President Obama has sparked a fresh debate in the US over how to advance parenting practices and lift the quality of preschool – pledging about $10 billion in new funding. While the US still lags behind much of Europe in terms of organized programs for young children, our debate speaks to global themes:

  1. how government actors conceive of “right ways” of raising young children,
  2. how pluralistic societies struggle with varying forms of child socialization and learning, and
  3. what’s the central state’s role vis-à-vis community organizations which have long pioneered and run innovative – yet sometimes low-quality – programs.

 

The word “systems” has become omnipresent in policy discussions over early childhood in OECD countries and the US. Central governments – until recently – have been eager to rationalize institutions, from postal services to the public schools. So, it’s predictable that extend preschool down from kindergarten, or creating a national pre-kindergarten system would somehow feel progressive politically.

 

But in the U.S. context, the pushback on systematizing early childhood programs has come from the political Right and Left in recent years. Our nation’s 130,000 preschools or child-care centers were created historically by grassroots community groups, not school authorities.

 

Even the federal Head Start program is run through contracts with local agencies. So, handing over this sector to school authorities raises concerns over homogenizing programs, regardless of our society’s colorful diversity. With the press on to raise test scores, some evidence shows how preschool classrooms reorient their activities to “drill and kill” preliteracy skills. How teacher unions might alter the community spirit of preschools also worries some.

Mr. Obama has already pumped another $3 billion into Head Start and Early Head Start, a smaller national program that focuses on prenatal care and improving parenting practices. The latter focus is now being expanded under Mr. Obama’s massive health-care reforms, which includes a new, larger home-visiting program to enrich parenting. So, the Obama Administration is favoring organizational diversity at the grassroots, with some tighter accountability for results, not handing-off the sector to school authorities.

 

Part of this debate focuses on how parents and government actors tacitly or explicitly hope to raise young children. As central governments struggle to show voters tangible results – school accountability and the focus on test scores has intensified in the US and much of Europe. In turn, early childhood programs are pushed to get kids ready for school, meaning instructing the basic elements of oral and written language. This might be sound political strategy, but how do different groups of parents view this focus? Is this what they want to emphasize in the upbringing of their young children?

 

In some states, like California and Texas, about one half of all births are to parents of Latino descent, many of whom speak Spanish at home. This creates a new generation of questions around how government defines “good parenting practices” for home interventions, or what language should be dominant inside preschool classrooms? As in Europe, the U.S. aims to integrate children of immigrants into good schools and good jobs. But how to do that without carelessly eroding the cultural and familial bedrock of children? How do we define preschool quality in ways that offer politicians attractive proposals and speak to the diversity of families being served?

 

Mediocre results from high-visibility programs – like Head Start – create new challenges for government. Results out in January showed that a small gain for graduates of Head Start preschool observed earlier in kindergarten essentially disappears by first grade. This occurs in part because children in the control group (in this experimental study) found their way into quality preschools outside Head Start. Still these findings are disappointing for the Head Start program, which costs taxpayers about $8 billion annually.

 

Together, these issues prompt new questions for the central state. Certainly government must find ways of distributing public resources to young children for whom the benefits are well documented: offspring of low-income parents. But how do policy leaders mindfully help local ethnic and linguistic communities advance their own socialization goals, so as not to undercut the authority of parents inside already fractured neighborhoods? How does the state nurture a panoply of responsive programs across a kaleidoscopic array of families? And how within a diverse array of local organizations, does government lift quality to improve child development?

 

These are the pressing issues being debated in the USA more determined dialogue with OECD countries would benefit all societies.

 

Bruce Fuller
Professor, Education and Public Policy
University of California, Berkeley
Author, Standardized Childhood (Stanford University Press)