A Debate: Universal or Targeted Preschool? (EdSector Archive)
26 May 2006 | by Bruce Fuller, W. Steven Barnett
Growing awareness of the importance of early learning for children's development and the rising educational demands of a knowledge-based economy have led state and local policymakers to increase public investments in so-called universal preschool, publicly-funded preschool for all four-year-olds.
The expansion of preschooling raises many important questions: How should policymakers fund preschool programs? What standards should there be for preschool teachers? What standards for health and safety? How should these programs be held accountable? How do diverse American parents want to raise and teach their children? Who gets to decide?
Perhaps most importantly, who should publicly funded preschool programs serve? Should they be open to all students, or should they be targeted to only the most disadvantaged students? A ballot initiative is sparking heated debate on those questions in California, where voters will go to the polls June 6 to decide whether to establish universal publicly funded preschool for the state's four-year-olds—a debate that is likely to play out in other states in the future. To help both Californians and policymakers nationally think about the preschool dilemma, Education Sector asked two nationally-recognized preschool researchers on opposite sides of the question to explain their stances for and against universal and targeted public preschool.
W. Steven Barnett is Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, where he is also a professor of education economics and public policy. Barnett's research includes studies of the economics of early care and education, the long-term effects of preschool programs on children's learning and development, and the distribution of educational opportunities. Barnett is a supporter of universal preschool.
Bruce Fuller is Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a research center based at Berkeley and Stanford University. He has conducted research and written on numerous education and public policy issues, including early childhood education and care, charter schools, and welfare reform. His new book, Standardized Childhood, will be published by Stanford University Press later this year. Fuller believes that publicly-funded preschool programs should be targeted at disadvantaged students.
W. Steven Barnett: The Case for Universal Preschool
Historically, the rationale for targeted preschool programs at federal and state levels has been to offset the disadvantages associated with poverty that contribute to poor developmental outcomes and subsequent school failure. The research base supporting this approach included studies of highly intensive educational interventions by such early education pioneers as David Weikart, Susan Gray, and Martin and Cynthia Deutsch. These and other studies demonstrated substantial gains in learning and development for children from low-income families.
Long-term follow-ups revealed that while IQ gains, in particular, tended to fade with time (and often disappeared entirely) there were persistent gains in achievement tests in reading, math, and other subject matter specific knowledge and a host of other long-term benefits. In the educational realm these other benefits included: decreased grade repetition, decreased special education placements, and increased educational attainment. Looking at the literature broadly, a dose-response relationship is apparent, with earlier and more intensive programs producing larger and more persistent gains.
The targeted programs provided to low-income children have never been closely modeled on those that produced the largest benefits. Preschool teachers in many targeted programs are required to have only a high school diploma. Even Head Start requires only half of its teachers to have a two-year college degree. Many state-funded preschool programs do not require college degrees. Looking at subsidized child care policy at both federal and state levels, there is little evidence of a commitment to anything more than warehousing young children. Preschool teachers are paid about half what public school teachers earn, and child care staff are even more poorly paid.
Given the limited investments and minimal standards in many early childhood programs, it is hardly surprising that such programs have been found to produce little benefit to learning and development. The NICHD [National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a part of the National Institutes of Health] study of early child care shows very small impacts from such programs. The National Impact Study of Head Start finds modest gains from one year of the program, better than would be produced by typical child care, but not the kinds of gains produced by educationally intensive programs with well-paid, highly qualified personnel. Many of the targeted state funded preschool programs have lower standards and offer less than Head Start and would be expected to be even less effective. Such results should not be a surprise. All of the programs that have produced large benefits for children and that have been demonstrated to produce benefits far in excess of their costs had well-paid highly qualified teachers comparable to the public schools.
It is reasonable to ask after all these years, why targeted programs continue to diverge so egregiously from the programs known to produce large gains? And, why have these programs never been funded at a level that would allow them to reach all of the target population? Indeed, these targeted programs stand in stark contrast to the entire K-12 public education system. There teachers are reasonably well-paid and required to have college degrees and specialized training, and even teacher assistants are being required to have two-year degrees. There all children are served. Children in poverty don't go without kindergarten because the public has decided that is just not affordable given its other priorities.
The truth is that programs for the poor are too often poor programs. However, the point is not simply that public support for such programs is so weak that they are politically threatened. Rather, it is that such programs are so incompletely and inadequately implemented that they forgo so much of their benefits, and, thus, universal programs are better purely on grounds of economic efficiency.
Economists Jonah Gelbach and Lant Pritchett have applied economic theory to this issue and find that despite the lower costs of targeted programs, universal programs can be sound economic policy and maximize the well being of society as a whole. They conclude that lack of political support for means-tested programs when budgets are determined by majority voting can lead to such small budgets for these programs that even the poor and middle classes are worse-off with means-tested rather than universal programs. Thus, economic theory and the historical evidence on targeted preschool programs are wholly consistent.
