Apodaca: Making the case for preschool

When my older son turned 3, I decided he should go to preschool.

My reasons were simple: We were living in Los Angeles, and I had a busy career as a reporter. My son played with a few neighbor kids, but it was obvious he was ready for something more, and I figured an organized group experience outside our home would do him good.

I wasn't particularly concerned about academics. I didn't see the need to begin prepping him for the Ivy League when he was still in Pull-Ups. Besides, I read to him every night and snuck in learning in the form of games, stories and activities every chance I got. In looking for a preschool, I didn't expect anything fancy, just a safe and supportive environment where he would learn to get along and make friends.

By the time my younger son turned 3, we had moved to Newport Beach and though I had an exit plan from full-time work in mind, my reasons for starting him in preschool were basically the same. We enrolled him at St. Mark Community Preschool, then run by the terrific Mary Hornbuckle, who advocated learning through structured play.

Though I didn't know it at the time, my instincts about preschool, which likely are similar to those of many parents, actually fit with the mounting evidence now available about how early childhood education benefits the not-ready-for-primetime set.

Research shows that adapting kids at an early age to social situations, group dynamics and simple classroom etiquette — sitting patiently and listening, following instructions, walking in lines — prepares them for elementary school and makes them far more ready to begin tackling a more academic environment.

This point is receiving renewed attention, now that President Obama has taken up the cause of expanding access to preschool.

In his State of the Union address, Obama pledged to "make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America." He followed up with a plan to provide grants and other funding to states and to expand Early Head Start to make access to early childhood education available to all.

The proposals have been warmly welcomed by many educators, but they have also stirred controversy, mainly because of the additional spending, which some estimates put at up to $10 billion a year. Critics also question the wisdom of focusing on preschool when some data show that the differences between students who attended preschool and those that didn't evaporate by the third grade.

The issues involving costs and the role of the federal versus state governments in education are certainly legitimate concerns, and they'll be debated fiercely in the months to come.

But despite the oft-cited study on the third-grade disappearing act, which is based on standardized test scores on math and other subjects, evidence of the benefits of preschool is well-documented and persuasive.

Like my previous gut feeling about preschool, research shows that the advantages it offers aren't strictly academic. Standardized test scores might even out over time, but other powerful positive effects have been found.

For example, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who has examined this issue extensively, found in one study that a group of low-income African American children in Michigan who attended a high-quality preschool showed significant differences many years later — even well into adulthood — compared to a control group with no preschool experience.

Adults who had been in the preschool group were far more likely to have received better grades and to have graduated from high school, had much lower arrest records, were more likely to remain married and were less dependent on welfare. Heckman's findings are among those used to support the popular contention that investments in early childhood education reap exponential returns over time.

What's more, other research shows that preschool can have the biggest positive influence on those kids with the least access to it. In other words, it can help close the achievement gap between affluent kids and poor ones. When we talk about expanding access to preschool, these disadvantaged children are exactly the ones that stand to benefit.

Still, all the evidence that preschool is valuable doesn't mean that there isn't room for discussion and debate over the president's proposals. Plenty of questions will need to be addressed. Will this focus on preschool detract from other important educational goals, such as improving graduation rates, making college more affordable, and reducing student loan debt? How can we ensure that all preschools meet a certain level of quality? And, of course, how do we pay for it?

But as this national debate plays out, perhaps we can start by agreeing on one critical point: Preschool works.

Ask any kindergarten teacher; she'll tell you that it's easy to spot on Day One which kids have been inside a classroom before and which ones have not. Talk to parents who have sent their children to a good preschool and you won't find many who think it wasn't worth it. Look at the most conscientious students you know, and chances are they started their education in preschool.

It isn't just about finger-painting and swing sets. Preschool begins the important process of teaching kids how to learn, and that's something we should figure out how to make available to all children.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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