Subtracting to Add

The first time I heard this big idea was in a conversation with Zell Miller, the gruff former Senator from Georgia, in the fall of 2002. His quote didn’t make our documentary, “The Promise of Preschool,” but he basically said that, if he had his way, he would get rid of 12th grade and spend the money on free, universal, high quality preschool.

At the time, Georgia was leading the nation in providing preschool, and it’s still near the top of the list.

But Georgia and every other state and territory still have 12th grade.

Should they?

I am guessing that many of you read Sean Reardon’s thoughtful essay in the New York Times recently, “No Rich Child Left Behind.” If you haven’t, please do.  Mr. Reardon, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, makes a strong case for large investments in early education, which, he says, are the most likely avenue to closing the ever-wider performance gaps between the rich and everyone else.

He does not argue in his essay that senior year of high school is a waste of time for most kids, so please allow me. States with exit exams generally peg them to a 10th grade level, which ought to tell you something about official expectations.  Across the nation, savvy (and bored) kids are enrolling in college courses while still in high school–if their system allows.  You may recall our profile of one Texas school district on the Mexican border where many students have a substantial number of college credits under their belt when they graduate high school. Some actually receive their Associates Degrees from the local community college the same day they pick up their high school diplomas!

I conclude from that story, and from the tales from students in other school districts, that a ‘business as usual’ senior year is a waste of time. Thousands of motivated kids refuse to accept that state of affairs and so enroll in college, and that’s commendable, but why not raise the bar in high school and shorten the time?  If some students need a twelfth year, fine. But why bore hundreds of thousands of our youth?

So, what about former Senator Zell Miller’s idea, basically swap out the two? Is that possible? How much money do we spend on the 12th grade, and how much of that could actually be diverted to preschool?

I put the first question to Professor Reardon, who responded.  “The country spends in the ballpark of $40-$50 billion per year per grade on public education.  There are about 4 million students per grade in public schools, and average per student spending is somewhere north of $10,000 per pupil.”  He noted that 12th graders are more expensive to educate than students in elementary school, but because of dropouts, we have fewer seniors than first and second graders.  Let’s assume that the ‘higher expenses’ and ‘fewer students’ cancel each other out, so we can use his $40-50 billion number as our spending on 12th grade.

How much of that $40-50 billion could just be shifted over to preschool?  That’s harder to figure, because some of the dollars (like the money spent on sports) can’t be taken from the high school budget. Remember, the team will continue playing, but with a lineup of 9th, 10th and 11th graders.  The coaches still get paid, the school still needs buses to take the team to away games, and so forth.

But, back-of-the-envelope, let’s say that $30 billion would be available for preschool. If we spent it on our 4,640,000 4-year-olds, we could spend about $6,400 per child.

Is $6,400 a lot to spend per child?  It certainly is, especially when you compare it to what we are now spending.  According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)’s recent report, we now spend $3,841 per child enrolled in early education, a decline of $442 from last year (and a drop of $1100 since 2001-02).

Because of the Sequester, things may get worse. On May 7, The Huffington Post reported, “On Tuesday, WIBW, a local CBS affiliate in Topeka, Kansas, aired a segment on how the 5-percent cut in Head Start operations was forcing officials with the organization to make dramatic choices. One program, the station reported, was considering closing a preschool class, in addition to eliminating 20 enrollment spots.”

Only 28% of 4-year-olds are in state-funded preschool programs, NIEER says.  By our not providing preschool, Professor Reardon and others say that we are hurting our country’s long term chances for prosperity, not to mention short-changing a lot of our children.

States are cutting preschool spending now, but they don’t have to–if they are willing to think outside the box.  They could take a great leap forward, provide free, high quality, universal preschool for all of our 4-year-olds, and rescue our 12th graders from boredom at the same time.

What’s not to like about that?

29 thoughts on “Subtracting to Add

    • Actually I am dead serious, because the country is not going to put up new money and because 12th grade is such a waste for so many kids.


