Story first appeared on USA Today -
Preschool debate obscures core problem: Our view
'Fragile families' harm children's development
In the eyes of many parents and most educators, starting a child's schooling before kindergarten is an indisputable virtue. Your kid acquires learning and social skills that give him or her an advantage.
So it's hardly surprising that President Obama used his State of the Union Address to call for extending that middle- and upper-class habit to all children, at government expense.
But before the checks go out, it would be wise to consider a broader question: Can the middle-class experience be replicated that easily? The evidence says universal preschool alone won't get the job done.
A few small, high-quality programs have shown enduring benefits for at-risk kids. But intensive study of Head Start, the nation's largest and oldest preschool program, finds that the beneficial effects, which are real, wear off by third grade.
The probable reason is not hard to deduce. Children are most likely to succeed in school when pushed by parents who provide stability, help with schooling, and instill an education and work ethic. But for decades now, the American family has been breaking down.
Two-fifths of children born in the USA are born to unmarried mothers, an eightfold increase since 1960. Many succeed thanks to the heroic efforts of strong, motivated single parents and other relatives. But research shows that children of single parents suffer disproportionately high poverty rates, impaired development and low performance in school.
Ron Haskins, an expert on children and families at the Brookings Institution, calls single parenthood a "little motor pushing up the poverty rate." In 2011, the rate for children of single mothers was more than four times greater than that for children of married couples.
Researchers at Princeton and Columbia, following 5,000 children born to married and unmarried parents, have found that the effects of single parenthood seep into every aspect of kids' lives.
A typical pattern in these "fragile families" looks like this: When a child is born, most fathers and mothers are in a committed relationship. By the time the child reaches 5, though, many fathers have disappeared. As the mothers move on to new relationships, the children face more instability, often with new siblings born to different fathers. Boys without strong male role models are more likely to turn to gangs and crime.
Single mothers read less to their children, are more likely to use harsh discipline and are less likely to maintain stable routines, such as a regular bedtime. All these behaviors are important predictors of children's health and development.
It is a tragically familiar pattern. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Johnson administration official and later a U.S. senator, warned about an alarming rise — to nearly 24% — in unmarried births in the black community. His prescient warning created a furor among liberals and civil rights leaders, who accused him of blaming the victim. The rates are now 73% for blacks, 53% for Hispanics and 29% for whites.
Even today, solutions are undermined by ideological warfare. Liberals blame poverty. Conservatives blame the culture. Both are right. The problems are intertwined, and defy easy solutions. Fighting poverty, promoting marriage and stable relationships, intervening with home visits, and improving education all help, but there is no magic answer.
So, sure, explore Obama's plan to expand quality preschool, and make sure kids aren't then dumped into failing elementary schools. But don't miss the core problem. The primary engine of social advancement has always been the family, and it is breaking down.
Preschool Closes Achievement Gap: Other Views
It takes the right kind of program
Brian Resnick, National Journal: "At the very least, it can be argued that preschool does no harm to long-term academic achievement and socioeconomic standing (although one study found it can negatively affect a child's social skills). Because preschool is most beneficial to poorer students, increasing access to it could only help close the stubbornly persistent achievement gap between whites and minorities.
Nevertheless, it will be a tough sell to Republicans who may think the upfront cost of the plan is too much to justify benefits that won't be seen for decades."
Jonathan Cohn, New Republic: "My takeaway is that paying attention to early childhood can help at-risk kids, and in some cases help them a lot. But it takes the right kind of program, which means, among other things, experimenting to see what works best. Fortunately, this seems to be what President Obama and his advisers have in mind."
Tony Perkins, Family Research Council: "Obama and his Big Government supporters think that starting school at a younger age will help solve society's problems. But a study of the federal preschool program Head Start shows that for all the money spent on the program, it had little effect on educational outcomes after preschool concluded. Children need parental involvement and attention. They need strong families. What a 4-year-old needs more than anything is a loving, secure home with a mom and dad who love each other. There is no better way to start a young life. We cannot have secure, well-prepared, confident children if we continue to sustain a culture where no-fault divorce, cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births are the norm."
Erika Christakis, Time Ideas: "The cornerstone of Obama's proposal is a plan to make preschool education available for all 4-year-olds at or below 200% of the poverty line. But the devil is in the details, and in this case, those details may not be developmentally appropriate for young children. If you need a cautionary tale of what goes wrong when politicians and school boards ride roughshod over the developmental needs of children, you need look no further than the dramatic changes to kindergarten over the last decade."
Kevin Glass, Townhall.com: "It's important to ... acknowledge the successes and failures of such programs to date. States can and should serve as laboratories of democracy before a heavy-handed federal government turns modest programs into universal mandates. President Obama's early childhood education proposals are incredibly vague, but there's hope on the federal level for targeted early childhood education policy that works. Heavy-handedness and a lack of introspection on previous federal education policy might doom early childhood education reform to failure."