Preschool for 3-year-olds - high cost, higher reward

The stethoscopes and bandages come out in the classroom when the children start playing hospital.

After attempts at resuscitation fail, the patient – a girl stretched out on the floor – is declared dead, and the funeral begins. Other children surround her with boxes; one boy sets out pretend candles, someone mentions zombies, another child begins casting a spell and one child talks about a séance.

“I’m going to let you know that you only have five more minutes to be dead,” a teacher, Kenneth Sherman, tells the class as the session winds down.

The children, ages 3 to 5, are students in one of the state’s most unusual preschools – a fulltime class for 3-to-5 year olds that also serves as a lab for the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, a 45-year-old nonprofit that, while little known to the general public in Michigan, is famous in education circles around the world for its preschool curriculum development, research and training.

It’s also unusual because its preschool classroom for children as young as 3 is relatively rare in Michigan, according to a report on policy options for supporting children from birth to age 3, released last fall by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan and Public Sector Consultants (CRC-PSC), two Lansing-based research organizations.

Children who start preschool by age 3 have been shown by a variety of national studies to achieve higher scores in vocabulary, reading and math. Yet a handful of other studies raised questions about benefits of 3-year-old preschool, including some that found that poor-quality programs can have a negative effect on children, the CRC-PSC report said.

There is growing bipartisan interest in educating and developing the minds of children well before kindergarten. Universal preschool has emerged as a major policy initiative among public officials ranging from President Obama and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, to Gov. Rick Snyder and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and likely presidential candidate, though the focus is mostly on educating 4-year-olds.

Two years ago, Snyder and a Republican-led legislature approved the nation’s largest expansion of high-quality preschool for 4 year olds through the Great Start Readiness Program. The state’s $65-million annual investment followed a 2012 Bridge report, “Michigan’s forgotten 4-year-olds,” which revealed that nearly 30,000 Michigan 4-year-olds who qualified for free preschool were being excluded from the program, largely due to lack of state funding.

Among 3-year-olds, only 1-in-4 of at-risk children in Michigan are enrolled in preschool. The CRC-PSC report estimates more than 48,000 at-risk children this age could benefit from earlier pre-K, but their families can’t afford private preschool programs.

The report estimated it would cost $175 million a year to cover all at-risk 3-year-olds in Michigan, assuming an annual cost of $3,625 for each child (the per-child rate of the program for 4-year-olds). That’s more than double what the state approved to expand preschool for 4-year-olds.

The estimated cost is higher for 3-year-olds because there are far fewer 3-year-olds currently enrolled in pre-kindergarten education

Susan Broman, deputy superintendent for the Office of Great Start, which consolidates early childhood programs and resources, said the state should look at providing learning to 3-year-olds, but the top priority now is to serve all of Michigan’s 4-year-olds.

Asked if there was anything percolating in Lansing that touched upon preschool for 3-year-olds, she said: “Not that I’m aware of. There’s nothing in the governor’s budget to expand to 3-year-olds.”

Many studies show gains

Internationally, the United States ranks 28th of 38 affluent countries in the percentage of 4-year-olds in an early childhood education program, with 78 percent enrolled. The U.S. ranks 25th out of 36 countries in enrollment of 3-year-olds, with 50 percent in school, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Belgium and France enroll almost all of their 3-year-olds in preschool; China plans to increase access to 80 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds by 2020; in South Korea, 82% of three-year-olds are in school.

“Most 3-year-olds in industrial nations around the world are in preschool,” said Highscope President Cheryl Polk, who believes 3-year-olds in Michigan should be enrolled, too.
“The capacity for the growth and development and the capacity for these small groups of children – I’m saying small groups – not classes of 40 or 50 – is really phenomenal.”

Research on the effectiveness on a second year of preschool -- for 3-year-olds-- is more limited than on a first year of preschool -- for age 4 -- but data suggest that two years of preschool can provide a boost to low-income and other at-risk children in preparing them for kindergarten.

