Bending the twig: the need for preschools

Should preschool be universally available? As America gropes toward a clearer sense of education, that question must take center stage.

For too many years, poets and educators have been telling us that a child's very early years are exceptionally formative. ``Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined,'' wrote Alexander Pope.

He left it to others to define twigginess. And for too many years, we have hung the greatest proportion of our resources on the upper branches of the educational tree, where (as woodsmen will tell you) it takes massive effort to bend a limb.

Why have we ducked the preschool issue? Two reasons: First, with more mothers working outside the home, the preschool question -- if it is asked at all -- is usually raised in the context of day care. In these terms, the little red schoolhouse becomes just one of several options (including day-care centers, grandparents, or neighbors) for handling young children. The question, slipping out of the realm of educational theory, becomes one of socioeconomic policy.

The second problem is that educators themselves have had mixed views on the long-term value of preschool. Surveys do indeed show that preschool children rank higher on standardized tests than do their non-preschooled counterparts. But the effects wear off after a few years.

Now, however, comes a crisp rethinking of the issue from the Harvard Education Letter, a newly launched quarterly newsletter published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reviewing the most recent research, editor Helen J. Featherstone concludes that ``a good preschool can make a long-term difference.''

Why are researchers only now arriving at that conclusion? In part because they have been looking for answers in the wrong place. Standardized test scores are only one measure of success. But in part the problem has been one of time: Only now are researchers seeing the results of long-term studies that can track a student over an entire educational career.

The results are most encouraging. Compared with control groups, children who have attended preschool repeat fewer grades and fall less frequently into special-education classes. One study shows that preschooled students with low IQ scores were far less apt to be classified as retarded, were arrested less often and bore fewer illegitimate children, finished high school and went on to higher education in greater numbers, and slipped into welfare dependency less frequently.

Nor are the benefits of preschool limited to children with initially low scores or with poverty-level backgrounds: ``More affluent children benefit in much the same way as their poor schoolmates,'' writes Ms. Featherstone. Part of the reason: the effect of preschool on parents, who expect more of their children and appear much more willing to visit teachers at school during their children's later years.

Although preschool enrollments have more than doubled in the past 15 years -- so that today 36 percent of the nation's three- and four-year-olds are in school -- preschool is not nearly as widely available as it could and should be. A study of 6,000 students in New York State showed that preschooling saved one in 12 from being held back a grade or going into special classes. Added up nationwide, that's an awful lot of students who could be saved from the downward spiral of classroom failure and academic dropout -- and from the cycles of poverty, welfare dependency, and even criminality that sometimes follow.

We're at a point where educational theory and socioeconomic policy converge toward an inescapable conclusion: The quicker we move toward universal preschooling, the better.

A Monday column

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