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The President to Call for Pre-K for All: Why That Might Not Be a Great Idea

Why Universal Pre-K May Not be Great

Photo via the White House

Universal Pre-K: a good idea, right?

Tonight’s State of the Union Address will feature an initiative by President Obama to “expand access to high-quality preschool to every child across America.” In other words, “Pre-school for all.” This is nothing new, as last year’s speech also called for providing pre-school to American four-year-olds from low to mid- income families. Since then, the federal government has gotten an influx of a billion dollars under Congress’s new spending bill for the Head Start program. Tonight’s call for universal pre-K — which would actually mean providing increased federal funds to states for their public pre-K programs — will likely try and piggyback on that success.

Here in New York, new mayor Bill De Blasio is talking about the same thing: making free pre-K available for all New York four-year-olds. Currently there are not enough public pre-K spots for every child in the city. And yet, my wife and I deliberately didn’t try to nab one for our son, because the fact is that universal pre-kindergarten can not serve every child, at least not how these programs are currently running.

In New York City’s Department of Education, pre-kindergarten is a full-day program that focuses on academic preparation: holding a pencil properly and making letters, basic counting and math skills, following orders and walking in line. Sounds well and good, but what about the four-year-olds who lack the emotional, social, and kinesthetic development to accomplish such tasks? And what about the kids (like my son) who lack the impulse to conform, but are still bright, active, creative thinkers? What too about the kids who have so much energy they would rather be tearing around the schoolyard playing games for hours on end then learning introductory physics concepts? More often than not, these students are little boys.

I recently attended an open house for a school that includes both “mainstream” and “special needs” kids. (I’m putting quotes around these terms because they’re relative and seem to change with the times.) The principal there delivered an inspiring message about how his school’s academic scores fall below the scores of other schools in his district because his curriculum (of which he maintains some control) values things that the standardized tests do not measure: emotional well-being, the ability for kids to communicate and cooperate with one another, to play with each other, to be functioning, feeling, contributing members of a school community in which some kids will need more help than others.

It’s funny that this school is considered part of NYC’s District 75, meaning it’s a special education school. To me, a former middle school teacher, this sounds like an ideal educational environment for most kids. Of course, I’m a former teacher in part because I value things like the arts — dramatic performances, poetry readings, reading aloud — academic experiences that can’t be captured by fill-in-the-blank tests, and I found the post “No Child Left Behind” environment hostile to my beliefs.

Across the globe, educators have looked to Finland as a model of early education. Finnish children aren’t compelled to begin academic learning until around the age of 7. Before that, the state offers highly subsidized school programs (called kindergartens) that focus on play, the natural world, and using materials (like doing art projects). While there are national standards, the teachers — who are, on the whole, well-trained and educated — have a great deal of autonomy in designing their classroom’s curriculum. There is 1 adult for every 7 kids in a classroom over the age of 3, below that, the teacher to student ratio just gets better.

Obviously, Finland is a vastly different country than the U.S. in size and make-up. But still, I wonder if we can’t figure out how to create a national education system that’s not modeled on a factory approach, where students come in as soft lumps of clay and are prodded and shaped into academic achievers, highly competent at completing multiple choice assessments. A one-size-fits-all approach to education is going to produce frustration and foster failure in a sizable number of the student body, because everyone learns differently, and some kids are going to be left high and dry. That certainly seems to be the case in our nation now.

But rather than treat the real problem, the President, like his predecessor, continues to address the various symptoms. If only we got more kids into pre-K! We could start training them for the tests earlier and so then they’d do better on them.

No, that won’t be the case for every kid. I agree that the United States should provide free pre-kindergarten for every four-year-old, but we need to reform how are pre-kindergartens are operating, and once we do that, we need to move on up and make changes to the entire system, starting with an end to high-stakes testing. Then we can expand our view to consider every whole child, not just as fact regurgitation machines, but as creative problem solvers and social, emotional beings. Now that’s a vision of education in this country that I could support.

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