The CRC-PSC report cites a Stanford University study of early education programs which found that the largest developmental gains were in children who entered a program at ages 2 or 3, regardless of income level.

“These children showed significantly more gains than those starting at age four,” the Stanford evaluation said, and this was true “for cognitive gains in both reading and math.”

Getting early gains from at-risk children is considered especially important because studies show children from low-income families, or from adverse situations, or with parents of low-educational attainment lag behind their peers by the time they enter kindergarten, gaps that typically grow in later grades.

The CRC-PSC study also noted, however, that not all studies support a second year of preschool. A handful of international studies question the benefits of 3-year-old preschool. These studies found that some children showed no statistically significant achievement gains over comparison groups of children began preschool at age 4.

A lab for the world

Teachers, students, researchers and educational administrators visit HighScope in Ypsilanti to get an up-close view of how it puts its education theories into practice.

Susan Cress, an associate professor of early childhood education at Indiana University’s South Bend campus, drove to HighScope in February to observe the demonstration preschool as part of research she is conducting.

“HighScope has a national reputation, and Ypsilanti is where it all started,” Cress said. “It’s a play-based curriculum where they have integrated things like literacy and math, social studies in terms of social relationships and conflict resolution and all that into the sequence of their day.”

HighScope was established in 1970 by the late David P. Weikart, who had worked as an administrator for the Ypsilanti Public Schools.

In 1962, Weikart collaborated with other educators to create the ongoing Perry Preschool Study, widely regarded as a landmark study. Following a group of 123 children living in poverty and at risk of failing in school, HighScope divided the 3- and 4-year-olds into two groups, with one group receiving two years of high-quality preschool, and the other receiving none. By age 14, the students in the preschool group were performing more than a year ahead of the control group in academic achievement. By age 40, those who had received the preschool education had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes and were more likely to have graduated from high school than those with no preschool.

The study results also showed that the upfront costs of high-quality preschool lead to long-term savings for taxpayers: for every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education, society saves $16 in the cost of special education, public assistance, unemployment benefits and crime and incarceration.

Polk, the president, is an expert in early childhood education who came to HighScope in late 2013 from San Francisco, where she was executive director of the Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund. In an interview, she noted that Washtenaw County was also the site of groundbreaking research into understanding parent-child relationships by a team headed by the late Selma Fraiberg, a Detroit-born social worker who worked at the University of Michigan in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“This was at the beginning of the current infant mental health movement,” Polk said.

The HighScope philosophy stresses “active participatory learning” through hands-on experiences with people, objects, events and ideas; meeting children wherever they are in their development and structuring classes around the children’s interests.

“Children are likely to learn if they are interested in it,” Polk said. “You want children to be active learners, active, engaged. You want them to choose, so we give them options.

“Sometimes teachers think about things, and they have a great plan, but kids want to do something else. We have to follow the children’s lead.”

A window into young minds

The observation classroom is located in a small building behind the HighScope headquarters, the 114-year-old Hutchinson House mansion that sits on a hill at Forest Avenue and River Street in Ypsilanti. The classroom is wired with four cameras and eight area microphones. Both teachers are also miked, and the sounds and images are piped into an adjoining room and shown on a large screen.

Polly Neil, an early childhood specialist, serves as a sort of director, sitting at a sophisticated console in the visitors’ room, choosing the images and explaining what’s going on. The children are not aware they are being observed, and have no contact with the adults next door.

On a recent Friday two dozen observers – mostly pre-school teachers and educators – watched on the screen as the children and their parents arrived and sat on the carpet, reading and talking with Sherman and fellow teacher Holly Delgado. Parents are welcome to stay as long as they want.

The children come from the community, and some of their parents receive state subsidies. They buzzed with excitement. One announced: “I have a virus!”

Noting only half of the 16 students are present, Sherman said, “I notice there aren’t very many people here. I wonder why there aren’t so many people here?” It was an open-ended question, designed to get the children thinking, that was typical of the way the children were quizzed throughout the morning session.