      • I remember. And if we were designing a rational system, it would be a no-brainer.

        And in schools with exit exams, it would be even smarter. But you can’t get there from here. In our district the senior year has become a drudge because of the need to get 1/4th of the kids who haven’t passed their 10th grade exams and monitoring seniors who have, so they don’t go to class.

        What happens when Common Core is implemented and those percentages are reversed?

        Regardless of whether you see your idea as a thought experiment or a bettter policy, it is a reminder that we can have high-quality preschool or high-stakes testing or, maybe, Common Core. If we want to do early ed right, we have to deprioritize the other two.

        Implicit in your logic is some common sense. Whenever we put something on systems’ plates, we have to take something off. We’ve been ignoring that reality for so long that distortions are out of control.


  1. I have long thought that by 12th grade most students are (or should be) ready to move on to educational experiences that are more engaging and substantive. Therefore, I would not end the 12th grade but rather transform it to a systemic variant on early college. Schools would collaborate with neighboring post-secondary educational/career institutions to engage students in dual educational experiences on and off the high school campus to prepare them for specific educational destinations after high school (community college, four-year college, university, military, apprenticeships in craft trades). This could, in effect, enable the students to “glide” into post-secondary education. It would also help eliminate what is currently a waste for many students–an unproductive first year of post-secondary education. The 12th grade is, by and large, not now a productive educational experience and we can’t afford that.


  2. Actually, the Council of Chief State School Officers, prodded by its then exec. director Gordon Ambach, discussed this idea years ago. And it was the implied trade-off for Marc Tucker’s proposal for mastery of learning diplomas, which could free up students after the 10th grade. Oregon adopted a verson of this, but didn’t make the trade-off. I think it floated out to sea eventually.


  3. Okay, I’ll play along, but I’m not sure the country, or our colleges, universities, and other post-high-school options are ready for all those 16-17 year-olds. If you want to take a year off of the 13-year system in place, how about knocking out kindergarten as we currently know it? Most of the world has kids starting school at 6 instead of 5, and in Finland, they start at age 7. That way, we take up your idea regarding how many years we need, invest more in early childhood, but have young people past or approaching their 18th birthday when compulsory education ends.


  4. The District of Columbia’s commitment to fully funded universal preK and expanding number of public preschool programs for 3-year-olds makes the city an ideal place to see if the investment pays off in improved student success. Meanwhile, discussions are ongoing about performance-based graduation requirements as a way to engage students – many of whom don’t even reach the senioritis stage.
    Maine has abandoned credits based on seat time for core competencies for all students by 2017, New Hampshire did away with the 180 day compulsory attendance rule and moved toward competency-based credits. Marc Tucker’s notion of early exit from high school and early childhood education may not be so far-fetched or unattainable.


  5. A few years ago I mentioned Larry Cremin’s observation on why there are 8 grades in elementary: the builder of the first graded school found the site best fit 8 rooms! There is even less historical foundation for four years of high school – and not a lot of history of high school itself, for that matter, certainly not enough to hold every hour sacrosanct. The whole “foundation” of promotion based on hours of class, rather than performance, is residue from factories and a very early industrial age. And when people justify holding all students in high school when 25% may need more prep time to pass a test, that is a very thin basis indeed.

    I’m surprised that nobody mentioned the Jobs for the Future Early College High School model, which blends secondary and post-secondary, or similar models in career and occupational fields that are sponsored by industry and by unions! There are plenty of such models – more than enough to begin to challenge the expense of 100% enrollment in secondary-only educational enterprises! Ironically, these models – some of which go back to those same industries of the 19th century that justified high school in the first place – are hardly new, and the real challenge is to find ANY justification for a 12 year sequence.


  6. I’m in total disagreement with your thinking as well as your outcomes John. Don’t mix a good goal (better Pre-K) with an unfortunate fiscal issue (budget difficulties) – so bad.

    Students need challenging curricula all through K-12! To do less is damning for the future – so bad.

