The State of Preschool 2010
For the ninth time, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), based at Rutgers, has issued a voluminous “yearbook” on the progress of state-funded preschool programs. This is all part of NIEER's commitment—and that of the yearbook’s primary funding source, the Pew Charitable Trusts—to making publicly financed, state-sponsored preschool universally available across the U.S. I’ve long harbored serious misgivings about the “universal” part. Because some kids really need a ton of preschooling and others don’t, in a time of tight resources, it makes more policy sense to focus on intensive programs for the neediest youngsters rather than on what generally turn out to be rather thin programs for everyone. And today resources are tighter than ever. In fact, 2010 is the first time since NIEER began tracking these numbers that state funding for preschool actually declined, and the yearbook states clearly that sans short-term federal subsidy it would have declined precipitously. This the authors naturally lament. But as tight resources—the “new normal”—beset federal, state, and local budgets now and for the foreseeable future, such lamentation might better be turned to refocusing the policy objective. (A new normal is also going to arrive in the universal preschool-advocacy sector in the near future, as Pew winds down its generous support of such activities and moves on to other topics—ironically including the effects of the “new normal” on state and local budgets.) Another problem echoed in this yearbook: NIEER’s definition of “quality” preschool, while faithful to widely held views in the early-childhood field, continues to emphasize inputs and processes, not outcomes. They acknowledge this—but it doesn’t mean they’ve changed. Of their ten big “quality standards,” at least eight are mainly about spending, credentials, ratios, and services, not about kindergarten readiness and other (increasingly measurable) signs that such programs are actually preparing their wee charges to succeed in school. (That far too many of those elementary schools are ill-suited to sustaining preschool gains is another enduring problem, but one that is beyond NIEER’s and the yearbook’s scope.)
W. Steven Barnett, Dale J. Epstein, Megan E. Carolan, Jen Fitzgerald, Debra J. Ackerman, Allison H. Friedman, “The State of Preschool 2010” (Newark, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research, 2011).
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