The spacious classroom was equipped with countless toys, books and supplies, a sand and water table and was sectioned into areas titled music, arts, house, block and book.

The HighScope day is broken up into several segments, including “plan-do-review,” a 10–15-minute period during which children meet in small groups with an adult and plan what they want to do during work time; a 45–60-minute work time for carrying out their plans; and another 10–15-minute small-group time for reviewing and recalling with an adult and other children what they’ve done and learned.

Involving the children to help plan their day is a HighScope hallmark.

“If you can start planning your day at 3, by 13, you’ll have it down pat, right?” Polk said.

The children never stopped moving: They blinked their eyes in unison; jumped into hoops; tossed bean bags; spoke into walkie-talkies; made birthday-party invites; banged rhythm sticks; built furniture out of blocks; searched for “bad guys;” guessed which letters were missing on the message boards; sang songs; ate a snack of Cheez-It crackers, milk and pears, and played with ice, colored water and salt.

Some students spent time stretching sticky tape around one section of the class. Sherman asked them about the length of one portion of tape, then stepped it off.

“This is really long,” he said. “I wonder how long it is? I wonder how we can figure out how long it is,” Sherman continued, as he stepped off the distance. “It took me eight steps to go from here to there.”

The children also argued at times, but the teachers gently resolved the conflicts by asking the students for their suggestions on what to do.

“Chloe, I heard Corduroy say this is for him,” Sherman said as two kids bickered. “I’m wondering what the problem is?”

Early lessons

Carrie Hernandez, HighScope’s director of marketing and communications, said the idea is to let the children settle disputes themselves.

“So when they get out on the basketball court as teenagers they have the skill set to negotiate,” she said.

After the children left for the day with their parents, Sherman and Delgado planned the next class in front of the observers, and answered questions.

They recalled what had engaged the children today and devised related activities for the next day – letting the kids, in essence, sketch out their lessons.

The topic of extended play around death and burial arose. Some observers were surprised the teachers allowed the children to prolong an activity on what some might consider a morbid topic for kids.

“I wanted to know what they thought about death and burial and the funeral,” Sherman said. “I wanted to go with what they were thinking.”

Delagdo said: “They’ve been having this whole zombie thing going for three months now. They don’t really know what a zombie is. It just becomes whatever their imaginations say it is. It’s this crazy, scary thing.”

The teachers decided to draw on the children’s interest in burials by planning to bury the first letters of the children’s names in the sand table the next day and call it “digging for buried treasure.”

“We’ll see where they take it to,” Sherman said. “We’ll see if the séance comes back again.

He added: “That’s the beauty of teaching preschool. You think it’s going to go one way and the kids take it in a whole another direction.”

