrutiny

Whether preschool can deliver on its promises depends on factors that are only now being fully appreciated ("Preschool for all is no panacea, California," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 8). Although California is in the news because of the Preschool for All Act of 2015 that awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature, the experience of other states is highly instructive.

In 1998, Oklahoma passed one of the nation's first state-funded preschool programs for all 4-year-olds ("Public Preschool's Test Case," The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 6, 2013). Starting with about 9,000 toddlers, the program has grown rapidly to more than 40,000.  It has been so effective that some districts have had to redesign their kindergarten curriculum. The key to success has been strict quality controls.  State law stipulates that student-teacher ratios can't exceed 10 to 1, lead teachers have to have a bachelor's degree and an early-childhood certificate, and they must be paid the same salaries as K-12 teachers.

The enduring complaint about preschools, which includes those in Oklahoma, is that the benefits fade with time. For example, since 2004, Tennessee has enrolled more than 18,000 of the state's neediest 4-year-olds.  But the gains disappeared by the end of kindergarten ("Does Pre-K Make Any Difference?" The New York Times, Oct. 3). Even more disturbing, however, is that disadvantaged children who were enrolled actually did worse by the third grade on most academic and behavioral measures than those who were not.  

It's the latter finding that is most disturbing. It's one thing to discover that benefits evaporate in a few years, but it's quite another to discover that preschool harms precisely the children it most seeks to help.  That's a paradox, with far-reaching implications. I agree with early childhood specialists that deficits develop long before toddlers set foot in preschool.  Brain development differences between advantaged and disadvantaged children emerge as early as 9 months of age. By age 3, vocabulary differences are quite apparent.

That's why it's vital to provide wraparound services if we genuinely intend to narrow the achievement gap. The Harlem Children's Zone was in the vanguard in doing so.  Geoffrey Canada correctly understood that schools alone cannot perform miracles.  It takes a commitment on the part of the entire community to supplement what teachers do. I hope we can learn from the mistakes of the past. There's too much on the line now.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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