In a column today about President Obama's proposal for universal preschool, New York Times columnist David Brooks (one of my favorites), offered this endorsement: "It's about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It's about instilling achievement values where they are absent."
Brooks sees the intent, and recognizes that it is good, but his optimism about good habits rubbing off on others seems overly optimistic. Most parents know that it is bad habits that tend to rub off on others. For all their effort at instilling good habits in their children, parents send them off to school or to camp or to other activities and see them come home with bad habits they have acquired from their new-found friends.
As much as I agree with Brooks and others that a good foundation for formal education is absolutely necessary, I am less confident that universal preschool, as it is currently structured, will cure the handicaps many kindergartners carry to their first day of school. As Brooks points out, kindergartners who arrive having never been read to, not knowing how to hold a book, not being exposed to reading material of any kind in the home, are overwhelmingly disadvantaged and are unlikely ever to catch up.
It would be wonderful, even miraculous, if a few hours of preschool exposure to other children, to books, to letters, to numbers, to rules and discipline, to order and organization would conquer the disadvantages they face at home. But the fallacy of preschool expectations and of school-based transformations in general is that preschool or school has their bodies and their minds for only four or six or seven hours a day. And then the students go home to a different environment for 18 or 20 hours a day. And that home environment might involve a lack of adult supervision, an underage mother struggling with finances and child discipline and boyfriends and her own lack of education. Some children tell stories of raucous visitors to their homes until 1 or 2 in the morning, of violence and drug use and worse.
Preschool, no matter how effective, is not going to overcome that kind of background. The largest flaw in American public education is the home students come from before they ever get to school. Until government can find a way to instill greater responsibility in irresponsible parents, greater respect for education (and teachers) in parents who disliked their own schooling, less reliance on fortune and entitlements, and greater appreciation for the value of personal initiative, disadvantaged students will remain disadvantaged. Universal preschool might salvage a fortunate few but not nearly all of an endangered generation.