    Basing exit tests on 10th grade simply acknowledges most learning is not realized, with the hope that expecting less will result in less embarrassing score – so bad.

    The approach to schooling for too many schools is based solely on mandated lesson plans and other mandates – from government policy and elected officials. With no personal options for student learning, failure is virtually guaranteed. You got it – so bad.

    To not demand effective learning skills development (which includes effective problem solving skills) for most schools assures that the supplied material tested with regurgitation will not be retained or useful – once again so bad.

    To not begin introducing core knowledge as part of effective learning skill development – some that’s age appropriate even in pre-K – all through K-12 insures that the real-world homework, projects, and open-ended exam questions will be a disaster for far too many schools. Additional difficulty: challenging assignments mean taking risks is necessary – resulting in at least occasional failure. And of course failure is not possible when correct is so important. Of course, as you expect by now – so bad.

    So now you’re thinking if not screaming at the screen: “Nice going … It’s so easy to point fingers, to identify poor planning and execution. … So, big fellow, what would YOU suggest?” In no apparent order (they are all important to me):

    – Need to bring together motivated, engaged individuals (the numbers at be small at first – BUT there are always a few, everywhere) into what I’ve been calling Local Education Communities or LECs ( Their goal is to identify local issues, understand them, find better alternatives (ones every participant believes is better than the position each championed at the beginning), develop implementation plans, implement those plans – assessing and revising as appropriate.

    – Work to get local, state, and federal officials to distribute funding only when LEC proposals are defended. With subsequent routine assessment of effectiveness, I expect the budget crises to be largely minimized. And, yes, this suggestion will be extremely difficult – but worthwhile. It very well may be necessary to work in parallel with the mandates. But success will occur – if more slowly; officials will have to acknowledge and make changes.

    – The goal has to be effective learning. This will mean student-controlled, team working, based upon core knowledge and additional information identified, understood, assessed for usefulness, organized for application to real-world exercises.

    – As should be expected, student accomplishments should be more challenging each succeeding year, resulting in students prepared for any post graduation aspirations. Anecdotally, one-third to one-half of my first year students never made a conscious decision to go to college and decided the challenges faced in college indicated they were not college material – wishing they had challenged themselves more in high school!!!

    I am quite confident even those standardized test scores will improve as well. More importantly, high school graduates will have meaningful preparation for a successful post-secondary duration, career, and personal life. Yes, THIS IS AN EDUCATION TRANSFORMATION – as it must be!!!

    By the way, the better alternatives from LECs are absolutely critical – whether or not they align with my other suggestions.


  7. Effective preschool programs that have been studied, such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Child Parent Centers, enroll both 3 and 4 year olds. That is critical to success because so many low income children are already significantly behind by age 3. For example, see, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3″

    The high quality programs studied are also developmentally appropriate. Common Core has given us a pushed down curriculum in Kindergarten that is not developmentally appropriate for a lot of 5 year olds, For example, in their first year of formal schooling, children are now expected to “Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”

    I am an Early Childhood Specialist who taught Kindergarten and Preschool for decades and, frankly, I shudder at the thought of academics being mandated in preschools by the non-educators who are in charge of education in our nation today. I have seen many of those kinds of programs in the private sector in my career and and they are not pretty. There are a lot of lectures and drill for skill, and they provide little, if any, time for children to learn through play.

    And then there is the matter of subjecting babies to all that testing… Grrrr


  8. While making big changes in the system, I would also support National Service, two years of some sort of contribution to our nation. There ought to be lots of options, but ‘NO’ should not be one of them.


    • I strongly support this, John. I did that in the 60s, beginning in high school, when I learned from my teachers about opportunities to do volunteer work in educational programs for at-risk students in my community. (Although I had already joined my mom in her community volunteer work). I did it for about six years here and one year abroad. I loved it so much that I couldn’t believe people actually got paid to do that work (I had family encouragement and financial support way back then.) Those experiences launched my career in this field.

