In response to a column I wrote on preschool, a young mother called in tears to ask, "How should I teach my 3-year-old?" She had read so many articles hyping preschool that she was afraid she'd be cheating her daughter if she kept her at home.
Preschool enthusiasts, in an earnest desire to ensure that every child has love and education, have wildly oversold preschool's benefits. Drawing attention to the importance of early education is fine, but as Benjamin Franklin said, "If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins."
Preparing a child for school requires what it always has, and it's neither fancy nor costly. It's what millions of parents do every day: talk, read, sing and play with their children. The most talked-about preschool programs are built on this basic foundation.
And it shows. Whether learning at home or in preschool, America's kids are first-rate.
Education Department data show most preschoolers enter school with the building blocks for achievement. A majority recognize numbers, letters and shapes. Nearly all are in good health, enthusiastic and creative, key precursors to achievement.
American youngsters are also competitive internationally. In England, France and Spain, 90% of 4-year-olds attend preschool. Yet American children outperform their European peers in reading, math and science. Unfortunately, by 12th grade, American students drop to a "D" on the international scale. Preschool will not solve this.
Improving achievement requires changing the education system, giving parents muscle through charter schools, grants and tax credits. When parents have options, schools either deliver a quality education or risk losing students to better schools.
Most studies report benefits from these programs. A recent Manhattan Institute study shows competition from vouchers dramatically raised achievement in Florida's failing schools. Likewise, new Goldwater Institute research shows that Arizona's charter- school students have higher achievement growth in math and reading.
Parents should get an "A" for a job well done with their preschoolers. The government-run education system, on the other hand, has significant room for improvement.
Darcy Olsen is president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute, a research and education non-profit based in Arizona.