President Barack Obama's pitch for preschool offers great hope for America's young families. Irresistible are the ideals and science that underlie his ambitious proposal.
Yet the president's push to seed and nourish more preschools may inadvertently stunt children's learning even shrink our aspirations for how youngsters blossom as the grinding mechanics of testing and accountability now percolate down into the rainbow room.
Obama vests great faith in the nation's governors to innovate and elevate the quality of early education. He pulls from the playbook of President George H.W. Bush, who in 1990 sent lightly regulated block grants out to the states, which took baby steps to expand and enrich preschool options.
But most governors have grown eager to show crisp results from their school-reform efforts. So, education officials once broadly dedicated to the cognitive, social and health facets of children's early growth now hammer on pre-literacy skills, aligning what's drilled in preschool with what's soon to be tested. Other vital dimensions of development, not easily measured, hold diminishing utility for state politicians and school officials.
The root problem facing California families is twofold. Our stock of preschools lacks space for thousands of children. Just half the state's quarter-million 4-year-olds of Latino descent, for instance, can find a seat. And few children, whether poor or middle-class, attend preschools that pack a punch, as tepid gains in learning quickly disappear.
Obama's initiative won't remedy California's problems until the White House and state leaders face three shortcomings.
Hearts and minds. The gaggle of inner-city kids quizzically pondered a white couple playing tennis, as pictured in the federal testing manual, during my visit to an Oklahoma Head Start center, a state cited by Obama as leading the nation in early learning. Washington was judging their performance by whether these 4-year-olds could name the sports equipment for a game they had never seen.
Yes, government must lift the quality of Head Start preschools, the fabulously popular yet barely effective $8 billion-a-year program. But how Obama aims to extend these mechanics of accountability borrowed from No Child Left Behind goes against what science tells us about how young children learn. From birth, these robust creatures are wired to inquire, to test out materials and craft friendships with peers.
Sitting kids in rows to chant phonemes and numbers, which I also saw in Tulsa, subverts their underlying curiosity, that burning drive to explore. Yet Washington officials last month announced $9 million for states that commit to standardized tests for kindergartners, which must be "aligned with K-3 academic content standards."
Even hard-nosed economists now trumpet the importance of social agility in school and later at work, what they call "noncognitive skills." But the regulatory habits of bureaucracy rarely nurture kids' intrinsic motivation or cooperative skills, opting to monitor narrow slices of preschoolers' minds rather than the openness of their hearts.
Entitlements or equity. Obama would give governors incentives to subsidize better-off families, given the high cost of preschool. The politics are seductive. Yet almost 70 percent of California's white 4-year-olds already attend preschool, along with two-thirds of blacks, given Sacramento's success in widening access since the 1960s.
Policymakers should stay focused on equalizing preschool access for poor children to deepen everyone's stake in society rather than pursuing universal financing for all, which would simply reinforce achievement gaps. California voters soundly rejected Hollywood activist Rob Reiner's bid in 2006 to regressively subsidize all families, even those who could afford to pay.
Strengthen neighborhood preschools. Obama's plan would favor new programs situated in education bureaucracies, as he inserts new funding into Sacramento politics. Why has Gov. Jerry Brown slashed 30,000 preschool slots most rooted in local nonprofits while protecting K-12 spending? Or, consider how nonprofits were excluded from California's new year of transitional kindergarten, a move pushed by dominant education lobbies.
A diverse array of preschools is required to serve the state's kaleidoscopic variety of kids. Among kids attending preschool, two-thirds eagerly zoom into a neighborhood church or community center each morning, the very organizations in which Obama began his career. But now his push to fuse preschool to K-12 testing regimes threatens to squeeze out nonprofit programs.
Asked to draw a submarine, one Bay Area preschooler pulled out a brown crayon and with furrowed brow carefully drew a torpedo-shaped sandwich. Little Luisa knew more about fast food in her daily setting than about submersible ships.
Educators have long nudged youngsters like Luisa to discover words and ideas that animate life outside their everyday contexts. But drilling young children with facts or dogma will dampen their vital drive to explore, to thrive on social connections. Aligning preschool to the state's bland regimen of accountability is not the answer. It will render the rainbow room less inviting, as government paints it a pallid gray.