Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

Choice Challenged
Universal preschool is a ready remedy for barriers to equity and access
By Rebecca Rylander Kline ’73
Just as medical experiments are halted when a treatment proves so effective that we cannot deprive the control group of its benefits, so should we immediately adopt educational solutions supported by evidence. Among those solutions, confirmed by 40 years of research, is universal access to preschool.

Universal preschool is advocated by groups as disparate as the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the Business Round Table and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis but also by teachers who can distinguish children with preschool experience from those without.

Preschool advocates point to its “cost effectiveness,” citing its positive impact on test scores, high-school graduation rates, median annual earnings and behavior later in life (fewer drug convictions, for example). They also cite brain research that posits critical “windows of opportunity” for cognitive development before age 5. Finally, educators confirm that gaps in reading readiness and social/emotional maturity characterize groups of children who have not attended preschool.

Of course, some preschools are more successful than others. Nonetheless, the evidence supports universal access. I would argue that preschool should be compulsory.

Two obstacles spring to mind. First, the cost is enormous. And despite calling children “our most precious resource,” the real money in this country tends to be spent on anything but their education.

Second, the reigning educational ideology centers on the notion of choice. States and local districts should thus be free to choose to make preschool optional or, perhaps, even to outlaw it. Parents should have the right to choose to keep their children home, perhaps glued to the TV.

The problem with local control and parental choice is that they work against the very raisons d’être of a federal role in education: equity and access. If children’s educational experiences depend substantially on whether they are born in Connecticut or Alabama or on whether they attend school in Abington or Philadelphia, equity is threatened. Of course, those are the breaks—because public schools cannot change many of the influential circumstances of a child’s life.

And some of the effects of such circumstances should not be changed. Differences that do not impede equal opportunity should be maintained, respected and celebrated. But given the striking and persistent disadvantages suffered at school by children battling obstacles such as neglect, poverty or racism, it is incumbent on us as a nation to level the playing field, the earlier in children’s lives, the better.

Public schools are a means for combating the inequities that divide our children from birth. And, although I am a parent and a great admirer of certain other parents, I see the first inequity as one’s fate in being born to a specific mother and father.

Of course, most parents are their children’s best advocates, and a parent’s love is usually of the highest order. But parents simply are not uniformly able or willing to put a child’s best interests first. Some parents, regardless of their means or intentions, are seriously unfit, and to impose on their already disadvantaged children the further injustice of society’s refusal to hold itself accountable for them is unacceptable.

Parents cannot treat all children equitably. Schools can, assuming that we encourage the best and the brightest to become teachers and that we deploy resources to create safe, welcoming and inspiring classrooms.

However, since we have not yet done so, to suggest that schools are ineffective institutions is to mislead parents and the public. Since we have often directed our most talented citizens, either tacitly or overtly, toward careers other than teaching, to suggest that many educators are incompetent is hypocritical. To suggest that parents replace educators, given these realities, is to refuse the burden of accountability by transferring it elsewhere under the guise of providing more choice.

And choice, as Barry Schwartz, a psychologist from Swarthmore College, maintains, is not always a good thing. His research demonstrates that greater choice can result in paralysis: people cannot make decisions because it is too difficult to weigh the options and because they know from past experience that they eventually may regret what they have chosen. Such regret is trivial when selecting jam flavor or car color. It can be overwhelming when deciding about social promotion or preschool for one’s child.

Members of the general public do not control decisions concerning the specifics of infrastructure maintenance or food safety. Citizens do not have the “right” to choose materials for repairing bridges near their homes nor the “freedom” to buy tainted meat. If research has shown a reform such as universal preschool to be an instrument of positive change, let’s not relinquish it in favor of options people cannot exercise in a meaningful way and thus either will ignore or come to regret.

Rebecca Rylander Kline ’73 is a French and Fine Arts graduate with an M.A. from New York University and Ph.D. from Penn State. She joined the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (NECTFL), the nation’s oldest and largest regional association of pre-kindergarten through university language educators, as executive director 10 years ago. She is an adjunct professor in French at Penn State and, occasionally, at Dickinson. Dickinson students regularly work as interns for her at NECTFL.


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