Reihan Salam

Universal preschool may help parents more than children — and that’s okay

Reihan Salam
Jan 3, 2014 21:06 UTC

As a small child, I vaguely recall having attended a Montessori preschool in Brooklyn, which was loud, lively and colorful. One day, a classmate made a reference to his “parents,” an English word with which I, an imperfectly bilingual 3-year-old, was unfamiliar, and he explained that he was referring to his mother and father, words that I did understand. And so my vocabulary grew, in fits and starts. Pretty soon, I started attending kindergarten at a public elementary school, where I talked my way out of chores like putting away my things in my cubbyhole by protesting with a convincingly exasperated “but I’m only 4 years old.” Though that doesn’t sound like much of an excuse to my wizened old ears three decades later, it seems to have worked at the time.

But for all I may or may not have learned about the importance of cubbyhole management, the main virtue of early childhood education, from my family’s perspective, is that it allowed both of my parents to work. For most of my childhood, my mother and father worked two jobs while fulfilling other obligations (taking classes to complete a graduate degree in my mother’s case, studying for a licensing exam in my father’s), leaving my two older, but not that much older, sisters to pick me up from school and help me with my homework, among many other things. I find it difficult to believe that my life will ever be as sweet as it was in those years, when nothing was more exciting than tagging along as my father ferried my mother to her Saturday job in Staten Island. Change the equation even slightly — say I had only one older sister instead of two, and she wasn’t as capable as my real-world siblings, or if one of my parents had become seriously ill — and it is easy to imagine our harried but happy little world unraveling.

Which leads me to the debate over universal early education. Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City, has pledged to provide full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the five boroughs, and in last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama backed a similarly ambitious “Preschool for All” initiative. The problem with these efforts is that they promise too much about what preschool can do for children’s skills while glossing over what it can do for the earning potential of parents.

It is easy to see why the mayor and the president, among many others, find the idea of universal early education so appealing. A number of scholars, led by the University of Chicago economist James Heckman, have emphasized the crucial importance of building skills in small children, as “skills beget skills.” That is, if children acquire important social, emotional and cognitive skills early in life, they’re in a much better position to acquire new skills as they age. It is the social and emotional skills, like persistence and a willingness to cooperate with others, that might be the most important of all. Most children acquire these skills in the home, from parents and other close relatives. But some children, particularly those raised in single-parent and otherwise chaotic households, tend to have a much harder time, particularly boys. The promise of early childhood education is that it can mitigate this inequality between children raised in healthy and supportive environments and those who are not.

Yet as David J. Armor and Sonia Sousa argue in “The Dubious Promise of Universal Preschool,” the evidence drawn from almost five decades of the federal Head Start program suggests that this hope is largely misplaced. The Head Start program was designed to help low-income children catch up with their middle-income counterparts, yet a series of evaluations have found that while the program offers modest short-term gains, long-term gains are rare. Faced with these discouraging findings, advocates of early childhood education have maintained that Head Start is not a “high-quality” preschool program, as it doesn’t make use of a rigorous curriculum and well-trained personnel. Armor and Sousa counter that Head Start actually fares well on quality measures when compared to programs that have reputations for high quality, like the Abbot program in New Jersey and preschool programs in Boston, Massachusetts and Tulsa, Oklahoma, which received more favorable evaluations. Moreover, they suggest that the real difference between lackluster evaluations of Head Start and strongly positive evaluations of preschool programs in New Jersey, Boston, and Tulsa is that the former studies were well-designed while the latter studies were not.

Edward Snowden, model dropout

Reihan Salam
Jun 14, 2013 18:00 UTC

One of the more striking facts about Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who recently disclosed details concerning the National Security Agency’s various domestic surveillance programs, is that he is apparently a successful autodidact. After dropping out of high school, Snowden developed a very rigorous academic curriculum for himself, drawing on community college courses, online education programs and self-directed reading and programming. The fruit of these efforts was a lucrative job with an elite consulting firm, and a top secret clearance that gave him access to a treasure trove of state secrets.

Leaving aside the merits of Snowden’s decision to leak sensitive information to the press, his idiosyncratic educational experience points, however improbably, to a much brighter future for all young Americans, and indeed for anyone around the world hungry for knowledge.

After Snowden emerged on the national scene, a number of observers reacted with surprise, and in some cases dismay, at the fact that a high school dropout had found himself in such a sensitive position. Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army officer and New York Post columnist, has made several derisive references to Snowden’s dropout status, calling him, among other things, a “spoiled-brat, dropout Benedict Arnold” who deserves to be executed. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, suggested that Snowden’s failure to graduate from high school reflected a larger inability to navigate the mediating institutions of civil society, which teach us to make commitments to others and to restrain our passions. Brooks makes an important point. There is a great deal of value in completing high school, as it demonstrates a certain level of discipline and a willingness to work with others.

Moving beyond our vacuous education reform discussions

Reihan Salam
Oct 12, 2012 16:16 UTC

Barack Obama is a champion of education reform. So is Mitt Romney. Even in the midst of an extremely polarized political season, the former Massachusetts governor has offered praise for Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, and for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. The same is true of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who has emerged as the GOP’s leading point person on fixing America’s schools. To those who lament partisan rancor, this might look like very good news. But it’s not. Rather, it is an indication that our conversation about “education reform” is pretty vacuous.

The reform label applies to at least three broad ideas: (1) standards-oriented reform, or let’s have more testing and accountability; (2) human capital reform, or let’s have better teachers; and (3) choice-oriented reform, or let’s use “backpack funding” that will allow public education dollars to follow the student wherever she chooses to enroll, whether it’s a neighborhood public school, a public charter or (perhaps) a voucher-eligible private school. Many people who love one kind of reform hate the others, so saying you’re “pro-reform” doesn’t mean very much.

That shouldn’t come as a shock. There is something about public education that starts Americans gushing and makes them sentimental and unrigorous. Hardly anyone disagrees with the late R&B songstress Whitney Houston, who believed that the children are our future and that we should teach them well and let them lead the way. Schmaltz is deployed on all sides of the debate – from teachers’ union members who insist that those who oppose across-the-board pay hikes don’t care about kids to voucher proponents who specialize in heartstring-tugging tales of inner-city youth.