Jewish World Review April 22, 2004 / 1 Iyar, 5764

Joanne Jacobs

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Consumer Reports

The false promise of universal pre-school | Universal, free pre-school for all four-year-olds. Sounds great, especially if you're a working parent shelling out thousands of dollars a year for private pre-school and child care. Let the state pay for it!

But most middle-class children don't need pre-school to reach their full potential. Poor children need a lot more — high-quality, high-cost, full-day child care starting well before the age of four.

Californians want state-funded pre-school, concluded a survey by First 5 California, the state commission created in 1998 by Proposition 10 (the cigarette tax surcharge) to fund health and education programs for young children. Sixty percent of those surveyed supported universal (but voluntary) pre-school for four-year-olds. Not surprisingly, 83 percent of parents of young children say they'd enroll their child in a free pre-school.

Currently, 14 percent of California's four-year-olds attend state-funded pre-kindergarten aimed at disadvantaged children. In 2002-03, the state spent $3,143 per child on the half-day program. Yet the quality is poor, says a report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). California met only three of NIEER's 10 quality standards.

Nationwide, only a few states offer an adequate program for disadvantaged children, says the group. Only Georgia and Oklahoma try to offer universal preschool. Serving all four-year-olds with California's current low-quality model would cost an estimated $2 billion a year. Inevitably, universal preschool will not live up to advocates' promises.

Advocates claim that pre-school pays off in higher graduation and employment rates, lower rates of welfare dependence and crime. Often they claim Head Start saves $6 or $7 for every dollar spent. This is based on the Perry Preschool Project, which offered far more services than Head Start. Among other things, Perry included home visits to help mothers with parenting problems. The project also hired and trained some of the mothers as preschool aides; their children made the most gains.

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Sadly, Head Start's benefits disappear a few years after the child starts school. Head Start isn't intensive enough or academic enough to make a significant difference for children from very deprived backgrounds.

By the age of three, poor children are way behind middle-class children in language skills. In Kansas City, researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley recorded the words spoken in the homes of professional, working-class and welfare families with children from birth to age 3. They wanted to know why their pre-school program had failed to close the language gap between poor and middle-class children.

In professional families, 11- to-18-month-old children heard twice as much language as welfare children. By the age of three, children in professional families averaged a vocabulary of 1,116 words and spoke 310 "utterances" per hour; working class children had 749-word vocabularies and 223 utterances. Welfare children knew only 525 words and averaged 168 utterances. The middle-class three-year-olds had larger working vocabularies than the welfare mothers. In professional and working-class families, children heard mostly encouraging words; welfare children overwhelmingly heard negative feedback or "don't do that."

In their 1995 book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, Hart and Risley write: "Just to provide an average welfare child with an amount of weekly language experience equal to that of an average working-class child would require 41 hours per week of out-of-home experience as rich in words addressed to the child as that in an average professional home." The Abcedarian experiment in North Carolina tried to do that. Children from poor families were placed as infants in full-time day care. Teachers had college degrees; aides were trained in child development. Each child was "prescribed" educational activities, generally in the form of games, to develop social, emotional, language and thinking skills.

As young adults, Abcedarian grads showed significant gains in education and employment compared to children from similar backgrounds. They did not catch up with middle-class children. An Abecedarian program would cost about $13,000 per child, double the cost of a year of Head Start and four times more than the average state-run preschool program.

The alternative is to work directly with disadvantaged parents, teaching them how to help their children develop language and social skills. Most could do more if they knew what to do. But it's not easy to change parenting habits learned at mother's knee, so to speak. And most low-income single mothers are now in the workforce; their children will be in some form of non-maternal care.

Children of mothers who've moved from welfare to work show significant gains in language, intelligence and school readiness skills if they attend high-quality child-care centers, says a newly published study led by Susanna Loeb, an assistant education professor at Stanford. The better educated the center teachers, the better the children did.

The study was conducted in San Jose, San Francisco and Tampa with children who averaged two years old in 1998 and four in 2000. Those in day-care centers were compared with children cared for by relatives or by family day-care providers. Center care showed a clear advantage, with no increase in behavior problems.

Universal pre-school will suck up the money that could be used to provide quality child care and pre-school for the kids who will fail without it. By trying to offer something for everyone, the proposal ensures there will be unneeded services for most children, inadequate services for disadvantaged children and a huge bill for a state that's trying to balance the budget without taxing away businesses.

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JWR contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, blogs daily at She is currently finishing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. Comment by clicking here.

