Early Childhood Education: An American paradox

Forest Hills elementary school kindergarten students walk to class on the first day of school in Sidman, Pa., on Monday, Aug. 22, 2016. (Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat via AP)

Adults often describe children as invaluable, as their “pride and joy” or “the future of this nation.” Many parents would sacrifice anything for their children to ensure that they have bright futures, especially young children, for whom development is crucial. Now, allow me to introduce you to one of the great American paradoxes: The United States spends less per student on pre-primary education than it does for primary or secondary education, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

For the U.S., it is not simply a question of expenditure, but a question of focus, and it is clear that the emphasis is not placed on early childhood education, despite the fact that this is one of the most rapid stages of development in children. According to UNICEF, this is when children begin to learn language quickly, ask questions, enjoy social interactions with friends and become more independent and imaginative. Yet not every child in the U.S. has access to preschool during these crucial years from age three to five. In fact, only 51 percent of three-year-olds and 69 percent of four-year-olds were enrolled in early childhood education in the U.S. in 2012, according to the OECD. This ranks the U.S. as 25th out of 36 countries for three-year-olds and 28th out of 38 countries for four-year-olds, placing it well below the OECD average.

The results of this shortcoming are clear: children who do not have access to preschool education will likely not perform as well as children who do, even much later in life. A HighScope study performed on Perry Preschool studied the lives of 123 children over the course of 40 years. Some of the children had access to high quality preschool while the others attended no preschool program. The study concluded that those who attended preschool were 39 percent more likely to score an IQ over 90 at age five, 17 percent more likely to graduate high school and 20 percent more likely to earn over $20,000 by age 40. On the other hand, students without preschool were 19 percent more likely to be arrested five or more times by age 40.

The question now lies with what can be done about this issue. One of the most significant factors in preschool attendance is affordability, which is why poorer families often struggle to send their children to preschool. However, the United Kingdom has addressed this problem by giving all children access to universal preschool paid for by the British government. Since 2010, every child age three or four has the right to 15 hours of free childcare or preschool each week for 38 weeks of the year, according to a report from The Atlantic. This total of 570 hours of early childhood education, which is available to children of all socioeconomic backgrounds, could serve as a possible model for the U.S. While the British system may be more of a treatment than a cure, as some families can afford to send their families to private programs for a longer duration of time, it does more of a service to its children that its American counterparts.

This is not to say that there is no program for free public preschool in the U.S. Currently, a program known as Head Start provides early childhood education to families below the federal poverty limit, which is $24,300 for a family of four, according to a report from The Atlantic. However, only 41 percent of the children in this bracket have been served by Head Start. Additionally, families whose incomes fall just above the poverty limit but are still not sufficient to afford preschool are not served by the program. These families would be best served by a universal preschool program.

It is understandable that there is concern regarding the funding that such a program would require. Right now, however, the U.S. needs to look not at additional resources, but at a reallocation of resources. Throughout the recent election, focus has been placed upon the merits of free public universities, and attention has traditionally been directed toward how to improve students’ performance in secondary school. To truly address the problem, however, the focus must be directed toward the roots, when education can have the greatest effect on development.


Alex Oliveira is a staff writer for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.