At a Georgia preschool last week, President Obama sat in a tiny wooden chair and played a science game with a group of four-year-olds. He held up a magnifying glass and peered playfully at the little boy next to him. For a second it looked as if he was trying to figure him out. It is an apt metaphor of where our country stands on education these days. Obama's preschool plan builds on a decade's fascination with studies on brain growth.
We recognize the importance of children's early years in setting the foundation for social-emotional intelligence and strong academic skills. Yet instead of bringing early learning to more children, we remain frozen with our magnifying glasses. What holds us back? One factor is "fade-out" -- the concern that preschool's ability to help disadvantaged children may fade over time, not lasting beyond kindergarten or first grade.
A big sticking point in today's debates revolves around a recent study tracking children who attended a year of Head Start, the federal government's pre-K program for children in poverty. Compared to a control group, kids in Head Start scored modestly better on tests of literacy and social-emotional growth a year after being in the program. But by the third grade, the children were performing no differently than the control group. And even outside of Head Start -- such as in states like Oklahoma, which has a high-quality preschool program attended by a majority of children -- reading scores for fourth graders are still mediocre.