An outline released by the White House contends that President Barack Obama’s universal preschool proposal will “improve quality and expand access to preschool” by, among other things, using federal funding incentives to require states “to meet quality benchmarks that are linked to better outcomes for children.”
There is justifiable skepticism, however, regarding the quality of those benchmarks and whether they are really linked to higher student results.
In the initial wave of reaction to the president’s “Preschool for All” plan, many opponents have emphasized research, such as a recent HHS study of the federal Head Start preschool program, showing that the beneficial effects from preschool largely evaporate as children go through the elementary grades.
In response, universal preschool supporters argue that the president’s proposal would raise the quality of preschool to a level that will produce lasting impacts on students.
The evidence to support such claims, however, is far from clear.
For instance, the Obama preschool plan says that in exchange for federal funding states would be required to ensure “Qualified teachers for all preschool classrooms.”
A “qualified teacher” is usually defined as someone with a bachelor’s degree and an early-childhood teaching credential. Yet the link between those qualifications and better student outcomes has not been conclusively established.
A 2011 National Institute for Early Education Research report notes that the studies used “in the debate about teacher qualifications were not designed to explicitly answer the question of what is the baseline level of teacher education needed to ensure program quality that, in turn, ensures children’s learning and development.”
It isn’t possible to distinguish whether a teacher’s educational background or some other factor, such as the length of the school day or the curriculum, is responsible for the impact of a preschool program on student outcomes.
Thus, the NIEER researchers emphasize, “the current research base does little to help resolve the debate about preschool teacher qualifications.”
“In short,” they conclude, “without research that directly examines the question of teacher education disentangling it from other program variables, it is not possible to answer the question of optimal level of education.”
In other words, the Obama administration is premature in trying to link higher teacher qualifications with better student outcomes.
Despite this lack of certainty, the president’s plan also calls for pay increases for his envisioned corps of new preschool teachers.
“Well-trained teachers, who are paid comparably to K-12 staff” is a key component of Obama’s proposal.
Currently, most preschool teachers in government-run preschools earn less than their K-12 counterparts.
Yet, increasing preschool teacher salaries, based on increased qualification requirements, may not buy better results.
After reviewing the evidence, UC Berkeley researchers concluded, “To pay out higher reimbursement rates based on the number of BA-credentialed teachers will be costly and may not yield significant benefits for children.”
The Obama plan would also reduce preschool class sizes and lower adult-to-child ratios. Here, too, the evidence is not unanimous.
For example, a federally funded 2008 study by researchers at the University of Virginia, UCLA and the University of North Carolina looked at nearly 2,500 4-year-olds enrolled in 671 pre-K classrooms in 11 states.
They found that minimum standards, such as teachers’ level of education and field of study, class size, and child-to-teacher ratio, were not directly associated with children’s academic, language and social development.
Stripped of its high-minded rhetoric, President Obama’s universal preschool proposal ends up looking like just an expensive employment program for his teacher-union allies.
Experts estimate the plan could cost up to $20-25 billion or more. High costs and uncertain results are bad arguments for starting a massive new federal program.