The value of early education

My aunt tells me that it never occurred to her to teach me to read or give me preschool workbooks before I went to school. She trusted the school to teach me about reading, writing, and math. And without giving away my age, in those days, kindergarten was considered “preschool.”

Today, there are “Baby Einstein” videos, “Sesame Street” and other teaching programs on television (I personally like “The Backyardigans” for their focus on imagination and “The Wonder Pets” for their emphasis on helping others and solving problems), Kumon workbooks and Hooked on Phonics, tutoring programs like Mathnasium… And education specialists tell us that early education is critical, and children may never catch up if they fall behind in – preschool!

This month, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie announced even more money allocated for preschool education: “The state Department of Education (DOE) is committing $6 million over the next three years for early childhood education as a part of its Race to the Top initiatives… The subsidies will benefit pre-K students living in the “Zones of School Innovation,” which are the Nanakuli/Wai’anae and Ka’u/Kea’au/Pahoa areas.” That’s around $2,500 per year per child. Do you think this is a good use of Race to the Top funds, or federal funds in general?

We are conditioned to accept almost any sacrifice, any expansion of government services, any increase in taxes, if it is “for the children.” But there are two separate issues involved:

Issue #1: Is early education (2-5 years) nice to have or crucial? Children are able to learn at a phenomenal rate, but some children learn faster and are more interested in learning than others. Are we putting too much pressure on kids to learn, rather than letting them play and socialize with others? Are we under-valuing students who get a “late start” in education by assuming that they can’t catch up, and expecting them to fail?

Issue #2: Is early education the parents’ responsibility or the State’s responsibility? By law,Hawaii offers free public education for Grades 1-12, with additional support for “Gifted and Talented” and “Special Needs” students. If Hawaii is struggling to meet its commitment to quality public education, should Hawaii take on early education as well? Can Hawaii afford it with the current budget crisis – and are taxpayers willing and able to pay for it? Is it the parents’ responsibility to prepare children for school and lifelong learning?

My son is five years old, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to be able to send him to preschool. But I didn’t rely on preschool alone to teach him. I chose to spend time with him reading books, writing the alphabet and numbers, asking him questions – and listening to the answers.

Does early public education solve a problem in our public school system? Can we afford the government’s solution? What do you think?

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