Some might call it Machiavellian the way Mayor Bill de Blasio reached for a higher income tax on the rich to bring Universal Pre-K to the city’s children. Almost nobody believed the governor and legislature would go for that, including me.
It’s clear now that when the mayor walked away with state funding of $300 million instead of a new tax, he wasn’t holding a booby prize. His grin suggested that the amount might be enough to get started on the most ambitious UPK program the U.S. has ever seen. One way to tell that he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat was to listen to the NY Post whine that there’s no proof UPK does children any good later.
You would have to be a total stranger in the land of education to believe that. Anyone who’s watched a three- or four-year-old in a learning moment has seen the way they vacuum up knowledge. Sure, gains children make in good UPK programs can whither away if they don’t go on to a strong kindergarten, first, second and third grade programs. That’s just another reason to lobby for additional education resources for the later grades.
The benefits of UPK are short-term and long-term. According to a report from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “By age three, children with college-educated parents or primary caregivers had vocabularies two to three times larger than those whose parents had not completed high school. By the time these children reach school, they are already behind their peers unless they are engaged in a language-rich environment early in life.” * The aim of UPK, of course, is to provide all children with that environment.
Mathematical skills show gains from UPK that are beyond the short-term. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research published in 2013 concluded that model state pre-school programs boosted math scores for low-income children as late as the eighth grade. The report also linked the pre-k experience with longer-term gains such as college graduation. Pre-k boosts the college graduation rate for children whose parents didn’t attend college from 10 percent to almost 14 percent.
Just for the cuteness factor, I can’t think of anything more fun than observing a pre-k class. If you’re a parent, you also pick up a lot about your child’s needs and learning style and how to create a home environment that sustains what’s happened in the classroom, especially by reading aloud. For someone like me who doesn’t have small children anymore, there’s the gratification of seeing the purest form of learning.
In these classrooms, we can watch a little boy developing his fine motor skills as he learns how to hold a pencil; girls and boys playing with finger paint, clay and sand developing large and small muscles and eye-hand coordination; a little girl honing her spatial skills by navigating the block corner. It might be the most fun to watch these little people refining their social skills, like playing together without causing grievous bodily harm.
You can’t help but leap from here to the social and economic benefits of the pre-K experience. I’ve quoted before from the Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman who’s made a study of pre-k education and concluded that it pays off later in lower social welfare costs, decreased crime rates and increased tax revenue. The National Bureau of Economic Research study found that publicly financed pre-k would reduce the segment of the population that in the long run will live in poverty from almost 36 percent to approximately 29 percent. In addition, the Harvard study maintains that society sees $4 to $9 returns for every dollar invested in early childhood programs. The savings stem from crime-reduction and savings in special education and welfare. The opportunity for early intervention to reduce the effects of developmental delays would be reason alone to advocate for UPK.
Two months ago, I broached this topic in my CSA News’ column as Mayor de Blasio’s crusaded for funding. I cautioned all of us to remember we’ll need the three Qs to make this a success – quality oversight, quality teaching and quality content. The naysayers who mock the value of high-quality UPK are wrong theoretically, but they could be proven right in practice if we scramble to meet deadlines and fill seats. Meeting deadlines and quotas overnight is a short-term way to appease the press. But thoughtful, methodical progress is the only way to serve the needs of families and children.
* The Harvard report from 2014 incorporates numerous scholarly research reports published from 1995 to 2009.
This column is reprinted from the May 2014 CSA News.