Nursery education


“WHAT part of the book is this?” asks the teacher, pointing to the binding. Twenty children of three and four answer: “The spine!” The instructor then asks, “Where is your spine?” and all the little pupils point to the right place. They arrived at eight this morning at Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, and were given breakfast. Later they will have lunch and take a nap. Although there is plenty of time to play, they spend much of their day learning letters, numbers, vocabulary and even manners. Marilyn Joseph, who heads the early-learning programme, says they want to make poor children as ready for school as those from better-off families.

The first year of school in America, known as kindergarten, usually begins between the ages of five and six. Among rich countries such a late start is something of an anomaly. Barack Obama believes it is an economic and social problem; his education secretary goes as far as to say that it is “morally indefensible”. This statement has some support, as it is clear from research into vocabulary that youngsters from poor families enter kindergarten well behind their peers—a disadvantage that usually lasts a lifetime. Children from households on welfare knew 525 words by the age of three, while the offspring of professionals had mastered 1,116.

Pre-school (nursery, in British parlance) can help close this gap. So in Mr Obama’s state-of-the-union message last month he called for a partnership between the federal government and the states to expand it to every American child. It later transpired that “every” meant those who come from families with incomes of up to 200% above the poverty line—equivalent to an income of $47,000 for a family of four.

Some critics say that sending children to school at the age of four does not work. The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, on March 20th new results were announced from a study of nine-to-11-year-olds in New Jersey. This report found that disadvantaged children who had attended pre-school had better literacy, language, maths and science skills. And two years of pre-kindergarten were better than one.

Some studies also track the effects of early learning over lifetimes, such as its effect on crime rates and other factors that may eventually burden society. Critics have latched onto a government scheme called Head Start, created in 1965, which provides poor households with a range of services including school-based early education. The quality of Head Start’s school provision is highly variable, a factor that is rarely taken into account.

The sniping focuses on a study that found the educational gains from Head Start had petered out by third grade. Opponents say this proves that pre-school is a failure. In fact, it demonstrates what everyone has known for a long time: that Head Start is failing to deliver the level of cognitive improvement that children in better pre-schools achieve. The problems stem from its absence of oversight. Some providers have had decades of funding, though they have not had to produce any evidence that they were teaching well. This is changing. Mr Obama’s administration has so far required 254 of 1,600 grant recipients to reapply for their money. The results have not yet been announced.

Unfortunately, the entire pre-kindergarten industry is fragmented, with few standards and little oversight. Many of its teachers are unaccredited. According to Mr Obama, less than 30% of four-year-olds are in good programmes. Nevertheless, some states (see map) and school districts need no convincing of its benefits, and pre-schooling has grown in the past decade. More than 28% of four-year-olds, about 1.1m children, are in state-funded public pre-kindergarten. (Adding in other programmes, including Head Start, brings public enrolment to 42%.) Cuts, though, are looming, thanks to the sequester.

The president has been short on specifics. He has not explained how his plan will be financed. Some speculate that funds will be taken from Head Start. Sceptics contend that new money will be needed, and this will be difficult to get past tight-fisted Republicans. This is why many in Washington and in education think the idea will not get far.

While some argue over finances, and others over efficacy, the real issue is whether the country can realistically roll out, on a large scale, the kind of excellent learning that would feed minds and help the economy grow. On America’s route to becoming the wealthiest nation on Earth, it has notched up any number of impressive achievements. Landing on the Moon is easy. Teaching millions of four-year-olds, and doing it well, is much harder.

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