      Service Learning is now required for high school graduation in some school districts, including in Chicago. The hours are minimal though, since many students have a financial need to be engaged in paid employment: (In most of the programs where I volunteered, my peers with financial need were paid for their work.)


  9. Very thoughtful dialogue. One of the great benefits I saw in my daughter’s 12th grade year was a period of reflection and child development study. It gave her and her classmates time to understand their journey to that point — and they spent time with kindergartners and 1st graders to get a better understanding of the tremendous growth they had experienced. 12th grade was hardly boring, too, because of the strong emphasis on practical education in the creative arts. Yes, the arts. This was in a K-12 private Waldorf school, so I know that it is a special place and one hard to replicate on a larger scale.

    But, I see creativity, too, in public community-college based Gateway to College programs. They work with disadvantaged adolescents blending an intense practicality with self-development. They build on the grit and determination of students who’ve been written off but who want to improve their lives, and provide a practical path to that self-improvement. The workforce development skills fall into place rather naturally if we think of people on a path of human development rather than as cogs in a machine.


  10. We have known for a long time that the achievement gap is firmly established by the time a child reaches kindergarten. We also know that this gap usually persists throughout the school years and has a major effect on a person’s life chances. And we know that an investment in the first five years of a child’s life can save us so much later on, both in terms of money and unproductive lives.

    About twenty years ago, I wrote a letter to the Department of Education, stating the critical importance of early education. They wrote back saying that “that’s what everyone tells us” but not much was done.

    Why is this? My guess is that it is cultural (“babies belong with their mothers”) and financial (“We can’t afford it”). But as more and more research studies show, the first five years are the most critical in a child’s education so we can’t just leave it to chance. An advanced and humane society must support families in their efforts to educate their children. More and more countries are doing just that and we can too.

    What to do? I agree with Mr. Merrow that we must think outside the box. Perhaps we should start by providing the best possible education to our youngest citizens (birth to age five) and then spread the rest of the money to the other grades. It is my strong belief that a child who is ready for formal education would do better in a class of 40 children than an unready child would do in a class of eight. Of course, I’m not advocating for large classes but I am saying that we need to place our priorities where they will do the most good. And that place is preschool.

    Education is critical to the health of our country so it’s just a matter of time before we see real solutions instead of the nonsense that passes as the present “reform.” President Obama wanted to be the “Data President” in respect to education. Well, the data is there but we have yet to respond to it.


    • I concur that intervention for at-risk low income children should begin at birth, not when children are already behind at preschool age and later. One of the most effective programs studied included the birth through age 5 population, the Carolina Abecedarian Project:

      However, this should be in the hands of genuine Early Childhood Educators, not Arne Duncan, his Department of Education and corporate sponsors, who are very likely to make this all about pushing academics and standardized testing on children from infancy on up.


      • We’ll know that the administration is serious about education when the President appoints an EDUCATOR as Secretary of Education. That would be a good beginning.


  11. Interesting idea and good discussion. I can’t help but wonder if everyone gets pre-K — that a new business would start called “Pre pre-K,” so that those kids could have an edge on all other kids since now everyone has pre-K.

    And how would we know whether a pre-K teacher is doing his/her job? What standards should a 3 year old have and how would it be measured?

    Sorry for the snark.


  12. Many states already have standards for 3 and 4 year olds, Some states are revising them or developing new standards if they “won” the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RttT-ELC). The standards are based on developmental milestones and school readiness goals. RttT-ELC requires standardized testing…


  13. As an advocate for early childhood education, I am skeptical of any program Duncan promotes. If Duncan is promoting a program, reformers like Murdoch, Klein, Gates and others have his blessing. Four-year-olds are a target audience for Amplify/Wireless Generation assessments and Microsoft devices. The children and their teachers are worth licenses and the licenses generate millions for Murdoch’s Amplify and Gates’ Microsoft with no value to children. Superintendents and charter operators will drink the preschool accountability kool-aid and sign the contracts. We know Duncan funneled millions in contracts to Wireless Generation as he caused chaos in Chicago.


