There is a tide in the affairs of men, as Shakespeare noted in words spoken by Brutus in “Julius Caesar.” There are issues or needs that receive attention and support at particular times, though previously they were neglected, while matters that once were regarded as urgent have been downgraded in importance.
As an example, it is not possible these days to avoid hearing the gay rights message because it receives top billing in our media, while just about all other issues that might be couched in human rights terms lag far behind in attention. A potent but sad example is the situation of black America. This cause is now at the back of the bus and blacks are like a raisin in the sun.
We now are in the season of advocacy of preschool, referring specifically to the education of children who are four years old. This tide has now come in, thanks in large measure to New York’s Bill de Blasio, who has made preschool his signature issue.
Putting aside critical questions, including the availability of space and competent preschool teachers, as well as where the city will secure the funds to pay for the vast expansion advocated by Mr. de Blasio, we need to ask whether from an educational standpoint the bandwagon for preschool is justified. Are we being sold once more another bill of goods based more on hype, hope and ideology than on a careful examination of whether preschool makes a significant difference down the road in the lives of children who were in a school setting at the age of four?
This question cannot be answered by the observation, correct as it is, that governments always oversell the benefits of the social programs they create and fund. There is an inevitable public relations instinct that when coupled with undue optimism results in a cascade of exaggerated claims. Interestingly, claims of success always precede the establishment of the initiative for which the claim is being made, as if wishing to make it so is of itself confirmation of the fulfillment of the wish.
More than forty years ago, when I was at City Hall on Mayor John V. Lindsay’s staff, there was an announcement of a new housing initiative. The public was told – and the media bought into the message – that the program would result in the creation of 50,000 additional affordable housing units. Considerable effort went into the language of the announcement, as if it could serve as the legitimate surrogate for the program itself. I said as much at the time in a column that was published in this newspaper. My colleagues in the mayor’s office were not pleased.
The housing initiative was launched and it resulted in a fair number of additional affordable apartments, but they were far fewer than the number Mr. Lindsay had claimed when he announced the program.
Mayor de Blasio’s fervid exaggeration of the benefits of preschool should not serve as a reason to reject the concept. The idea may be oversold and yet it may have meaningful value, so that while the benefits are not likely to be as great as its votaries suggest, the expansion of preschool may well result in significant improvement in the children’s subsequent educational experiences and in adulthood. What do we know about the educational/social/behavioral/career impact of preschool?
It turns out we know a great deal because there has been much research and there is a considerable literature on the subject. It also turns out, probably not surprisingly, that there is much debate among experts – I am not sure what the term means – as to whether preschool is as good as it is cracked up to be. In fact, just about everything about education is subject to dispute. There are arguments among educators and researchers about curriculum reform, testing, teacher evaluation, charter schools, discipline and much more, with respected educators and researchers on each side of each issue and with respected educators and researchers on each side saying that those in the opposite camp are cooking the books or just plain mistaken. Why should we expect agreement on the value of preschool?