Friday, April 30, 2021


My kids all went to the same preschool. It was an idyllic sort of place, like an advertisement for suburban parenthood: patient teachers (all women), happy children, lots of different activities, and no schoolwork to speak of. Some of the 4-year-olds did a little reading, but nobody was forced to. I thought it was great, and my kids seemed to like it very much.

But I am not at all convinced that public pre-K is a solution to any national problem, unless you count boredom among 3-year-olds. There was once a lot of evidence that Head Start and similar programs improved later school performance, but it has not replicated very well, and most studies now find that any improvement is gone by the third grade. 

So I have always been ambivalent about liberal proposals for universal pre-K. I don't really oppose it, I mean, my kids liked preschool. But I do not think it is a panacea for our educational problems, or inequality, or anything else I can think of, and I wonder if it is the best way to spend billions of dollars.

One thing I dislike about many of these proposals is that they require 3- and 4-year olds to be in school all day. My kids went for half a day, and I feel certain that was enough time for them to get whatever benefit they got out of it. 

Much of this is about providing a place for kids to go while their parents work. Ok, fine. But this often comes with the idea that if this were provided then more parents would work and the economy would grow. That is an explicit goal of the Biden administration's plan: 

“We want parents to be in the work force, especially mothers,” said Susan Rice, head of the Domestic Policy Council.

Me, I think “making the economy grow” is a bad choice for a general theory of existence. I would prefer the model of just giving parents the money, so they could spend it on preschool or not. If what you want is to improve kids' future school performance, cash works better than preschool:

It turns out that putting money directly into the pockets of low-income parents, as many other countries do, produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than does a year of preschool or participation in Head Start.

Americans are ambivalent about work and parenthood. Some polls show that a majority of Americans still think kids are better off if one parent is at home, and the poorer people are, the more they believe this. It's upper middle class people with "careers" who think both parents should be working. And as long as we are divided about this issue, I think the government should be empowering parents to make these decisions rather than making them for us.


David said...

I wonder if that bit about allowing both parents to work is aimed entirely, or even primarily, at upper middle class people who idolize "career." My instinct is it sounds like a bipartisan gesture. Many Republicans hate, hate, hate the idea of giving people things if the recipients aren't working. Some of this is pure racial dog-whistling, but many Republicans do operate in a sort of Dickensian-villain mode of "Are there no workhouses?" So the Biden admin sounds to me like they're doing a little bipartisan signaling here--which, even if they don't get any actual Republican votes in Congress, is the sort of thing that may serve Biden well with the public.

My impression also is there is some evidence that difficulty finding child care is a contributing factor in keeping poor people from working and, maybe, thereby getting at least a little out of poverty. Personally, I'd be happy to give poor people money, but that's not really in the Overton window right now (yay me, I actually went and looked up what an Overton window is).

This segues to the fact that Covid has made it clear our educational system really is in large part about child storage while adults work. This isn't super-fulfilling for me as an educator, but there it is.

None of this is to say I'm not as skeptical of the "career" ideal as a general social model as it sounds like John is. There are some people it fits like a glove, and more power to them. But I don't think there are that many of them.

G. Verloren said...

"I would prefer the model of just giving parents the money, so they could spend it on preschool or not. If what you want is to improve kids' future school performance, cash works better than preschool"

Well, obviously. But this is America we're talking about, and the political game being played doesn't care about what is sensible or effective. Biden and the Democrats are trying to convince the Republicans to sign off on their proposals, and there are simply some things that the GOP will not tolerate, for insane political reasons.

"Giving cash to parents to improve the lives of their children? The horror! What are you, some kind of ~Socialist~?!? See, America - this is why you can't trust The Liberals! They're godless communists who hate Freedom! Besides, who is going to pay for these cash handouts? For this... shameful ~charity~? Taxes bad! Beware, America! The Democrats want to steal your hard earned money and give it to the undeserving lazy poor! Don't let them! Vote Republican!"

Etc, etc. You know the song and dance.

The point is, we can either water down the assistance for parents and children to a level that the Republicans can tolerate, or they will do their best to ensure that parents and children receive nothing at all. It's absurd, it's amoral, it's using the wellbeing of innocent children as a bartering chip in a sick political game, but it's the reality of our situation.

...of course, if instead of giving money to families the proposal was to give them guns and ammo of equal value, then there'd be no problem whatsoever. Arm toddlers to keep America safe!