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Is Preschool the New Kindergarten?

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Kindergarten is the new first grade, announced a "Newsweek" headline last fall.

Gone are the lazy days of dress-up and finger painting. And forget naps.

Enter, scripted reading programs and testing. Yes, testing kindergartners. Really.

Changes in parental expectations and other societal factors have led to a ratcheting up of the curriculum. And though No Child Left Behind does not mandate testing until the 2nd grade, more schools are implementing "practice tests" as early as kindergarten.

The result? Preschool has taken on a new and important role in preparing children for these more academically rigorous primary grades.

Is preschool becoming the new kindergarten?

Just a generation ago preschool was regarded as optional, or at most just 2 or 3 mornings a week. Today, it's a different story.

More children than ever attend some kind of preschool (55% of 3- and 4-year-olds according to one report). For many working moms, it's a necessary childcare solution. But even for stay-at-home moms and families with other options, the lauded benefits of pre-K preparation have led parents both rich and poor to enroll their children in a variety of private, religious and government-subsidized programs.

"[My daughter] has made huge strides socially at her preschool. She is much more confident and really likes to make friends... she knows her alphabet and numbers" says Sara King, 34, an Oregon mother of a 4-year-old enrolled in a preschool co-op.

Experts concur. Preschool attendance has been linked to better academic performance in elementary school, lower dropout rates, and higher graduation rates. And the benefits of preschool are even greater for at-risk students. Long range studies have found that low-income children who attended preschool were less likely to be held back or need special education, and less likely to be involved with crime later as juveniles.

Yet, at an average cost of $5,000 a year, the benefits of preschool are not open to all children.

While the wealthy have always been able to afford a "mommy's morning out," and many poor children qualify for government-subsidized programs, many middle class families have trouble justifying the high cost of a quality preschool. Economists point out that in many states, a year of preschool costs more than in-state, public college or university tuition.

That's why lately something called Universal Preschool has gained so much traction. Universal Preschool generally means state or federally funded preschool for all 4-year-olds. As an August 2007 article in the Wall Street Journal highlights, it has become part of the national zeitgeist. An increasing number of educational experts, policy makers, and parents now agree that preschool should be funded, at least in part, by the government.

Federally funded preschool is not a new idea. A program called Head Start -- designed for poor children and signed into law in 1965 -- ushered in the first federally sponsored preschool program in the U.S. And in countries like France, Italy and Germany nearly 100 percent of all 4-year-olds enjoy state funded preschool.

But the current push for Universal Preschool in the U.S. has taken on a sense of urgency, a sense that we will fall behind as a nation if we don't get all our 4-year-olds in a school tomorrow.

Is it worth it?

While research supports the benefits of high quality preschool for 4-year-olds, most of the current debate now centers on weighing the costs and benefits of yet another government program (and its attendant bureaucracy).

Proponents like the group Pre-K Now cite Universal Preschool as an investment in children, society, and the economy — a cost-saving mechanism that cuts healthcare, welfare, and prison costs down the line. Talk to any kindergarten teacher and she can tell you the academic and social benefits of preschool.

"We usually get a lot of feedback from the [kindergarten] teachers on how they love to get our students in their class and what a difference they see between our kids and those with no preschool" states Sonia Gutierrez, 27, who works with 3- and 4-year-olds at a Head Start program in Norwalk, California.

But there are those who caution that we proceed more carefully with implementing preschool for all. And they ask important questions: Who will set the agenda for what all 4-year-olds should learn? Who enforces this? What's the role of local and state boards of education? What about standards and accountability? And most importantly, who's going to foot the bill and will there be enough funding to make it work?

The rush to make preschool the new kindergarten especially alarms many experts who are gravely concerned about pushing more academic work on younger children who may not be developmentally ready. The National Association for the Education of Young Children advocates that 4-year-olds learn best from play. How do you measure or quantify that?

With pressure mounting for young children to meet rigorous academic standards in the early grades, many parents, educators, and policymakers see the need to further expand programs for kindergarten readiness. Universal Preschool for all would be a logical first step in this direction. The trick will be to get it right.

An adjunct Professor of Education at the University of Southern California, Emily Arms writes about education, accountability, and gender for a variety of academic and popular journals. She can be reached at www.emilyarms.com.
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