  14. John, An open-minded ethical journalist who truly has the best interests of children and America’s system of public education at heart really needs to do a thorough investigation of neo-liberal corporate education “reform” by following the money.

    For example, why was David Coleman honored as one of the NewSchools Venture Fund “Change Agents of the Year” in 2012?

    The NewSchools Venture Fund promotes entrepreneurs and privatization, including a long list of charter schools. What would Coleman’s involvement in developing the Common Core have to do with them, since charter schools don’t typically have to follow those standards? Could it be that the real purpose of the much more rigorous Common Core standards is to bring down record numbers of public schools, so they can be closed and reopened as charters?


    • P.S. I don’t know if there is a money trail between Coleman and The NewSchools Venture Fund, but there certainly is one between Coleman and Gates, who also supports privatization.

      Gates awarded Coleman’s Students Achievement Partners organization a total of $6,533,350 in June, 2012, prior to Coleman’s employment with the College Board in October. 2012

      The Gates awards included $2,490,430 “to grow capacity to support teachers and to strengthen operations” and $4,042,920 “to support teachers nationwide in understanding and implementing the Common Core State Standards”

      It may all sound just fine upfront, but what if the Common Core was really put in place for nefarious purposes???


  15. Be careful what you wish for, John. Sending millions more minors off to college campuses is very likely to result in draconian measures in higher education, at a time when we have an administration that has its sights set on changing higher ed this term. And neo-liberals following the Powell Memo have long been eager to transform higher ed in their own image.

    Please think about who is in charge at the US Department of Education today and his pattern of behavior. We now have on-going standardized testing mandated for children in preschool in states that won the Race to the Top -Early Learning Challenge (RttT-ELC). Would it really be in our country’s best interests for the federal government to mandate on-going standardized tests in colleges that receive Title IV funds (aka Financial Aid)? (And consider the prospect of national standards in higher ed…)

    The government documents for RttT-ELC, which focus on preschool, promote Early Childhood Education (ECE) “reform”, as if ECE is broken when preschool has never even been a component of compulsory education. What ECE needs is coordination and support lead by Early Childhood professionals, so that it is developmentally appropriate for children, not corporate “reform” lead by non-educators who know nothing about child development. And ECE needs to be more accessible and affordable.

    We have a system of higher education in this country that attracts students from across the globe because of its reputation. It, too, needs to be more affordable.

    At this point, we really need to confront the P-20 failing schools narrative, which many would like the public to believe applies to every school in this nation. We need to honor and promote our successes. I appreciate thinking outside the box, but we need to also capitalize on what is inside the box that is of value and working, and stop trying to “fix” what is not broken –lest it be irretrievably damaged in the process.


  16. Thank you, John, for sparking another conversation about Early Childhood Education. While I can’t comment on whether 12th grade is a waste of time, I can speak to the need for a more equal playing field when it comes to ECE.

    There are several proposals and thoughts above that could be combined into a great pilot program for ECE. In fact, it’s one I’ve been working on for the last two and a half years.

    Start with comments from Joe Beckman and John Bennett on the need for high school opportunities that apply acquisition of knowledge to preparation for successful post-secondary study or the “real world”. Next, look at Lauren Johnson’s post, which mentions that her daughter had the opportunity to study child development in 12th grade.

    Solution? High schools, especially those which serve a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds, could offer AP psychology. This AP offering is often more “accessible” to a broad range of income backgrounds, according to my sister-in-law who teaches this class in Massachusetts. And it could be combined with a “practicum” in local, high quality early education programs, such as it has been at my high school. Maybe, as “Chi-Town Res” alludes to, these experiences could help fuel the next wave of ECE teachers! And/or be part of a National Service Program.

