A recent report by Jeanne Reid and Sharon Lynn Kagan of Columbia University, written for The Century Foundation, argues for greater consideration of economic diversity as a feature that helps determine quality in pre-K programs.
The report documents that low-income children not only have lower rates of attendance in preschool, but also are disproportionately enrolled in lower-quality preschool programs. Moreover, preschool classrooms are overwhelmingly likely to be highly segregated by income. As they point out, Head Start programs, by their very design, are largely restricted to children from families below the poverty line.
This economic segregation is troubling for many reasons. In a diverse, democratic society, it is important that families and children learn to live together, which depends upon common experiences.
In addition, as Reid and Kagan point out, research suggests that low-income children experience significantly greater learning gains if the preschool classroom is income-integrated. This greater learning is thought to occur due to peer effects from being exposed to middle-class children who, on average, tend to enter preschool with higher literacy and math skills.
At the same time, Reid and Kagan argue that the research evidence suggests that these peer effects are asymmetric: middle-class children’s learning seems not to be as subject to such peer effects. This means that integrating preschool classrooms by income contributes to greater learning for low-income children, without sacrificing the learning of middle-income children.
The report goes on to discuss policy implications. The authors argue for policies that include:
- Encouraging programs to enroll both publicly-funded and tuition paying students;
- Encouraging Head Start programs to make greater use of their flexibility to enroll 10% of their students from above the poverty line;
- Locating more preschools where they are accessible to a variety of income groups;
- Providing greater financial support for transportation to preschool programs;
- Adding more professional development for preschool teachers in how to deal with diversity in preschools.
I was surprised that the authors omitted discussion of the hot political issue of universal versus income-targeted preschool programs. (Witness the recent debate in Minnesota.) In principle, government programs that only subsidize preschool for low-income children can include middle-income children who pay tuition. But in practice, income integration with private tuition charged to the middle-class is more difficult to arrange. Among other factors, some middle-class parents have some reluctance to enroll their child in a more diverse setting, despite the research.
In contrast, if a preschool program is universal in that it is free to all students, then middle-income families have more incentive to participate. Of course, full income integration in individual preschool classrooms will not happen automatically with universal preschool, any more than it does in public K-12 education. Procedures for allocating preschool slots, recruitment efforts, transportation availability, and preschool locations may all need to be arranged in a manner that encourages diversity of children in preschool classrooms. But universality is helpful in encouraging greater income integration.
Reid and Kagan have made a valuable contribution by arguing that greater economic and racial diversity in preschool classrooms is a goal worth pursuing, as it contributes to preschool quality. In my opinion, that goal will be more easily pursued if we begin with government support for universal preschool, rather than income-targeted preschool.