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Success of universal preschool plan depends on quality

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on March 14, 2013)

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed a sweeping expansion of preschool to include 4-year-olds. Obama wants the federal government to partner with states to provide funding and access to preschool programs for children from families with incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.

Many educators believe providing a quality early childhood education offers the best chance to help students who come from low-income families make up the gap between themselves and more advantaged students. Children who start behind their peers in language and math skills tend to stay behind.

Under the president’s plan, the U.S. Department of Education would allocate money to the states, which would, in turn, distribute funds to school districts and other providers. Programs would be required to meet standards for quality and would have to pay teachers salaries comparable to those of K-12 teachers.

Critics argue that the long-term benefits of preschool remain unproven and that preschool programs have no lasting effects. This debate has played out in our own state over Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program and the question of whether to expand it.

On Monday, the Peabody Research Institute will host a panel discussion with experts from Rutgers University, Teachers College and the Brookings Institution who will discuss the benefits of early intervention programs for children in poverty and their sustainability over children’s educational lives.

The colloquium will be 2 to 4 p.m. in Room 237 of the Vanderbilt Commons Center and is open to the public.

One of the scheduled panelists is W. Steve Barnett, who has just released a report, “Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K and the President’s Pre-K Proposal.” Barnett directs the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers.

Barnett surveys decades of research on pre-K programs in the U.S. and abroad and concludes, “Large-scale public programs have succeeded in producing meaningful long-term gains for children and not just disadvantaged children.” But he also points out that the size of the gains depends on program quality.

Peabody professor Dale Farran has long studied the question of what makes a high-quality preschool curriculum. According to Dale, the most successful programs should emphasize developing language skills and building vocabulary. Instruction in mathematics is also important and should go beyond just counting to include mathematical reasoning.

To teach children this young most effectively, instruction should occur mostly in small groups of about four to six children. Classroom activity centers that allow children to work independently help them build concentration, but Dale cautions that some center materials may need teachers to show how to use them. The classroom environment should be one that warmly welcomes and facilitates exploration in young children, providing them a safe opportunity to learn to be learners.

As with any schooling, the crucial ingredient comes down to teacher quality.

If the president truly wants to improve the educational achievement of young children, then preschool teachers, like other teachers, should have at least a bachelor’s degree and a thorough knowledge of early childhood development.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.