President Obamas new push for universal government-run preschool may not be what parents and children want or need.
A major 2005 study by Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley gathered data from more than 14,000 kindergarteners, their parents and teachers, and measured social behavior and skills, like aggression and bullying, sharing, cooperation and engagement in classroom tasks. The researchers found that attendance in preschool centers, even for short periods of time each week, hinders the rate at which young children develop social skills.
The negative impact on social behavior is particularly strong for black children and children from the poorest families. This effect wasnt limited to one race or class, however. Middle-class white children who attended preschool suffered lower social-skill levels than similar children who remained at home in the care of a parent.
Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at U.C. Berkeley and one of the studys co-authors, has pointed out that universal programs dont recognize the diverse needs of families: Once we have centralized administration of preschool, we tend to see hyper-standardization of what goes on inside classrooms. Indeed, the presidents plan calls for federal funding incentives to create standards for early learning, teacher qualifications, curricula and program evaluation.
Instead of forcing top-down standardized preschool onto parents, why not empower them to make their own choice about whats best for their children? If parents like the high-performing Finnish model, where children dont start school until age 7, let them choose that option. If poor parents would rather have child care, parenting classes or access to private preschools, then policy makers should try to meet these demands creatively rather than impose a government-knows-best cookie-cutter solution.