The current structure of U.S. public schools – including the K-12 grade framework – was established over a century ago based on the goals, scientific knowledge and theories of child development at the time; yet this structure has been remarkably resistant to change despite the fact that our society, economy and the requirements of our public school system have changed dramatically.
Even though educators and policymakers alike have questioned other antiquated structures and practices around public education, there has been little debate about whether our current grade system is still relevant in the modern age. Starting public school at age 5 is now essentially an arbitrary point and one which we now know does not best serve most children. Our incredible advancements in the understanding of child development and brain development allow us to know now that fundamental skills are produced in the early years of childhood, long before children start kindergarten. To compensate for the fact that public school starts too late, we have a created an early childhood education patchwork of state-funded schools, local school district programs and other child care and preschool programs run by both for-profit and nonprofit entities. The U.S. is ranked 26th among industrialized countries in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education, and this lack of universality has created a discriminatory system that only serves half of our children, with inconsistent quality often not linked to kindergarten readiness at their local public school.
Although there is always talk about how public schools are failing our children, the fact is that less than 40 percent of our children are ready for kindergarten when they arrive at school, creating an opportunity gap long before our schools can address it properly. Many children who live in poorer households and neighborhoods are both less likely to have attended a quality preschool program and less likely to have resources and support outside of school during their K-12 years. There is a mountain of evidence that this opportunity gap is created when children are young: 88% of those who drop out of school could not read proficiently by 3rd grade.
Certainly there is no panacea for every issue in public education, but if there is only one singular change that could address many systemic inequities, creating universal preschool as part of our existing public school system is that change (I would argue it would have a monumentally greater impact on the opportunity gap than would the Local Control Funding Formula). In addition to the moral and social obligation, the opportunity gap created by the lack of universal preschool has a real economic cost to society through lower productivity and competitiveness, lower tax revenue and higher social costs, including higher crime and public safety spending. The evidence linking quality preschool attendance with improved social and economic outcomes is overwhelming, with studies showing multiple times return on dollars spent on early childhood education. Even within my county of San Mateo, a pilot “Preschool for All” program in one district demonstrated immediate and profound results.
President Obama helped energize the debate last February when he talked about making high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. But I would argue that even the president is using the language of the 20th (and even 19th) century, and the educational community does itself a disservice by calling it “preschool.” That implies something extra and not necessary.
Certainly if we were to start our public school system today, we wouldn’t likely start it at age five – a decision made over a century ago for a purpose long past by people with much less scientific understanding of childhood and brain development. Rather we would start public school at age 3 or younger. So, what we now call “preschool” would just be “school,” and it must eventually become part of our public school system. Ideally, we’d just expand our current public school system down two more grades. Only in a half-joking way, I’ve argued that we should renumber the grades, with what we call “kindergarten” today becoming “3rd grade” – you wouldn’t tolerate your child’s missing 1st and 2nd grade, would you?
Making this change would naturally require a significant investment, both in the operating dollars to teach more students but also the money for facilities for local districts to support the extra grades. But to be clear, one shouldn’t infer that the intent is just to duplicate what we currently do in the higher grades (particularly with respect to overly burdensome standards and testing), but rather to create inherent in our public system developmentally appropriate high-quality nurturing environments for 3- and 4-year-olds. To make such a change, I recognize that we would have to bring more early-learning expertise into our public school system to have both teachers and administrators who know how to appropriately address the needs of this age group, as well as have them ready for kindergarten.
But this is all indeed possible. There is buzz now in Sacramento of taking the current Transitional Kindergarten program and opening it up to all 4-year-olds. This would be a tremendous step forward to accomplishing this goal, of course assuming that the Legislature fully funds both the program costs and the facility costs. There are also a number of local initiatives, including one in San Mateo County, to march toward universality of early childhood education. But I would argue it’s more than just making sure we serve every student. Only when such early education is core to our public system will schools – all the way through high school and beyond – be truly effective in enabling all students to reach their highest potential and be prepared for success in the 21st century.
Seth Rosenblatt is a member of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, including in both regional and national publications as well as on his own blog.