Despite mounting evidence that preschool programs support children's long-term success, the United States lags behind other developed, and even developing, nations in preschool access. But, with increasing frequency, politicians of nearly every stripe have begun endorsing greater access to early childhood education programs for America's children, and particularly for those whose parents would not otherwise be able to afford those programs.
Across the nation, states—both red and blue—are expanding access to pre-K programs, and President Obama has made preschool education for more children a key goal of his administration. A New York Times article recently proclaimed that "Preschool is having its moment, as a favored cause for politicians and interest groups who ordinarily have trouble agreeing on the time of day."
The Natural Start Alliance has added its voice to the growing chorus of supporters of high-quality preschool opportunities for more children. But, just as this "moment" appears to be swelling into a movement, many educators and parents are looking just beyond preschool to the system our children enter in kindergarten, and are asking whether our K-12 system is achieving the kinds of results we want.
In particular, many are questioning whether the pressures of standards and standardized testing have made it too difficult for teachers and children to think creatively, explore ideas, go outside, and more. Many wonder, will these kinds of accountability measures be pushed down into publicly funded preschools, having a similar effect on classrooms? Will the push to get more children into preschool prove good for children over the long term, or could we inadvertently be advocating for policies that will set us back in terms of connecting children to nature, encouraging creative play-based education, and building a love of learning?
Closing the Achievement Gap
Not surprisingly, the children of college-educated, higher-income parents are likely to have more and better options for preschool than the children of lower-income parents. And at home, children in higher-income families are likely to spend their early years in language-rich environments, getting focused attention from adults who speak and read to them often.
But for millions of other children whose parents earn less, preschool may be out of reach. And children in lower-income homes often grow up in households where they hear fewer words, read fewer books, and, as a result, enter kindergarten at a distinct disadvantage. Unfortunately, for many children, this disadvantage persists, and can even widen, long after kindergarten.
Closing this "achievement gap" is the goal of many of the programs designed to increase access to early childhood education, and it's hard to argue against programs that give underserved children a helping hand—especially when the programs also can boost children's academic and economic success later in life.
Gladys Deustch is the Executive Director of Leila Day Nurseries in New Haven, Connecticut, and a supporter of the push for greater access to pre-K programs. "There are kids that really need access who are being served by those programs," she explains. "For the most part, the programs are quality programs."
Ken Finch, Executive Director of the Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood, also sees the value in broad access to preschool education for American children. "What's not to love? We all know that early childhood education, done well, is terrific for young children." The question, he argues, is not if increased access to preschool is good for children, but what kind of preschool? How are the programs being run? Finch says, "The how is the pivot for everything."
Holding Programs Accountable
Almost all of the discussion around improving pre-K access for families revolves around getting children into what policy makers call "high-quality" education programs. While there is no one set of markers of quality, in general, research suggests that children in programs with well qualified teachers, stimulating and safe environments, effective curriculum, parent engagement, and other factors get better results than programs without these and other features.
As you might expect, providing well qualified teachers and rich curriculum costs more than the alternative. And as Chris Amirault, Executive Director of the Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center and President of the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children, explains, public funding for quality education is bound to come with strings attached. "The Federal government is very interested in making sure that the money that they're investing can be demonstrated to work."
As a result, federal programs such as Head Start and Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grants include significant requirements for demonstrating quality. And state quality rating and improvement systems aim to provide measures of quality in non-federal programs. Just as few people would argue against the value of getting more children access to preschool education, few question the need for ensuring that those programs are high-quality. The challenge, of course, is in how quality is measured.
In looking at how schools are held accountable in the K-12 system, some see a reason for concern in the way we measure success in American schools. No Child Left Behind, the legislation that's at the center of K-12 school accountability efforts, is particularly divisive.
Green Hearts’ Ken Finch believes that "No Child Left Behind has been a disaster for American children." He argues that the standardized tests mandated by law force teachers and students to focus on a few narrow domains of learning and development that are covered by tests, and thus push out the rich tapestry of other disciplines and experiences that make learning—and being in school—fun and effective. "Music and art and field trips and recess are all being hurt by this 'teaching to the test' mentality," he says.
Finch and others worry that similar requirements might some day force preschools to focus on a few developmental domains covered by accountability requirements, rather than focusing on the whole child. Already, some argue that there has been a shift toward a more academic approach to education in preschools, with an overly narrow focus on preparing children for the rigors of the standards-based classrooms that await them in elementary school.
And, as Leila Day Nurseries' Deutsch explains, it's not just the specter of standards and tests that can get in the way of nature-based and inquiry-based learning. "I think that some of the regulations and requirements are getting in our way," she says, referring to licensing requirements that are meant to ensure safety, but often create barriers to creating stimulating outdoor learning environments.
Changing the Conversation
Almost everyone agrees that preschool access is likely to increase over the next several years through an infusion of public funds, and accountability measures are sure to be attached to those programs. For those of us who care about early childhood environmental education and wonder whether this will help or hurt our cause, Amirault argues that " 'Is this good or bad?' is the wrong way to approach the question." He says, "It's not whether it will be better or worse, but 'How can we make sure that what's going on here incorporates what we value?' "
Deutsch believes that we can incorporate our values in accountability measures, but today, "It's not part of the conversation. It has been so much more focused on skills and on what is seen as the more traditional academic focus. But what people are not realizing is how much nature and being outside and being active can help achieve the same goal. When you eliminate that from kids' experiences, it's counterproductive."
Amirault agrees, and thinks that people who care about these issues can make those conversations happen in their states by getting involved in states' quality rating and improvement systems, state early learning councils, work groups, children's councils within state legislatures, state and local associations for the education of young children, and other groups. "There are lots of places where these conversations probably are happening, or they're not and they could be," Amirault says.
Amirault, Deutsch, Finch, and others agree that the environmental education community needs to become a more vocal advocate on behalf of young children. They all point to the need to engage more experienced educators in defining what quality means, and not letting policy makers alone set the agenda. Finch says, "Parents and front-line teachers almost all get it. They instinctively get that this 'push, push, push' is not right for early childhood. Somehow there's a breakdown between this front-line level—the people who really spend time with kids—and the people who make the policies."
And it should not be difficult to engage leaders around these issues. In the end, we all want the same thing: high-quality education for more children. The things we believe are markers of quality—time outdoors, more physical activity, a focus on developing skills that support inquiry and critical thinking, and, in general, a focus on the development of the whole child—are things that most people believe are good for children, and most leaders will support, given the right opportunity.
After all, Amirault says, "People want to be on the side of the right and the good."