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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Re-Envisioning School: Age 3 to Grade 11?

Published:  October 23, 2012

A commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “School at Age 3. No More 12th Grade” has sparked a round of discussion among many of us here at the Early Education Initiative – but not because we necessarily agree with the sentiment.

Written by Linus D. Wright, an education official from the Reagan Administration, the article is part of a series of ideas and opinion pieces in The Chronicle’s College, Reinvented series and has generated dozens of comments from PreK-12 educators and higher ed.  As Wright writes: “State legislators could enact two changes that would bring major long-term academic gains with no additional cost to the taxpayer: mandating full-day education for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and eliminating the 12th grade to free up funds to pay for the additional early-childhood education.”

Starting at age 3 is a cornerstone of the Next Social Contract for the Primary Years of Education, a policy paper that I co-wrote with Sara Mead here at the Early Education Initiative several years ago. As we note, starting public education at age 3 doesn’t – and shouldn’t – look like “school” with rows of desks and pencils at the ready. The vision is one of playful but structured environments where children are invited to explore, create, sing, talk and learn together under the guidance of well-trained teachers.

But it’s the word “mandating” in Wright's piece that has me shaking my head. If there is one lesson that proponents of universal preschool have learned over the past decade, it’s that voluntary universal preschool is what parents and policymakers can embrace. Make preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds easily accessible (both cost-wise and in convenient locations) and ensure it’s of high quality. Make it available for a full day for families that need that option and provide the possibility of additional “wrap-around” childcare for parents whose jobs require an early drop-off or late pickup on some days of the week. But don’t force a full day of preschool on children whose parents have figured out a way to arrange their work schedules so that they can be home with their preschooler for the morning or afternoon for some days of the week.

Yes, the brain science of the past several decades has taught us that there are long-term benefits of children being immersed in a learning environment with skilled, nurturing teachers at ages 3 and 4. And routine and the ability to build a bond with teachers are important. But it’s also important to preserve the possibility of children being able to go home with a parent or grandparent who wants to spend additional time with that child.

Wright deserves credit, however, for trying to tackle one of the most intractable problems in pre-K debates: how are we as a society going to pay for it? (For much more on this question, see The Pre-K Debates: Current Controversies and Issues, a new book that features ideas and discussion from a wide range of national experts on early education.) Eliminating the 12th grade in exchange for preschool is an idea that has come up before, but hasn’t yet stuck, in part, one might argue, because high schools are often begging for more dollars, not less, as they attempt to increase graduation rates.

Looking for places to cut and reallocate limited resources does make sense – and preschool has been shown to provide bang-for-the-buck – but let’s think about financing and reallocation of public funds from outside the education system as well. Other ideas for funding pre-K include social-impact bonds (see ReadyNation’s webinar explaining how one form of this might work), sales taxes (an example is on the ballot in San Antonio, TX this November), re-directing job-training dollars, and conducting a comprehensive overhaul of state budgets to align spending with what it takes to raise an educated citizenry and innovative workforce. Building pre-K into our education pipeline is going to take more than simply siphoning money from one part of the education system to pay for another.

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