Pre-K success depends on teachers

Universal preschool would work better if teachers had adequate pay and proper training.

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Tuesday, Californians will go to the polls to decide whether Proposition 82 - the Preschool for All Act - deserves their support. Passage of the bill, which would make prekindergarten available to every 4-year-old in the state, would give California youngsters an academic leg up before they enter elementary school.

However, critics of universal preschool have cited a study showing that pre-K not only fails to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor children, but also hinders students' social development. This study, "How much is too much? The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children's Development Nationwide," was released in 2005 by the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University. But the study also indicated that children made cognitive gains across the socioeconomic spectrum - a positive result suggesting that kids who go to preschool are better prepared to begin their academic careers in kindergarten. This result alone makes universal preschool worthy of support.

Certainly, the unrelenting achievement gap and the downslide in preschoolers' ability to control their aggressive or impulsive feelings are results nobody wants from pre-K. Fortunately, there are practical ways to overcome these challenges. Developing high-quality preschool programs where low-income students receive extra support, and where teachers and staff receive the training and resources they need, will go a long way in helping kids from all backgrounds get the most out of their pre-K experience.

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The federally funded preschool program Head Start has long been making efforts to close the achievement gap by getting low-income children into preschool as early as possible. Although this provision does improve academic ability, it fails to make up for what kids might not get at home: Often low-income parents or caretakers lack the skills or motivation to help their children excel in school. To truly narrow the achievement gap, then, low-income children need educational support over and above what public preschool would offer to the rest of the population. Head Start could be instrumental in providing this extra help to needy kids enrolled in public pre-K programs.

As for preschool students' reduced social-emotional skills, the Berkeley/Stanford study did not examine the quality of supervision or teaching found in its child-care settings. So it is impossible to say that preschool attendance alone is what caused the children to be more aggressive and less self-disciplined. Could it be that pre-K kids with good teachers maintain good behavior? A study by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, suggests that the answer is yes. This study found that teachers trained in social and emotional strategies actually enhance a child's social development. Highly trained, nurturing teachers who teach social and emotional strategies as part of the curriculum help children make great strides in personal social responsibility. Making sure that class routines are well established and that children have a solid understanding of classroom guidelines and procedures helps these young people become socially responsible and emotionally well-adjusted.

As a teacher trainer myself, I am well aware that most preschool teachers are undertrained. Usually, preschool teachers barely make minimum wage and do not hold college degrees in child development. Even in beginning teacher-training sessions, social and emotional strategies are not taught on a regular basis. It is impossible to provide quality services in a childcare setting or preschool without properly trained teachers. I applaud the efforts of the Department of Education to encourage preschool teachers to obtain degrees.

But unless preschool personnel are paid satisfactory salaries, we cannot expect those professionals to pursue advanced degrees. More often than not, as soon as a preschool teacher earns a degree, he or she will move on to a more lucrative job. To be most effective, preschool teachers need this education in childhood development, and by paying them appropriate salaries, they will be encouraged to complete degrees and to stay in the profession.

Children in California and all over the United States deserve to have preschool made available to them. And better training and higher wages for pre-K instructors would be a boon both to the teachers and to the kids receiving quality academic and social education under their care.

John Funk is manager of Educational Programs for Excelligence Learning Corporation and a clinical instructor at the University of Utah. He taught preschool through second grade for 23 years.

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