We have a long history in this country of looking to education as a solution for social problems. In a country built by immigrants, a compulsory public education system became the way of making everyone an “American” and building a cohesive allegiance to national ideals and values.
In more recent times, education was thought to be the vehicle by which various social ills could be addressed. During the Johnson years, the “war on poverty” created Headstart, an early childhood program which targeted children who were thought to be “culturally deprived”, a euphemism for families at the low end of the socio-economic ladder. The idea was that unlike in middle class families, such children were not read to by their parents and were not surrounded by books and other educational materials. As a consequence they were behind other children when they started school and kept falling further and further behind.
These days an increased concern with the problem of inequality has put a renewed focus on early childhood experience and education. Research suggests that an effective early-education program can level the playing field for low-income black and Hispanic students relative to their white or wealthier counterparts. Studies show that the best programs can produce effects that reach beyond the early years, increasing the rates of high-school completion and college attendance and reducing the incidence of teenage parenthood, welfare dependence and arrests.
At the same time, the idea that we can deliberately influence the cognitive and social development of very young children is a relatively new one. Biological and social sciences have changed our understanding of early-childhood development and the capacities of infants and toddlers. We have learned that the earliest years are a period of rapid neural development and that a child’s ability to capitalize on these years is directly related to environment.
All of this knowledge has led to an interest in creating curriculum and teaching methods to meet the needs of the youngest learners. What is it that defines an excellent preschool education? Answering this question obviously relates to what the goals are of such an education. As in other such questions, these days the emphasis seems to be on outcomes, or evidence-based results. In other words, what are we trying to accomplish and then, have we accomplished it?
Too often outcomes end up being measured in concrete terms, such as increased I.Q., college attendance, better work or career achievement. Is success to be measured in economic or social results? Both? Do such outcomes require a greater focus on academics in the preschool years? If academic achievement moves to the forefront what does this say about the kind of teachers that will be required for preschool education?
Here we confront the historical reality that preschool teachers along with others involved in the care of children have been at the low end of the pay scale. Those working in programs for low-income children in minority neighborhoods often confront problems similar to those in the population they serve. Ultimately, the preschool experience for children will rest on the quality of the teachers as well as on the physical settings and materials provided.
Clearly, providing quality preschool education requires a significant financial commitment. At the same time, however, it may require a different way of looking at outcomes, which cannot be measured in statistical terms. Perhaps we need to consider a return to the earliest goals of a national compulsory education system, applied to younger ages than before, namely a cohesive allegiance to ideals and values.
Teachers are the one who transmit these values in their interactions with our children. A teacher can make a difference in the way a child feels about school, the way she learns, and most important, the way she feels about learning.