Expanded Pre-K Crucial to Closing Achievement and Opportunity Gaps, Says Duncan

Today, fewer than 30% of four-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality preschool education programs. Not only is this morally and educationally unacceptable, says Education Secretary Arne Duncan, it is damaging to the long-term competitive economic development of the nation.

President Obama proposed a major expansion to early childhood education programs earlier this year. His proposal was backed up by his budget, which allocates $75 billion to help states expand quality pre-K education to low- and middle-income children. In May, Obama visited early learning programs across the country to talk about this initiative.

Last week, Duncan spoke about preschool education at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., and outlined the president’s proposal, calling attention a new early Head Start childcare partnership at the Department of Health and Human Services to improve quality and expansion of the administration’s Home Visiting Initiative.

“The president’s proposal would create a new federal state partnership to enable states to provide voluntary, universal, high-quality school for children from low and moderate-income families,” Duncan said. “These are critical, long-term investments in early learning that our country and our children desperately need. They are the best, most effective tool we have to close both the achievement and opportunity gaps.”

Though expanding preschool education has its challenges Duncan knows it is possible. He has worked with governors across the nation who are prioritizing early learning.

“It must be the one force that overcomes differences in race, in privilege and in national origin,” said Duncan.

After Duncan’s remarks, a group of panelists discussed the president’s plan and the challenges facing pre-K education. Although he agreed on the importance of expanding early learning programs, Russ Whitehurst, Senior Fellow and Director of the Brown center on Education Policy at Brookings, said he would prefer more accountability of results, less on accountability on process.

The federal government, said Whitehurst, should “require states, if they accept the money, to carefully monitor progress and demonstrate that kids are showing up in kindergarten and first and second grade in much better shape than they were prior to the receipt of the money and provide all the technical assistance that is possible to help states to help themselves to do a better job. I think that’s politically viable and is in the end more likely to work.”

Steven Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, agreed that a strong focus on results is necessary and added that what’s troubling the nation more is an achievement gap necessarily, but an “achievement gradient” – one that is steep and without a definite cutoff.

“While kids in poverty have high failure rates and high dropout rates, one in 10 middle income kids will fail a grade and be held back; one in 10 middle income kids will drop out of school,” Barnett explained. “So if you want to solve the school failure problem in the United States and you focus on poor kids, you will miss most of the problem. And I also think it creates a kind of us-them dialogue that is unhelpful politically and unhelpful programmatically.”

Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy, responding to an often-heard criticism, said Obama’s proposal was not designed to create “a new permanent silo” in Washington that will essentially monitor the progress of all 4-year-olds across the nation.

“What we want to do is to make sure that we’re meeting states where they are, not with a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” but with some solid standards that we know will help accelerate enrollment and participation in the state-funded preschool programs,” Rodriguez explained. “Whether those are programs at the community-based level, childcare centers or other providers or whether those are programs that are delivered through our schools.”


On June 4, the White House released fact sheets outlining what states would receive in federal funding to expand early childhood education programs. Find out how the president’s plan would increase access to these programs in your state.