Voices in Education

“A Huge Opportunity” for Middle-Income Children: An Interview with Libby Doggett
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 24, number 6). Copyright 2008 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Libby Doggett, a long-time leader in early childhood education, wants public funding for quality prekindergarten for every three- and four-year-old in America.

Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, an advocacy group formed by the Pew Charitable Trust in 2002, says middle-income children, as well as low-income children, deserve and can benefit from publicly funded preK programs. Up to age five is a crucial time for brain development, says Doggett. “That’s when they learn to talk, [to] control their emotions and actions,” says Doggett. “PreK can make a huge difference. And it’s not just low-income children whose brains are developing.”

Doggett cites a wide range of studies to demonstrate the impact of preK: increased graduation rates, better scores on standardized tests, reduced grade repetition, and fewer special education placements. Other studies, she says, show that students who had attended preK were less likely to be arrested for a violent crime, more likely to be employed, and more likely to report that they get along well with their families.

A study of preK students in Tulsa, Okla., by William Gormley Jr., a political science professor at Georgetown University, found gains for students in all economic strata. “Obviously the kids who are further behind have the most to gain,” says Doggett. “But it’s very clear that all kids benefit.”

She also cites a 2002 study by R. J. Coley of the Educational Testing Service, which found that one-third of middle-class children and a quarter of upper-middle-class children didn’t know their alphabet on the first day of kindergarten. A 2002 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the gap in reading skills for beginning kindergartners was greater between middle-income kids and their more affluent peers than it was between middle-income and poor children, she notes.

She acknowledges that preK resources must first be focused on students in low-performing schools, where many students enter without adequate preparation. But she says policymakers can’t lose sight of the plight of middle-class students who need help as well. “Middle-income children have a lot of potential, and they should do as well as the upper-income kids, if not better,” she says. “There’s a huge opportunity for those children. Many of them are lagging behind.”

If every child had such an experience, elementary school curricula would change across the nation because students would be so much better prepared to tackle academic subjects. “There would be a ripple effect through the entire system,” says Doggett.

Even in families where mothers or fathers can afford to stay home with their young children, Doggett says, it’s still important for those children to attend preK classes, where they can learn to play with other children, learn the discipline of a classroom routine, and learn in a structured environment. In addition, quality preK provides the opportunity to explore new materials in stimulating ways.

Doggett acknowledges that there’s a political aspect to her call for universal preK programs: public opinion appears to favor including all children in government-funded preK no matter what their family’s income, she says. “I think it’s important to have a voter base of appeal,” she adds.

In particular, she points to a June 2008 poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, commissioned by her organization, showing that universal preK is a popular cause. The poll of 800 registered voters and 200 “swing voters” who typically split their votes between Democrats and Republicans found that seven in ten voters wanted state and local governments to provide preK for all children. It also found that 72 percent of voters felt having preK for all students would be important in making a persuasive case for increasing federal preK grants.

“Many states recognize that preK isn’t a luxury for the wealthy or something that we provide only for low-income kids,” she says. “It should be an essential part of every child’s education.”

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