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The case for universal preschool

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We learn some of our most basic skills once we get to school. Most of us have fond memories, or at least memories of some sort, of learning how to count and share and sing the alphabet song in kindergarten, or once we enter at our place in “real school,” the K-12 system. We forget that we started learning these building-blocks for our future educations a little earlier, if we started school earlier. Those early years — preschool — were more important than we realize.

It is in that early stage of development that we learn how to internalize the world in a more nuanced manner and how to describe it more consistently. We tend to form our early math skills, including number sense, as well as early operations, special reasoning and geometry, during this time. The amount and extent of skill development, especially in literary and math proficiency, that we get in that developmental “sweet spot” in the ages of three to five ends up being reliably predictive of academic performance later in life.

In addition, learning deficits established by the time children reach school-age, entering into kindergarten or the first grade, are almost impossible to make up later in a linear school trajectory. Several studies have demonstrated that children who make up the lowest quartile of achievement in testing as measured in kindergarten tend to stay in that quartile at least as followed through the eighth grade. It’s unfair that some children come into kindergarten already doomed to low academic performance simply because they didn’t have the structure of preschool or an academically nurturing home environment available to them.

Preschool is an important avenue through which many children can augment their social-emotional interaction skills, including self-regulation. When kids come to kindergarten for the first time, they’re expected to interact with other children civilly, listen to the teacher at all times, and sit quietly in their chairs or on the rug when they’re asked to do so. It seems silly to assume that they will be able to do this if they haven’t been taught how and if they haven’t had ample time to practice these skills. Learning content becomes incredibly difficult once “real school” starts if kids do not have the ability to control their movements or the way that they interact with their peers.

Beyond the learning and future opportunity benefits for the children themselves, there are monetary benefits to having children start school earlier, both for the kids themselves and for the general public. If low- and middle-income children go to preschool, they will have a better chance at closing the achievement gap between themselves and children from upper-income families, who currently have the ability to pay for better schools. Additionally, taxpayers will ultimately save money by investing in high-quality public preschool education. According to some economists, investing a single dollar in preschools could save seven dollars that would be spent later in remedial education, increasing labor productivity and mass incarceration.

All of these benefits are strong arguments for having preschool and encouraging greater participation, if not making participation mandatory. They don’t necessarily establish a need for mandatory universal preschool, but the evidence exists to make a persuasive case.

Providing a space for all children to enter school at an earlier age regardless of gender, race and income background is crucial if we as a nation want to uphold our ideals of valuing freedom and people’s right to self-determination. If equal opportunities aren’t provided, people will not, and currently cannot, freely choose to pursue any course of life that they may want. This makes the issue of providing equal opportunities in education hugely important; our very integrity as a nation is at stake. This can only be done if the sort of preschool provided nationally is more-or-less uniform.

Having a system such as the one we currently do, in which there is a mix of preschools that are privately and publicly funded, and in which public funding can come from multiple sources, causes a host of different problems that universal preschool would solve. The current system allows for upper-income families to spend as much as they choose, and leaves low-income families stuck at a disadvantage and middle-income families with little to no help at all. Furthermore, uniform funding would solve problems that arise from having to be accountable to different sources by different metrics. The time and energy no longer spent on trying to organize and coordinate funding sources could then go into improving the quality of education and bettering the lives of the children receiving it.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu