Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 9/9.2.2

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Early intervention: Is pre-k the answer?
By: C Johnson
Learning Targets
  1. The reader will be able to identify the federal government's position on pre-k.
  2. The reader will be able to identify two early intervention initiatives besides pre-K, aimed at helping children come to school ready to learn.
  3. The reader will be able to identify one government funded preschool program.


The Question[edit]

Early intervention: Is pre-k the answer? what?

What is meant by early intervention?

To understand these questions, we need to go back over 40 years when, as part of the War on Poverty, President Johnson created Head Start, the first federally funded pre-school program for low-income children (Center for Public Education, 2007). There was a recognition at both the federal and state levels that children from low socioeconomic status (SES) families were starting out behind and were unable to catch up with their peers from higher SES families. Head Start was our nation's first effort to try to prepare disadvantaged children for school.

Fast forward 20 years to the 1985-1986 National Governors Association. This organization was made up of the 50 U.S. governors and education was the most important issue on their agenda. Many states were also investing in pre-school programs, to reach the children that Head Start wasn't serving, but they knew more was needed.

"...we were all faced with the same issues. Our States were behind; the world was changing, and we needed a better education system, particularly at the elementary and secondary level. So that by 1983, when the report of the U.S. Department of Education, called "A Nation at Risk," came out saying we were greatly at risk because of the mediocrity of the education system, it was into that environment that it came." (United States Senate, 2004, p.1)

With the election of President George H. Bush in 1989, the first president to declare himself to be an education president, the governors had an ear at the federal level. All 50 governors met with Bush at the Education Summit Conference in Virginia, and outlined what was to become the Education Goals for 2000. These six goals captured the concerns of Bush and the governors:

  1. All children in America will start school ready to learn.
  2. High school graduates will increase to 90 percent.
  3. American students will leave the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades having demonstrated competency in math, science, English, history, and geography
  4. America would be first in the world in math and science.
  5. Adult Americans would be literate.
  6. Every school would be free of drugs and violence.

(United States Senate, 2004, p.1)

The goals were broad and far-reaching. There was a lot of work to do and only ten years to accomplish it all. The National Education Goals Panel (NEGP) was formed to outline the plan. The first goal on the agenda was "all children in America will start school ready to learn". What does ready to learn mean? NEGP provided an answer in their Ready Schools report.

"....prevailing view today, endorsed by the National Education Goals Panel, is that readiness to learn hinges on a range of factors, including a child’s health and physical development; social and emotional development; approaches to learning; language and communicative skills; and cognition and general knowledge. Efforts to improve school readiness, therefore, begin long before children enroll in kindergarten. They begin with efforts to support families, educate parents, expand access to health care, and raise the quality of early care and education. Getting all children to start—and continue—school “ready to learn” is a shared responsibility of all adults and institutions in a community (NEGP, 1998, p 3)."

The Real Question

Does pre-k help children arrive at school "ready to learn"?

Their definition outlines several areas of focus for readiness, including raising the quality of early care and education. So whose responsibility is it to provide the early care and education for children? Shouldn't the parents be providing that? The NEGP states that we all share responsibility. This is where the question what is early intervention? is answered. As a nation, it is incumbent upon us to intervene on the behalf of children in families that do not have the resources to provide quality care and education. It is also where the question Is pre-k the answer? becomes relevant. Does pre-k raise the quality of early education, and help ensure that children arrive at school ready to learn?

It's important to understand that the goal ready to learn is just that, a goal. The NEGP, armed with the definition of readiness to learn, outlined their plan for ensuring that children are ready to learn. The plan was presented in the form of objectives. In Ready Schools the NEGP outlined three objectives aimed at achieving the first goal of the Education Goals of 2000.

Goal 1: Ready to Learn

By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn.


  1. All children will have access to high-quality and developmentally appropriate preschool programs that help prepare children for school.
  2. Every parent in the United States will be a child’s first teacher and devote time each day to helping such parent’s preschool child learn, and parents will have access to the training and support parents need.
  3. Children will receive the nutrition, physical activity experiences, and health care needed to arrive at school with healthy minds and bodies, and to maintain the mental alertness necessary to be prepared to learn, and the number of low-birthweight babies will be significantly reduced through enhanced prenatal health systems.

(NEGP, 1998, p. 1)

The NEGP Answer[edit]

Objective 1:

All children will have access to high-quality and developmentally appropriate preschool programs that help prepare children for school.

With the objectives outlined by the NEGP, it is clear that pre-k is considered to be part of the answer. That was then, this is now. Where are we on the issue today?

Fortunately, Governor Bill Clinton was one of the leads at the Education Summit in Virginia, and when he was elected President in 1993, he kept focus on the original plan. Despite the efforts of two administrations however, it was still unclear as of December 1999, whether our children were coming to school ready to learn.

"The Goals Panel does not yet have direct data regarding children’s readiness for school. A major new study from the National Center for Educational Statistics, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, however, promises to provide the kind of new data the panel has sought.(NEGP, 1999, p.10)."

For more information on NCLB, please see the articles in Chapter 4 – Education Reform, Article 4.5 “NCLB: Cure or Curse”.

In 2001, the administration changed once again and President George W. Bush continued to hold education as a national priority, implementing his program "No Child Left Behind (NCLB)".

More importantly, as it relates to the question of pre-k, Bush implemented Good Start, Grow Smart (GSGS Interagency Workgroup, 2006) (click here to read about GSGS)[1], his program aimed at ensuring that children enter school ready to learn. GSGS outlines the Federal Early Learning Initiatives and the children they serve. Review the table on page 5 to see how the federal funds are being used to provide preschool programs through local agencies.

Through programs like Head-Start, Early Head-Start, the Child Care Development Fund, Title 1 Preschool, and Special Education grants, the federal government is providing early intervention through direct funding of preschool programs. In addition, states are funding an additional combined total of $2 billion dollars for pre-k programs today (Center for Public Education, 2007).

Is pre-k working?

Whether federally or state funded, there is accountability for the dollars being spent on pre-k. Are the eligibility requirements for the government programs reaching all children in need? Are the programs staffed with qualified teachers? Do they have quality learning programs? Is pre-k working? Many believe that pre-k can make a difference in a child's readiness for school, but it depends on many factors.

Data is difficult to gather and interpret. The variety of programs (length of day, quality of staff, type of program) directly affects the outcomes (Gormely, Gayer, Phillips & Dawson, 2005). "Evidence on Head Start remains controversial, although carefully designed studies have documented positive effects on children's early learning" (Gormley et al., 2005, p. 872). Gormley's (2005) article also reports positive results on the school readiness of children who attended the universal pre-k program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Based upon data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 (ECLS-K), referenced in the National Education Goals, Lessons Learned, Challenges Ahead report (NEGP, 1999), "...results suggest that the greatest potential return to public investments in early education may be obtained by increasing disadvantaged children's enrollment in prekindergarten and by expanding programs located in local public schools" (Magnuson, Ruhm, & Waldfogel, 2007, p. 49).

But what are the long term benefits of being 'ready for school'? Is the investment in pre-k reducing other costs associated with poverty such as drop-outs, welfare and internment? It takes decades to trace long-term effects, and there are many factors that influence those outcomes. It is difficult to isolate pre-k as a variable. However, one frequently cited study, the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project provided some impressive results. In the chart from the Center for Public Education below, both short-term and long-term differences were recorded.


Center for Public Education (2007)

Consider This[edit]

Early intervention: how early is "early"?

Do you remember when....?

...kindergarten was where children got ready for school. Up until the late 1960s, kindergarten was the first time most children were in a group setting with a teacher, learning about the alphabet, colors, sharing and caring. Now, many children are learning what they need to know before they get to kindergarten. With the increased number of two-income families, many children are getting a 'head-start' on kindergarten, in quality daycare and private pre-school progams. Childcare centers like Kindercare, founded in 1969, provide early learning programs. Kindergarten is no longer the first 'school' experience for a much larger population of children. Socially and academically, children who have been in a quality program are more advanced and are ready to learn by the time they go to kindergarten. Children who are economically disadvantaged and don't participate in these programs are already behind by the time they get to kindergarten.

The conundrum

Kindergarten was supposed to prepare children for school. But now Kindergarten is considered school. If pre-k becomes school-based, will it become part of school? Do you then need to ensure that children enter school ready for pre-k?

"Obama's Agenda"

With the inauguration of President Obama, we now have our 4th consecutive president with education, early education in particular, on the agenda. His "Zero to Five" plan is more far reaching than his predecessors, and supports voluntary, universal pre-school. This translates to a school-based pre-k program, implemented at the individual state level, like the one in Oklahoma. In addition, his plan includes increased funding for younger children (Early Head Start), and quality child care, to address the needs of children from birth.

Early Childhood Education

Zero to Five Plan: The Obama-Biden comprehensive "Zero to Five" plan will provide critical support to young children and their parents. Unlike other early childhood education plans, the Obama-Biden plan places key emphasis at early care and education for infants, which is essential for children to be ready to enter kindergarten. Obama and Biden will create Early Learning Challenge Grants to promote state Zero to Five efforts and help states move toward voluntary, universal pre-school.

Expand Early Head Start and Head Start: Obama and Biden will quadruple Early Head Start, increase Head Start funding, and improve quality for both.

Provide affordable, High-Quality Child Care: Obama and Biden will also increase access to affordable and high-quality child care to ease the burden on working families. (White House, nd)


There is no "silver bullet". While the question of pre-k focuses on children's readiness to learn when they start kindergarten, children at every grade level come to school everyday with backpacks full of physical, medical, emotional and financial issues that impact their readiness to learn. It is a complex issue and while there is evidence that pre-k makes a difference, that evidence is qualified by statements about the kind of program, the quality of staff and other factors.

Better pre-natal care, early parenting intervention, better health care for children. All these things contribute to a child's readiness to learn as well. What is the best allocation of funds? As a future teacher, specifically a future kindergarten teacher, I am personally encouraged by the fact that Obama's agenda includes plans for voluntary universal pre-k.

As voters and taxpayers, however, we are all participants in answering this question. I hope this article has increased your understanding of this issue and it's history and helps you make a more informed decision on: Early intervention: Is pre-k the answer?

Q & A[edit]

1. Which President created Head Start?

a. President Johnson

b. President George H. Bush

c. President Clinton

d. President George W. Bush

2. Which President established the goal that "all children in America will start school ready to learn"?

a. President Johnson

b. President George H. Bush

c. President Clinton

d. President George W. Bush

3. How does Obama's proposal for voluntary, universal pre-school expand the original implementation of ready to learn

a. It reduces the variability in pre-kindergarten implementations.

b. Early intervention has changed to early education.

c. It moves pre-k into the public school system.

d. All of the above.

4. What significant factor is the most difficult to implement in the ready to learn objectives?

a. Ensuring that all children receive recommended immunizations.

b. Ensuring that all children have breakfast before school.

c. Ensuring that all parents support their children by reading to them at home.

d. Ensuring that all children have access to quality pre-k opportunities.

5. Why is pre-k only one of the objectives of the ready to learn education goal?

a. Pre-k results are hard to measure, so other more easily measurable objectives were added in order that progress could be shown.

b. To justify continued federal funding for Head-Start programs.

c. Readiness to learn is impacted by health, emotional and physical development factors that aren't addressed by pre-k.

d. All of the above.


1. (a) President Johnson

2. (b) President George H. Bush

3. (d) All of the above

4. (c) Ensuring that all parents support their children by reading to them at home.

5. (c) Readiness to learn is impacted by health and development, both emotional and physical, factors that aren't directly addressed by pre-k.


Center For Public Education (2007), Pre-K: What the research shows. Accessed February 5, 2009 from Pre-k, Research Review @ The Center for Public Education website at

Gormley, W., Gayer T., Phillips D., & Dawson, B. (2005). The effects of universal pre-k on cognitive development. Developmental Psychology 41(6), 872-884

GSGS Interagency Workgroup: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education (2006) Good Start, Grow Smart: A guide to Good Start, Grow Smart and other Federal Early Learning Initiatives. Retrieved February 3, 2009 from

Magnuson, K., Ruhm, C., & Waldfogel, J. (2007). Does prekindergarten improve school preparation and performance? Economics of Education Review, v26(1), 33-51.

National Education Goals Panel (NEGP) (1998) Ready Schools. Retrieved February 4, 2009 from

National Education Goals Panel (NEGP)(1999). National Education Goals, Lessons Learned, Challenges Ahead. Retrieved February 2, 2009 from

United States Senate (2004) 1989 EDUCATION SUMMIT, The United States Senate, Nov 18, 2004, Section 14. Accessed February 3, 2008 from Congressional Records @ GOVTRACK.US at

White House, President Barack Obama,(nd) The Agenda, Education. Accessed February 5, 2009 from the Agenda @ The Whitehouse website at

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