04/19/04: College craziness; diversity of the affluent; downgrading Princeton
04/11/04: Math instruction doesn't add up
04/05/04: Companies outsource for better workers, study says; nothing succeeds like failure; suspending everyone
04/01/04: Average pay gets average teachers; failing teachers; fake Master's
03/15/04: Translating Shakespeare, the Princess and the 'B'
03/08/04: School sued for saving lives; teachers protest students; saive oure skules; graduate yourself; jumping for Darwin
03/01/04: No Drugs? No problem; double standard; control
02/23/04: Over-Praised New Yorkers; Under-Educated Hawaiians; Mothers and Nannies
02/17/04: Under the skin; don't call them 'gifties'; a piece of sheepskin; parent participation — or else
02/09/04: The Limits of Discovery Learning; science lite; not just a buzzword; fish, unfried
02/02/04: Flight from excellence; the look that screams; show them the money
01/26/04: It's the Parents, Stupid
01/20/04: High School Blahs, Naked Math, Boys in Trouble
12/22/03: Saving the teacher, skipping a grade, paying for AP tests, laptops don't boost scores
12/15/03: Missing Columbine; tuned out; kindergarten kamikazes; Suffer the Little Children; ungot greats; dangerous rhymes
12/08/03: Desensitizing students to f-word; Like a Rock; Unmannered; Cool Christians on Campus
11/24/03: Integrating lunch; peewee athletes; The Promise
11/17/03: School Principals Gone Wild; School vs. Bloggers; A Is For Absent
11/10/03: Feeling history; no-sided history; passing on a record; winning respect; bright flight
11/03/03: Super Pay for Super Teachers?; ‘Failing’ Teachers; Dissect the Bunny; Yuck
10/27/03: Parent, teachers, parents as teachers; cramming in education; out of control
10/21/03: Go, Samaritan; 2 + 2 = ?; Majoring in Middle-class Status
10/14/03: To Gag a Mockingbird; saying 'hate' is hate speech; protest school
10/08/03: No Homework Overload; Self-centered Social Studies; The Boy Code; Codswallop; College 101: Don't Jump Out of Your Bunk Bed
09/29/03: Flunking mom; classroom classics; ritalin gag rule; lousy children
09/22/03: Order, disorder
09/08/03: No Child Left Behind: A Primer
08/29/03: The Decline and Fall of Social Studies
08/18/03: F is for valedictorian
08/14/03: Start-up success
08/11/03: Subliterate Superintendent
08/04/03: Alternative High School
07/28/03: Out of the System
07/21/03: Too Snobby for Shop
07/14/03: Be very afraid
07/09/03: Know-nothing nonsense
06/30/03: Affirmative action reactions
06/23/03: Overdressed Students, Underdressed Teachers, Dressed-down Exams
06/16/03: Paper 'Is-ness,' Excluding Awards, New Racial Consciousness and Politics
06/09/03: Racist math, red tape for charters, potty reading
06/02/03: Teacher Pay, Illiteracy , No Republicans Allowed
05/27/03: Research papers, athletics, reading
05/19/03: Soft America, plagiarism, Minutemen and Jets
05/12/03: Demographics, nerves, valedictorian, vouchers
05/05/03: Gender Bias, Banned Words, Helen of Troy
04/28/03: Tests, home-schooling, self-esteem
04/25/03: Lessons, American Pride, Iraqi Schools
04/14/03: Iraqi Textbooks and the English language
03/31/03:Teachers, hugging, text messaging
04/07/03: War talk at school
03/24/03: Watching the war
03/10/03: Classroom chaos
03/03/03: Teaching tales
02/24/03: Segregation stories
02/18/03: Writing Essays, America, Beyond Bert and Ernie
02/13/03: Size matters
02/10/03: Parental homework, cheaters and memoirs
02/03/03: Diplomas, academics, preschools and Ritalin
01/27/03: Head Start, Social Studies, Marx, Africa and Math
01/22/03: Teachers as targets
01/13/03: Big Bully's Feelings
01/06/03: School of 60's Whining and Communal Destruction
12/23/02: Teaching in
12/16/02: Chocolate city?
12/10/02: Mandatory Victimhood --- and when cleaning up a school is 'racist'
11/25/02: Multi-colored math, sensitive science
11/20/02: How to leave no child behind
11/18/02: The tummy track
11/11/02: Dysfunctional documents?
11/04/02: Why go to college? Why test schools?
10/28/02: Pride goeth before an F
10/21/02: Diversity adversity
10/14/02: Bad hat day
10/07/02: Inflated sense of worth
09/30/02: The Royal road to knowledge
09/24/02: Sierra's Club
09/20/02: Stupidity Watch
09/03/02: First, win the war
08/26/02: Out of their field, out of their minds?
08/20/02: Fun with failure

© 2003, Joanne Jacobs