By Frank Wessling
People feeling the aches and challenges of advancing age sometimes comment, “You’ve got to be tough to be old.” The same could be said of being educated and being healthy in the freedom-loving United States.
Recent studies in education find us still struggling for ways to give poor children an equal opportunity for education. Other studies are finding that immigrant families see their health tend to deteriorate the longer they live in America. The lure of the sugar drink and McDonalds and the easy ride is seductive. Toughness becomes a specialty lifestyle for athletes rather than a common virtue of both body and spirit.
The children of immigrants begin to show the greater incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes that makes them fit in the American scene very well.
In education we still haven’t found the toughness needed to support a fair opportunity for every child. The latest disappointment is in preschool results. A report last week on preschool in Iowa showed that by third grade, those children who came through preschool programs had lost any advantage they showed earlier in school readiness, reading and math.
Other studies of preschool effects have reached the same conclusion. The early stimulation provided by 3- and 4-year-old programs help children do better in the early primary grades of school. The effect is especially strong for children from poor and minority homes. But by third grade, when reading, and understanding through reading, becomes crucial, and mathematics becomes more complicated than mere counting, those children seem to lose the boost they gained from preschool.
They have only the old resources of family, native intelligence and experience that give them various advantages or disadvantages relative to their classmates.
Some family situations are healthier, more supportive, providing more stimulating experience than others. Some are more stable, with a more secure financial and emotional base. Some home environments encourage active learning and study. A good preschool program will provide all of those goods, leveling the field for all children in the primary school years. If those supports fade away, if they have no legs, in a sense, in a child’s home, there is no lasting educational benefit from the preschool experience.
This doesn’t mean that preschool programs aren’t worthwhile. They are valuable in many ways, especially as needed child care in this economy that wants every parent of modest means to have a paid job. But preschool programs, even the best among them, are no substitute for a good, stable home. And public policy that supports preschool is not a substitute for policies that support stable, healthy family life. We should have both.
For example, consider a national policy of full employment. It can never be fully achieved, but a political commitment in that direction would mean a recovery of the middle class, more marriageable men and thus fewer single parent homes, more stability in homes and thus more confidence in a future worth studying for.
The American way of liberty allows both great good to flourish and great disparities in the distribution of goods. Those disparities, the great differences between rich and poor especially, are a threat to our sense of community. If we claim that every child has an equal chance in this society, then we need to show the political will necessary to pay our way forward for the common good, the binding of us all in common purpose. Individual virtue is necessary, but it is not disconnected from what goes on in society.
Children learn the lesson in preschool: sharing is good. Things, resources, are meant for the good of everyone, not just the biggest and strongest. When one is happy alone, one is alone. When one helps make others happy, joy breaks out. We know that joy is a sign of God’s presence. And sharing is meant to be an embedded, tough virtue, not abandoned in third grade – or ever.