Robert Fulghum's bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten recounts the life lessons we carry from our early years. So it is with learning the ABCs: All Children Really Need to Know They Can Learn in Kindergarten. No preschool required.
Nevertheless, kids are skipping off to class earlier and earlier. If the average mother in past generations felt pressure to be home with her children, the average mother today feels pressure to send her toddlers to preschool.
Self-proclaimed child advocates are sounding the alarms. "We can't wait until kindergarten to prepare them," says the head of an initiative that would spend $150 million annually for more preschool services in Arizona.
When is it time to wave goodbye to mom and dad and hello to teacher?
Our grandparents didn't attend preschools, and neither did our parents. Chances are that most of us reading this article didn't either. If we attended kindergarten, it was probably for just a few hours a day. Generations of Americans went to college, raised their families and kept America growing, all without preschool.
If preschool is a requirement for success, how did so many of us succeed without it? And why are so many students today failing with it? Preschool rates have soared from 15 percent in the 1960s to 65 percent today. Yet the Nation's Report Card shows no change in test scores after all this time. Children are spending an extra year (sometimes two) in school with nothing to show for it.
With a record like this, how did preschool go from being an optional "a la carte" to a mandatory "must-have"?
One reason is the misuse of research on children in stark circumstances. When one 1960s experiment showed that intense early intervention could give struggling children a leg up, the benefits of intervention were assumed for all children. That was a mistake.
Penicillin can help a sick patient, but it provides no benefit to a healthy body and may even be harmful. Likewise, most American children are not severely deprived, and for them, leaving a healthy home environment may be a costly tradeoff.
It is widely understood that early education can increase knowledge at school entry. There's no surprise there. But here's the rest of the story: "For most children, the cognitive benefits of prekindergarten quickly fade," the National Bureau of Economic Research says.
That is to say, children with and without preschool perform the same on tests over time.
Unfortunately, there's more. Preschool incubates negative social behaviors. The bureau finds that "Prekindergarten attendance increases aggression and decreases self-control." But unlike the cognitive gains which fade, "the behavioral effects persist."
The most recent analysis of 14,000 children by researchers at Stanford and Berkeley reached a similar conclusion: "Attending a center also appears to suppress social development, including the child's motivated engagement in kindergarten classrooms, self-regulation, and a variety of interpersonal skills . . . relative to parental care."
It's time for candor. Preschool is neither necessary nor sufficient for cognitive development, behavioral development or school achievement. It won't get a child into Harvard, and it won't keep him out of jail.
In the meantime, a political game of pass-the-buck continues, with elected officials eager to point a finger at preschoolers and parents, anyone but themselves and the declining K-12 system for which they are responsible. International comparisons show U.S. students earn A's in the early years but become D students by high school. Preschool won't fix that.
A recent Arizona Republic editorial acknowledged evidence that preschool benefits wear off, and then said, "But that's not the question. The question is, what is best for the children now?"
What is best for children now is what has always been best for children: good parents. Preparing a child for school requires what it always has, and it's neither fancy nor costly. It's what millions of parents still do every day: talk, read or sing to, play with and love their children.
Sometimes what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular. Universal preschool is the case in point.
The writer is president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based free-market think tank.