A Really, Really Bad Idea

The push for full-day government-run pre-schools is largely about empire-building and loot—not the welfare of toddlers

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, April 18, 2005

People who systematically damage little kids are not—most of the time—rewarded with huge compulsory new programs giving them monopoly control over tens of thousands of additional small children.

But here in Nevada, that’s the plan.

Of course, it’s not being marketed that way. Instead, starry-eyed utopians and cynical politicians both are proclaiming that government-run full-day pre-schools will allow “all children” to “realize their full potential.”

Casually ignored in all the excitement is one critically important fact: Nevada’s public school system for years has routinely proved itself incompetent in virtually every relevant category of performance. Unable to achieve even modest goals, it now seeks to expand its responsibilities enormously.

This issue is exceptionally germane, given that the new focus is pre-school children. There the gargantuan Clark County School District has a truly destructive—if rarely reported—record.

For decades, Clark educrats have followed “Progressive,” or Deweyite ideology in a wide range of policy areas, despite its abysmal record. One important instance has been, and remains, “social promotion”—the practice of promoting children each year regardless of their performance.

As education historian Diane Ravitch notes, “Progressive educators … were concerned about the effects of retention and failure on the psychological well-being of the child. These social promotion advocates insisted that schools should put less emphasis on subject matter, discipline, and grades and more emphasis on children’s social adjustment.”

Tragically—and paradoxically—much solid evidence indicates that the Clark school district’s doctrinaire hostility to retention actually has done serious and permanent injury to precisely the “psychological well-being” of thousands of developmentally young students.

What is a developmentally young child? In kindergarten it would be a child with a chronological age of 5, who functions more like a 4-year old in one or more of the five developmental areas—physical, social, emotional, behavioral, or intellectual. To be successful in school, a child must be mature in all five areas.

Yet, exasperating one-size-fits-all ideologues, young children mature at rates set by their own biological clocks. No amount of tutoring, drill and practice, or individual instruction will hurry this process along. Just as children walk and talk when they are ready, and not before, so they will read and sit still for longer periods of time when they are ready, and not before.

National research shows that about 20 percent of children entering kindergarten are developmentally young and unready to proceed directly into first grade. Yet in Clark County, despite the research, arrogant school administrators have insisted on ignoring the developmental readiness issue. Committed to social promotion no matter what, they heedlessly and destructively march unready little tykes into the first grade and the needless damage that ensues.

Much evidence suggests this practice plays a large role in the district’s chronic and well-known failures. When developmentally young children are placed in school prematurely, it’s usually impossible for them to catch up. No matter how hard they—and their parents and teachers—try, the fact is their developmental clock still runs behind. Year after year pushed ahead, they remain at the bottom of the class simply because their developmental age lags—no matter how much individualized instruction they receive. Extremely discouraging to the students, their families and teachers, this situation is a huge and tragic waste.

The Clark County School District’s insistence on kindergarten-to-first grade social promotion contributes significantly to:

  • Lower standardized test scores
  • High numbers of students in remedial programs
  • Many failing students with low self esteem and behavior problems
  • Burned out teachers
  • The district’s record dropout rate

Thus, is it unreasonable to ask that a failing government school system first demonstrate it can do a minimally non-destructive job on its current responsibilities, before it is permitted to hugely expand them? And isn’t this doubly necessary when the expanded responsibilities would be precisely where the system has already a demonstrated record of callous failure?

The U.S. Government Accounting Office recently traced extensive corruption and abuse in the nationwide Head Start program to the fact that Head Start is a non-competing monopoly. As such, in scores of cities, while much public genuflection persists regarding the ideals of the program, the real priority has become schemes for tapping the program’s ample political loot.

Nevada’s K-12 problems stem from a similar cause. Because a politicized government monopoly reigns supreme, the priorities of bureaucrats and empire-building union bosses long ago replaced those of parents and genuinely dedicated teachers.

It’s time for Nevada’s disastrous and failure-ridden monopoly to bite the dust.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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