Preschool Matters, Says U.Va. Curry School Dean Robert Pianta

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at U.Va., explains in a Q&A in this month's issue of Parents magazine why good, affordable preschool programs are important to all American kids. A former special education teacher, Pianta's research focuses on investigating the effects of schooling on children's social and academic outcomes and on improving school and classroom experiences through teachers' professional development.

Q. What's your take on the U.S. preschool system?

A. First, let me clarify something: We really don't have a "system." What we have is a crazy quilt of early-childhood options, ranging from formal pre-kindergarten programs to nursery schools in church basements and mom-and-pop daycare centers that only the neighbors know about. There are excellent programs in each of these categories, but there are many more that aren't so good.

Q. Is it a problem that the U.S. doesn't have a formal system?

A. It's a huge problem. More than 70 percent of children start "school" in some way, shape, or form by age 3 or 4, meaning they are in a program that's intended to help prepare them for kindergarten. But these kids have such widely different experiences in their preschool years that when they enter our formal education system, the levels of readiness vary enormously. That makes it very difficult to have an early-elementary-school curriculum that's appropriate for all kids. When children enter "real" school, teachers end up having to meet the needs of those who can't even recognize their letters and numbers, as well as students who are already reading and doing basic math. And beyond that, I personally believe that every child deserves a high-quality preschool program -- no matter where he lives or how much his family can afford to pay.

Q. Does preschool really matter that much?

A. Absolutely! Children absorb so much in their early years. A strong preschool experience gives kids a definite leg up. They benefit socially by learning to follow rules, to work in groups, and to get along with different kinds of personalities. Academically, they benefit enormously as well. Research shows that kids who attend a quality program start kindergarten with a bigger vocabulary and stronger basic skills -- and they develop habits and attitudes about learning that stick with them for life. Ensuring quality preschool programs is the first step toward improving our overall education system.

Q. What makes a quality program?

A. There are lots of ways to measure quality, and the ones we hear about most often are teacher-to-child ratio, an age-appropriate curriculum, an environment that isn't overly rigid, and a certain level of academic training for teachers. Certainly, those are important. But our research shows that it's even more important to have educators who really can connect with kids and provide them with academic and emotional support. Good preschool teachers are warm and sensitive. They talk to kids individually, give them feedback that stretches their thinking and learning, and work closely with them on mastering skills.

Q. Should kids really be doing academics in preschool?

A. I definitely believe that they should. We know that children this age are capable of learning basic math and pre-reading, so why not get started as soon as they're ready to learn? I'm not saying preschoolers don't need lots of socializing and play; they do, and they should learn a lot of their academic skills through these activities. But I think there also should be time for age-appropriate instruction where the focus is on teaching specific skills. Many, many children this age have these kinds of "lessons" at home every night when their parent reads to them or helps them learn to count. But many other children do not, and we should make sure that all kids have the benefit of this kind of instruction. Today's children are growing up in a very complex, interconnected world, and the earlier we start equipping all of them for that world, the better off we'll all be.

Q. How can we improve our preschools?

A. Ultimately, we need to get this nonsystem to behave more like a system, and we can start by establishing a uniform set of guidelines for every preschool. Everyone would benefit: It would give those who run the preschools a sense of how they can align their programs with the aims of the school system. It would give parents a tool so they could evaluate a program, and it would begin to ensure that every child is getting the early educational experience that he or she deserves.

What's Being Done to Make Preschool Affordable?

Policy makers have different ideas about how to make quality preschools more affordable for families. These are the options.

State-Funded Preschools: Some states and localities are expanding the existing school system to include pre-K. The drawback is that they lack sufficient funds to meet growing demand; some have turned to sources such as lottery money, gaming revenue, and new taxes.

Public/Private Partnerships: In a number of districts, preschool programs are paid for by a combination of public money and private funds from business leaders and philanthropic organizations. Detractors say that these partnerships may be difficult to sustain because they require continual fund-raising efforts.

Vouchers: This policy would give public funds directly to parents, who could use them at any preschool, whether public, private, or church-run. But many worry that this could lead to a two-tiered education system: good private schools, where vouchers are supplemented by tuition, and inferior public schools that are forced to get by on a more limited budget.

Tax Credits: There are proposals to increase the existing childcare tax credits offered by the federal government and by some states. These allow parents to choose any type of preschool they want. The downside is that, even with increased tax credits, many parents would still find quality preschool unaffordable.

Statistics to Know:

70: Percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds who are enrolled in preschool.

30: Percentage of preschool teachers who quit their job each year.

22: Percentage of 4-year-olds who are enrolled in public pre-K.

$12.40: The average hourly wage of preschool teachers.

56: Percentage of Americans for government funding of pre-K programs.

To find out where the presidential candidates stand on early-childhood education, go to

Robert Pianta is dean of U.Va.'s Curry School of Education, Novartis Professor of Education and director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. He also serves as an adviser to Parents magazine. This Q&A was originally published in the September 2008 issue of Parents magazine.