As if these limitations were not enough, targeted preschool programs face several other practical problems.
Advocates of targeted programs assume that perfect targeting is achieved at no cost in a world where all eligible children are served and no ineligible children make their way into the program. Of course, the real world is quite different. Most targeted programs use an income cutoff to target children in or near poverty.
Unfortunately, this is a moving target; children can be eligible one month and not the next. Thus, programs are faced with a choice of either: (a) cycling children in and out frequently based on changes in their eligibility, which is common in child care and can mean that few children are actually served for an entire school year, or (b) permanently (or at least annually) identifying children as eligible at a single point in time prior to enrollment, which means that 6 months down the road they may have excluded a high percentage of children eligible at a later time and retained many who would no longer meet the eligibility criterion. Also, it must be acknowledged that some portion of the population will try to manipulate the system to gain access to a free program, which raises the costs of administering a targeted program, that some people will not wish to participate in a program that is perceived as stigmatizing because it is reserved for the poor, and that it is difficult to identify and inform all of the eligible population for a targeted program.
Another practical problem is that targeted programs create a fragmented, inefficient non-system of distinct programs operating under different regulations and standards. A lack of common standards makes it difficult for privately funded preschool programs to access the kinds of technical assistance and teacher professional development that might improve their quality. Such fragmentation also makes it difficult for families to access consistent services for their children and for programs to provide consistent services across time.
Universal programs offer the potential to improve this situation. If high quality, publicly funded preschool programs are available to all families, states could streamline and bring consistency to the administration of preschool programs, standards, professional development, and other influences on program quality.
Perhaps the most serious practical problem faced by targeted programs is that if the goal is to improve early learning and development as a way of dealing with school readiness problems and school failure, there is no clear dividing line separating needy from non-needy children.
The school failure problem certainly cannot be effectively addressed by targeting children in poverty. Most children who have to repeat a grade and most children who drop out of high school are not poor. The roots of the school failure problem go down to the preschool years where we invest far less as nation than we do in K-12 education. Data from the ECLS-K [Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99] reveal that there is quite linear relationship between income and children's early learning and development, including both cognitive and socio-emotional domains. If the development of children in higher income families is taken as an indication of what is optimal, then it is clear that not only children in poverty, but children at the median income are entering school far less prepared to succeed than they should be. Children at the median income are as far behind their peers from families in the top income quintile as children in poverty are behind their peers from middle-income families.
Of course, it is not enough to establish that there is a problem and that targeted programs cannot effectively address the problem. If preschool for all is to be a more effective solution, it would also have to be true that public preschool education programs could contribute to substantially better learning and development for middle-income children. Fortunately, this is true. Although many middle-income children attend some sort of preschool program for some amount of time prior to school entry, by and large these experiences are not sufficiently intensive to produce large gains. From research it is clear that the average program attended by the average preschool child is weak and, at best, weakly effective. Moreover, many middle-income children do not attend any preschool program at all. Preschool participation rates are lowest at family incomes right around the national average for American households. It is unlikely that this will change without a substantial subsidy, given the cost of high quality preschool education.
For many years, preschool education research primarily focused on disadvantaged children so the evidence on impacts for other children has been limited until recent years. However, we now have a number of rigorous studies in the United States and abroad that demonstrate positive benefits to learning and development for children from middle-income families, including both short- and long-term results.
These include studies of Oklahoma's preschool program in Tulsa, NIEER's studies of state-funded preschool programs, the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Project in the UK, and the long-term follow-up of the Infant Health and Development Project. The weight of the evidence seems to indicate that effects are somewhat smaller for children who are not economically disadvantaged. However, these effects are not trivial and are proportionately large enough that long-term economic benefits for middle-income children could easily exceed costs. An analysis I prepared for a conference sponsored by the Cleveland Federal Reserve finds that the economic return to a universal program can exceed that of a targeted program under plausible assumptions about who is served and what results are achieved. Moreover, none of this takes into account evidence that children from low-income families gain more from preschool education when they participate alongside more advantaged peers rather than in classrooms segregated by income.
Bruce Fuller: The Arguments for Targeting
The earliest advocates for kindergarten in America—almost 140 years ago—argued that this human-scale organization should not mimic public school classrooms and it should be focused on aiding parents in poor communities. In the early decades, both basic principles were met. By the 1930s the kindergarten—where five year-olds could follow their curiosities, learn to play and cooperate, discover the intersection of cognitive learning and natural processes—began to be sucked into the mass public school system.