Early Education

The state of American preschool, in six parts

Why we need to do more for our littlest learners

Abed Hossain, a student in Dasarie Forde’s preschool class at P.S. 3 in Brooklyn, plays on the jungle gym during structured playtime on the playground.

This is the final installment in a series about how little the United States invests in the education of young children. Read the whole series.

For the past six months, I have been reporting and writing a six-story series for The Hechinger Report and The Atlantic on how we have ended up well behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to investing in young children.

While there are many ways to invest in children younger than 5, I chose to focus on preschool since it is the early years program most closely correlated with K-12 education, my primary focus as an education reporter. As I explained in my first story: “On every level — local, state and federal — this country invests little to nothing in the first five years of a child’s life, putting us decades and dollars behind the rest of the developed world.”

Why don’t we invest much in the early years? There are many complicated factors ranging from a deep-seated American reluctance to let government into family life to a commitment to taxes that are lower than many of our European counterparts, which makes spending on social programs difficult to justify. Some think the problem is one of misplaced values.

“I think we value our children less than other nations do,” said former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “I don’t have an easier or softer or kinder way to say that.”

If he’s right, we can expect very little change in the coming decades. And yet, after six months of reporting on this topic, I’m not convinced the situation is that dire. I feel certain people would act if they knew how much preschool could help the nearly two-thirds of American children who aren’t reading proficiently by third grade. And so I set out to gather the exact details of what we are spending on the early years, how we’re spending it, and what we know works.

“Reasonable people can disagree about solutions,” said Katharine Stevens, research fellow and early education expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

I agree. Not only would vastly expanding our country’s preschool system be a huge undertaking, we also need to be realistic about the potential success or failure of such an effort. Stevens, for example, wants to know why advocates are so eager to believe that a public school system that hardly leads the international pack can be expected to offer high quality preschool programs.

“I think we need to be thinking more in terms of pilot projects and support and incentives for states to be experimenting with things,” she said, “rather than pretending that we have a national public consensus about what needs to be done and that we know the right way to do it.”

Right now, as a country, we are acting more or less as Stevens recommends.

We do spend billions each year on public preschool. Head Start alone, the federal government’s preschool program for poor children, cost $9.2 billion in the 2016 fiscal year. But we still serve only a fraction of the poor children eligible to enroll because that is not enough money to pay enough people to serve all of the children living in poverty in America.

Most states also spend millions of dollars per year on preschool programs that are as yet too small to serve all the children who qualify for them. And while states and cites have been adding to their preschool budgets and creating or expanding preschool programs in recent years, the comparatively slow pace of change is leaving us increasingly far behind early education in other developed nations.

“At the current rate, it will be another 50 years before states can reach all low-income children at age four, and it will take 150 years to reach 75 percent of all four-year-olds,” writes Steven Barnett, director the National Institute for Early Education Research, in his introduction to the 2015 State of Preschool Yearbook.

It was hard to explain where we are and how we got here without glossing over the complexity of our current preschool landscape. I spoke to teachers, advocates, researchers, policymakers and skeptics from Boston to Portland, Oregon. I traveled to England to see how that country has managed to provide subsidized or free care and education for all of the country’s 3- and 4-year-olds. I dug into the history and research on Head Start. And I secured an exclusive interview, albeit via email, with Hillary Clinton on her extensive plans to lead the country in a new direction on early education if she becomes president.

In addition to writing six stories, I worked with a developer to create an interactive map that shows the intersection of quality and availability of public preschool in the U.S. and a timeline of the major early education policy changes dating back to the late 19th century. We also ran the interview with Clinton, who could be the first president to enter the White House having spent much of her 40-year career focused on early childhood issues, as a stand-alone Q&A.

There were moments when the sheer volume of all the information I was taking in made it seem like I would never synthesize everything into a single comprehensive storyline. My main takeaway is that offering more and better public preschool is probably a good idea. But there is no simple or easy way to do that and there are still some pretty valid questions as to how we would mount such a massive undertaking. The current situation is hard to characterize succinctly, except to say: It’s complicated.

It’s true that we have not fully committed to educating children under 5 in this country, poor or otherwise. We do not pay many of our preschool teachers fair wages. We do not provide young families with the economic help—in terms of free or subsidized care—that many desperately need. Some of our biggest statewide programs, like those in Florida and Texas, aren’t great.

At the same time, a few cities, like Boston, have exemplary public programs. A few states, like Oklahoma, offer universal preschool. Much of the research other countries base their preschool programs on comes from American universities. Most of the public programs we do offer are of decent quality, if not sufficiently accessible. And perhaps most notably in the current political climate, Republicans and Democrats, even those in Congress, have a history of working together on this issue.

We are behind, but we are not without a baseline from which to begin to build. Do we care about our children enough to take the risk?

This post also appeared on Education Week. The Little to Nothing series was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education.

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Lillian Mongeau

Lillian Mongeau is the Engagement Editor and West Coast Bureau Chief. Her future as a writer was not a forgone conclusion, according to her first… See Archive