In Sen. Barack Obama's June 3rd victory speech, after wrapping up the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, he told Americans that "we owe it to our children to invest in early childhood education." Obama promises a preschool agenda that begins at birth. His early education plan includes a major role for the federal government in spreading universal preschool to all states. He calls for a total federal expenditure of $10 billion a year to promote early education. And a central component of his plan would offer grants as incentives to states to accelerate the trend toward "universal preschool for all."
At a 2008 Democratic Party debate in Las Vegas, Obama talked about the payoffs of early education to disadvantaged children:
"What you see consistently are children at a very early age are starting school already behind. That's why I've said that I'm going to put billions of dollars into early childhood education that makes sure that our African-American youth, Latino youth, poor youth of every race, are getting the kind of help that they need so that they know their numbers, their colors, their letters. Every dollar that we spend in early childhood education, we get $10 back in reduced dropout rates, and improved reading scores."
Obama is right about looking for ways to help poor, disadvantaged kids learn their numbers, colors, and letters in preschool and preparing them for elementary school, but he should re-examine his priority list. Yes, several studies that show preschoolers enrolled in universal preschool make modest gains in kindergarten and the early grades. For example, a 2007 study of five state preschool programs, by the National Institute for Early Education, found that children entering kindergarten who went through a universal preschool program made significant gains in early language, literacy, and math.
Unfortunately, these gains have not translated into lasting, higher academic achievement for the states who have invested heavily in universal preschool. The overlying problem: our broken, under-performing public school system can't maintain any gains that early education may provide. By the fourth grade all of the gains are washed away. So until we fix the public schools, universal preschool is a waste of precious education resources.
This is illustrated by the experiences of disadvantaged fourth graders in Oklahoma and Georgia, the two U.S. states that have had universal preschool for over a decade. Despite a fully implemented universal preschool system, students in Oklahoma and Georgia have not improved significantly on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the nation's report card for reading and math proficiency.
Oklahoma is considered the current U.S. leader on the universal preschool front. The state has received rave reviews for its program and is the model that many states aspire to become. Oklahoma enrolls more than 70 percent of four-year-olds in preschool and is considered a "high quality" program by the National Institute for Early Education at Rutgers University and national preschool advocacy groups such as Preschool Now. Oklahoma's program has strong curriculum, public school provision, and utilizes teachers with teaching credentials.
Yet, the picture is not so rosy when one considers overall academic achievement in Oklahoma. After a decade of universal preschool, Oklahoma has not made gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) fourth grade reading test.
The NAEP is the most objective test of academic performance for Oklahoma students because it serves as a quality benchmark for proficiency in reading and math. And it is a test against which all states can be evenly compared. The American Institutes for Research recently showed that the NAEP's definition of proficiency was also very similar to the standard used in international tests, giving the NAEP a "world class" standing. As long as the NAEP standard is employed, proficiency in the United States has roughly the same meaning as in Europe and Asia.
In reading, Oklahoma students remain below the national average and have actually lost ground since universal preschool was implemented. Today, Oklahoma students have lower reading scores than they did when universal preschool was enacted in 1998. In 1992, Oklahoma's fourth graders had an average scale score of 220, on a 0-to-500 scale, on the fourth grade reading test. By 2007, after years of universal preschool, that reading score had fallen slightly to 217.
In 1998, 19 percent of disadvantaged kids were proficient in reading on the NAEP. In 2007, after years off giving low-income children access to preschool, still only 19 percent were proficient in reading. For non-disadvantaged kids the news is worse. In 1998, 42 percent were proficient in reading, but in 2007 only 36 percent were.
In addition, the reading achievement gap between Hispanics and whites in Oklahoma is higher now than it was before universal preschool was enacted. In 1992, fourth grade Hispanic students had an average reading scale score of 207 (on a 0 to 500 scale). In 2007, that score had fallen to 198. The achievement gap between Hispanic and white students was 16 points 1992 and grew to 25 points in 2007.
Clearly any academic gains that preschool gives to low-income and minority students disappear once they enter our failing public schools. And Oklahoma isn't alone.
In Georgia, reading scores for fourth graders have remained flat despite a large investment, starting in 1995, in a universal preschool system that enrolls 60 percent of the state's kids.
Another telling indicator of the weakness of Georgia and Oklahoma's academic standards is revealed in the Summer 2008 issue of Education Next, which analyzes which states have "world class" standards and which do not. Scholars Paul E. Peterson and Frederick M. Hess compare how students do on each state's own assessment test versus how they perform on the national NAEP tests. By comparing the percentage of students deemed proficient on each, it is possible to determine whether states are setting expectations higher, lower, or equal to the NAEP standard. If the percentages are identical (or roughly so), then state proficiency standards can be fairly labeled as "world-class."
In Oklahoma, an impressive 90 percent of fourth graders were proficient on the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test. But a miserable 22 percent of Oklahoma's fourth graders were actually proficient on the NAEP. Similarly, Georgia declared 88 percent of its eighth graders proficient in reading, even though just 26 percent scored at or above the proficiency level on the NAEP. Georgia joined Oklahoma and Tennessee as the only three states to earn an "F" in comparison to the NAEP for their state standards.
To date, early education has not been a silver bullet for Georgia or Oklahoma. Clearly universal preschool isn't entirely to blame. For that, we need to focus on the public school system that is failing our kids. These states do not have "world class" schools or academic standards that can deliver the long-term gains Sen. Obama is looking for.
Obama has said, "It is a sense of urgency that we've got to restore if we're going to be able to remain competitive in this new global economy. We've got to improve early childhood education, because that's the area where we can probably most effectively achieve the achievement gap that exists right now."
Without high quality K-12 education, no amount of investment in early education can close the achievement gap or make the United States globally competitive. To his credit, Obama seems to recognize that the government doesn't have unlimited resources to tackle this challenge, stating, "If you're a progressive, you've got to be worried about how the federal government is spending its revenue, because we don't have enough money to spend on things like early childhood education that are so important."
To that end, he has signed Reason Foundation's "Oath of Presidential Transparency," promising the most transparent and fiscally accountable executive branch in history. He's also wisely argued in favor of merit pay for teachers and charter schools, telling Politico, "I've consistently said, we need to support charter schools. I think it is important to experiment, by looking at how we can reward excellence in the classroom."
Some of Obama's instincts on education issues, like that stance on charters, break from traditional Democratic Party positions and can seriously help reform our public schools. For the best results, and to truly help disadvantaged kids, Obama should shift from pushing universal preschool to calling for meaningful reforms in our K-12 public schools.