Skip to main content

Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Universal Preschool and the Expectation Divide: It’s Time to Talk!

. . .the best way to improve test scores was to do for all children even more of what we already did for wealthy children–and [recognize] that play was the vehicle for strong intellectual development in the young, regardless of class or race. What was good for the rich was best for the poor too–only more so. 

~Deborah Meier, from In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (p. 142).

Stop, say America’s preschoolers! Universal pre-k (UPK) is essential, but it’s the kind of program children get that’s important, especially children from lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.

Policymakers must do more than simply praise the benefits of UPK. They must study and debate what is quality UPK.

They need early childhood teachers for help. Teachers who work every day with young children are the experts.

Here’s the divide:

  1. Many policymakers and corporate reformers want rigor for disadvantaged students. They believe children need catching up, so they push drills, worksheets, online learning, and strict protocols. They’re also looking to profit from these programs through privatization and the use of social impact bonds.
  2. Early childhood educators want a developmentally appropriate curriculum giving children the freedom to explore. They know all children need free play. They understand early learners shouldn’t get separate programs according to their zip code. All children will thrive in resource-rich environments with teachers who understand this age and development. Through investments in excellent care, young children will grow knowing they’re loved and will succeed.


The first ideology has been the modus operandi for schools, including pre-k, for years. Kindergarten has become the new first grade, and preschool is the portal to pushing children to learn faster so they’ll be kindergarten-ready.

Beware. A recent study shows this kind of preschooling isn’t working.

Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education study followed the progress of a random sample of 2,990 Tennessee students for over a decade.

Data through sixth grade from state education records showed that the children randomly assigned to attend pre-K had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade. A negative effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services, with null effects on retention. The implications of these findings for pre-K policies and practices are discussed.


These findings are different from other studies attributing benefits for children who attend Head Start and other preschool programs, further proof that it might be the kind of preschool a child attends.

Why were the benefits in the Tennessee study negative? Because the study involved public schools, it’s unclear if private preschools are better.

Tennessee is also a conservative state affected for years by corporate school reform. This doesn’t seem to have been considered in the study.

Policymakers have pushed rigor on public education at every level, and teachers have had to follow mandates in their classrooms.

Rigor vs. Play?

Dale Farran, a developmental psychologist and research professor from Vanderbilt, led the study. She notes in The Chalkbeat:

I think the fundamental problem is we don’t need school for 4-year-olds. A lot of higher-income families don’t choose these kinds of academically rigorous programs for their children. They choose programs that involve exploration, or being outdoors. Why is it that we think poor children need more academic instruction?

Farran is right about rigor, but did she consider No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act? Continuous academic drilling in preschool is a curse placed on young children by corporate school reformers.

Even in the article, Farran’s play focus is countered by Steven Barnett, with an economics degree and background studying early childhood programs. He supports standards and high expectations, which have ruled education for years!

He believes the issue is not about academic rigor but about having a coherent approach for helping 4-year-olds develop. Too many children in pre-K spend too much time “waiting to do something or in aimless activities.”

Aimless? Fred Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.” But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

Play is as critical for children from lower-socioeconomic neighborhoods as for their wealthier peers.

When everything young children do is coordinated by adults, they miss the freedom to work out solutions, imagine, recreate, and question. Add academic objectives beyond their reach, it’s easy to see the making of frustrated children who hate school.

Early Childhood Teacher Education

NPR’s Anya Kamenetz interviews Farran in A top researcher says it’s time to rethink our entire approach to preschool. Farran describes factors that might have led to the adverse outcomes found in the study.

She raises questions about teacher preparation. “There have been three very large studies, the latest one in 2018, which are not showing any relationship between quality and licensure.”

If early childhood teachers aren’t getting the necessary preparation, universities need to step up their programs. It’s worrisome to see an insinuation that less child understanding could be better.

It’s also a concern not to question what control teachers have in their classrooms. Many teachers at all levels are leaving because they have little say over what and how they teach! Teachers resent the rigor they must enforce in their early childhood classrooms.

In addition, more university education preparation programs should follow Vanderbilt’s lead and provide specialized early childhood programs.

…students choose either an Early Childhood track, leading to teacher licensure for pre-K through third grade, or an Elementary Education track, leading to teacher licensure for kindergarten through fifth grade.

The Importance of School Buildings

Farran discusses how problematic it is when preschool children have to transition to using the bathrooms down the hall. Quality schools have classrooms with restrooms.

The Biden administration initially promised to improve school buildings but dropped the ball. Here’s an example of how poor school buildings hurt students.

If the goal is to create good universal preschools, make sure there’s funding for good classrooms and school facilities.

Children and Self Regulation

There’s much discussion and a push for self-regulation in young children with social-emotional learning.

How much self-control should adults demand in young children facing classrooms focused on rigor? Is there a connection to the increase in young children suspended from school?

When children must sit on their hands to learn, and the goals are beyond their reach, it’s clear they will be frustrated.

The Goal

UPK  is necessary, and this country should provide it, especially to children from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Policymakers who are proponents of UPK don’t say what they mean by “high quality.” They do need that “larger conversation.”

Without specifics, UPK will fail to be funded, as it has failed in the past, or become a splintered program that only benefits the wealthy.

Education Secretary Cardona and the Biden administration need to call upon the many early childhood educators and researchers, including Farran and Barnett, to better understand what good preschools mean for America’s children. The debate should be fair and inclusive.

It’s time. It was time years ago.

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...