    “High quality ECE” programs are, as John Bennett calls for, excellent at developing core knowledge and skills at the pre-k level. “Cosmic Tinker” references such a program, The Abecedarian Project, well-known for its positive long-term outcomes. And very important, as “Concerned” points out, to make sure that the measuring does not turn into a new business. Many, if not most, preschools for high income children in our area, such as Bing Nursery School, where I taught, focus on the child, not the business.

    Okay, now on to Sean Reardon’s point in “No Rich Child Left Behind”. I have seen first hand, over the 17 years I’ve lived and taught in northern Silicon Valley, the really separate and unequal access to early childhood education. It is no wonder that even children who begin kindergarten with a year or two at local Head Start or Child Development Center (California’s state-funded preschool) programs don’t have anywhere near the same skills that children who come from wealthy neighborhoods have. The government funded programs are constantly scrounging for funds; they hire people with minimum qualifications so staff costs are less; and they have to spend so much time working through forms and requirements that have little to do with the needs of children and families that there is nothing left for program and staff development, never mind “reflection” – a hallmark of high quality programs.

    For over two years, I have searched for funding for a pilot program that would serve a diversity of children and their families, feature well-trained and supported teachers, use proven curriculum models (no, not the box kind, but the play-based, emergent project kind), track outcomes for children, and incorporate community involvement through programs such as high school students working in the classroom. The school would be of such quality that high income families who needed full-time care for children between 0-5 would flock to the program. Their fully- paid tuition would help fund the middle and low-income families. Government funding, ideally in the form of vouchers, would make up a lot of the rest. This could be a great public-private model.

    There is a lot of wealth in Silicon Valley. You would think that someone would be interested in some ECE investment, which, according to a study by the Rand Corporation, returns $6 to $15 for every dollar invested. But I’ve found a lot of foundations, individuals and organizations interested in research, not practical application. And I’ve found, like New Schools, many organizations focused on K-12 education, and “college readiness”, despite the compounding research that their dollars would be much better spent on early childhood education.

    To the socioeconomically diverse model point, recent research at Columbia University speaks to the benefit of more socio-economic diversity for all income levels. Here is the link:



    • Thanks for this thoughtful response/analysis, Carol. This is why I love writing this blog. I always end up learning a lot and getting back far more than I have given.


    • ” use proven curriculum models (no, not the box kind, but the play-based, emergent project kind), track outcomes for children,”

      It remains to be seen whether the hallmarks of high quality Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs, which include play-based, emergent curriculum, such as Reggio Emilia, Project Approach etc., are viewed as consistent with the demands of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RttT-ELC), which requires ongoing standardized testing, since authentic assessment and qualitative measures have been traditionally implemented for documenting progress in such programs, including systematic observations and work samplings, .

      Because preschool is not compulsory, a lot of programs are situated in private child care centers, many of which accept multiple funding streams, in order to serve diverse populations. However, my understanding is that, in states that have won the RttT-ELC grant, preschool programs that accept government dollars, such as child care subsidies, state/district dollars for PreK, Head Start funding, Special Ed, etc., will be subject to complying with the requirements of RttT-ELC, regardless of the setting. (The coordination of programs under the regulatory oversight of different state agencies is a requirement of RttT-ELC.) The only government funds not contingent upon meeting RttT-ELC requirements are federal monies obtained for the food program.

      One can only hope that this will not result in many private preschool programs feeling so constrained by the demands of RttT-ELC that they decide to stop accepting families who are reliant on government funding. RttT-ELA is already being seen as an undue government imposition by many private child care providers, because it requires that each state develop a tiered quality rating and improvement system, with inclusion of all programs mandatory (whereas many state quality systems had previously been voluntary), with program ratings publicized and maintenance and increases in funding tied to ratings. –More carrots and sticks from Arne Duncan, but for private programs now, too.


      • I wondered why the Michigan Family Child Care provider made no mention of RttT-ELC, so I checked and I see now that Michigan applied but did not win the RttT-ELC grant, which would probably be why TQRIS is technically still voluntary there.


    • Carol’s response makes me more hopeful about the future. Maybe people with education experience actually know something about education!


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