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Thu, 03/05/2015 - 9:47am
Better nutrition + early education = Better citizens Unfortunately, we as a society have decided that we would rather spend $100,000 a year to keep someone in prison, rather than spend money at the BEGINNING of their life so that they won't end up in prison.
Thu, 03/05/2015 - 10:50am
Prenatal, preschool early on . That is a main part of the solution. The old saying holds true here " pay me now or pay me later" R.L.
Mary Rugg
Thu, 03/05/2015 - 11:43am
Excellent series, Bill! Looking forward to reading more! The benefits of early childhood education certainly outweigh the costs!
Barb Cotner
Fri, 03/06/2015 - 9:20am
In addition, there is a nutrition element at the school. High quality meals in the right portions are also going on. Research supports good nutrition with brain development.
Fri, 03/06/2015 - 1:10pm
It sounds like there is a fairly large funding hurdle to cross before implementing universal pre-K for 3-year-olds, but that shouldn't stop us from empowering parents to engage in their child's early education. So many parents think you have to have a graduate degree in education to be a great teacher. This is simply not true. You don't have to shell out $3,625 to get your kids on the right track. Simply reading to your child, taking a trip to your local library, nature center, children's museum, park, or play group, playing with blocks, puzzles, just talking to your child, even a trip to the grocery store can be a valuable learning experience. Additionally, there are a lot of parents who might feel that full-day preschool is not the best option for their 3-year-old, but want their child to have a high-quality education nonetheless.
Fri, 03/06/2015 - 8:46pm
So we now want the "government" to raise our children? What is our society coming to when people think the government can do a better job of raising kids than the parents? This is just an excuse to give parents a free daycare service at the taxpayers expense. It also allows the government to dictate what a child learns. The article states that three to five year old children are "pretending" that they are dead and are going to perform a seance. How does this help a child prepare for life? This is just another way to take our children and gear their minds toward the government's way of thinking. People need to be aware of the pitfalls that a program like this will create. Parents need to step up and actually take care of their children.
Sun, 03/08/2015 - 10:23am
If it were only so easy. Unfortunately, like most articles on early childhood education, the gains are measured at short-term intervals. Government studies and other non-Government studies show the gains are short lived and these children are no different than those not in the program by fourth grade. The open question is why. So these programs are expensive and do not lead to long term gains. Should they be abandoned or supplemented? Are the parents/home situation the problem? Most people look at this through their political prism. Follow the data and this article may not paint a picture as hopeful as Mr. McGraw paints.
Sun, 03/08/2015 - 12:46pm
N you are right Parents need to step up and care for their own Children. Well the fact is many do not. Introduce drugs, alcohol,,lack of education and just plain neglect, and you have the challenges those in education inherit. This isn't just about parenting it's about what is best for many not all kids. Send them to school hungry ,tired neglected,and,abused, and the challenges are many. Until parents step up, we must fight for the kids. Love to hear your comments. R.L.
Sun, 03/08/2015 - 1:58pm
Young children belong with their parents. No amount of funding will make the care of strangers a substitute for a mother's love or time at home with siblings, extended family, etc. This is not a good idea if we are trying to strengthen families. Issues of bonding, nurturing, and security are also tied up in this drive to get children out of the home and into an institutionalized setting at ever-younger ages. Those early years at home cannot be replaced. Fathers and mothers ought to stand up and say 'no' to being supplanted by institutionalized daycare.
Mary Price
Tue, 03/17/2015 - 11:03am
I loved this article. I trained as a Montessori teacher, and got an MEd in Early Childhood Education at the same time. I taught for 10 years or so, and loved that experience. After a time, I needed more pay and benefits, so spent 20 years as a staff member at UM. When I retired, I went back to what I love: preschoolers and preschool education. I volunteer at Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County, one of Highscope's preschool sites. I have learned a fair amount about the Highscope system, and have nothing but admiration for Foundations and the administration and teachers there. In my humble opinion, there is nothing more rewarding than volunteering in such a setting. I learn so much from the kids and the teachers. I am extra hands, when the teacher manages the class but I am free to work with a child who's got the mean reds today, or can't sit still, or whose family is in turmoil that besets low income families. The breakfasts and lunches are excellent -- and necessary for kids whose families may have meager resources to put food on the table. I have long wished that retirees would up and volunteer at any level of education. We talk so much about how much it costs to run programs like Great Start, or Headstart. But here is a workforce that would gain so much themselves, and meantime bridge some of the need for that personal attention that kids benefit from so much, especially at the 2-6 year old stage. This article could be a call to action - it made me very, very proud of Foundations Preschool. PS, to Lloyd Conway: I volunteer two mornings a week, one wouldn't be enough for just the reasons you cite. But when I walk in on one of my days, at least one child comes over, wants to tell me something, show me something, or curl up in my lap. They are getting wonderful relationships with their teachers - but volunteering offers them another (quite a lot older!) adult to focus on them, too. They are intrigued with my veiny hands, or my getting up with stiff knees while they can just bounce up. They (mostly) love me, and I them. It's a very good situation.