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The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics

reviewed by W. Steven Barnett - September 25, 2007

coverTitle: The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics
Author(s): David L. Kirp
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674026411, Pages: 333, Year: 2007
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Alexis de Tocqueville (1840/1966, vol. 2) once noted that Americans are practical, business-oriented, and “fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood….” (p. 130).  These habits of mind and heart are evident in David Kirp’s new book The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics beginning with the book’s very title. It is hardly accidental that Kirp identifies the movement he chronicles as a “sandbox investment” and not “sandbox solidarity.”  With such a title it is perhaps inevitable that this book would be reviewed by an economist.  I should point out that in addition to practicing the dismal science, my research comes under the lens of the present work, and I have played a small part in the preschool movement The Sandbox Investment describes.  However, my purpose here is not to explain my view of that movement, but David Kirp’s.

The Sandbox Investment is reminiscent of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in more ways than one.  There is a similarity of methods.  Kirp traveled the country observing and interviewing, and he reviewed a great deal of written material.  Like Tocqueville he has earned the right to report that:

Whenever a point could be established by the aid of written documents, I have had recourse to the original text, and to the most authentic and approved works.  I have cited my authorities in the notes, and anyone may verify them….If the point in question was important or doubtful, I was not satisfied with one testimony, but I formed my opinion on the evidence of several witnesses. (Tocqueville, 1835/ 1966, vol. 1, p. xlvii)

There is another similarity.  Kirp’s book is also about American Democracy.  Although narrower in its focus on preschool education and save-the-child politics, it is still admirably broad.  The Sandbox Investment adroitly moves from science to policy and from policy to politics.  Within the sciences Kirp covers genetics, neuroscience, psychology, and economics.  Such a broad scope risks the occasional misstep with details, and I found a couple.  The well-know Perry Preschool program’s cost is not quite so high relative to Head Start and other public programs as Kirp indicates.  Businessman and preschool advocate Rob Dugger would like to have "come from generations of Virginia wealth" and own Oshkosh (p.260), but he didn't. In fact, quite the opposite; he was born in economically backward Prince Edward County and saw the consequences of failure to invest in children when this county closed their public schools rather than comply with the Supreme Court's Brown decision. This is one of the reasons he has made working to maximize the life success of every child a high personal priority. These minor missteps may occasionally mar the surface of this book, but they don’t impact its substance.   

The Sandbox Investment begins with an overview and then takes the reader on a tour of Chicago preschool programs, including the renowned Chicago Child Parent Centers.  Kirp combines a child’s-eye view of educational quality with an adult’s-eye view of the educational policies that affect quality.   Three succeeding chapters review research taking up, in turn, studies of preschool education’s effects on learning and development, the economics of early development and investments therein, and neuroscience and genetics.  These are well documented, but differ from more traditional research reviews in that they ask researchers to comment on their own and others’ work as well as on the policy implications.  This helps clarify, if not resolve, conflicting claims.  Although the reviews of research are firmly embedded in the policy context, Kirp completes this job in the next chapter, providing a concise history of preschool politics and policy from WWII to 2001 that introduces the divisions between child care and education.  

Kirp picks up the history from there with a tale of major philanthropic foundations “jumpstarting a movement” (p. 153) for high-quality preschool education for all three- and four-year-olds.  Proponents and critics of the “movement” are represented in their own words.  It is here that many key issues of policy and politics come into full view.  Should preschool education and/or child care be means-tested or universal?  Should parental choice be unconstrained or limited by standards and regulation? How narrow or broad should the movement’s initial policy and political goals be: good education for three- and four-year olds, a comprehensive system of care and education from birth to five, or a social welfare system for children encompassing child care, education, health care, and more?  Kirp follows up on these questions with four case studies of state sandbox politics that illustrate the consequences of various choices of policy and political strategy.

The final chapters of The Sandbox Investment take readers across the Atlantic to politics and policy in the United Kingdom and then returns home to Kids-First politics here.  The late Urie Bronfenbrenner (1992) wrote an article titled “Child Care in the Anglo-Saxon Mode” emphasizing the dismal support English-speaking nations provided for child rearing and development.  Bronfenbrenner was hopeful that this situation might change, and it has—in the UK.  The Sandbox Investment pinpoints the beginning of that change in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s 1999 promise to end child poverty in a generation.  What followed was a bold set of policies: a minimum wage of nearly $10 an hour, paid parental leave, earned income and child tax credits, and new child care and early education initiatives.  The early childhood initiatives include a guaranteed free early education for 12.5 hours a week for 38 weeks for every 3- and 4-year old (rising to 15 and then 20 hours over the years) and a much broader effort called Sure Start.  

Sure Start is designed to provide one stop-shopping for early education, child care, health care, and family support from conception through age four.  Anyone familiar with Early Head Start and Head Start in the United States will see Sure Start’s American roots.  If anything Sure Start seems to have embraced some U.S. principles with a convert’s enthusiasm: Sure Start local programs had tremendous autonomy, parent choice was paramount, and government prescribed no set of services.  Sure Start centers were located first in the most highly disadvantaged neighborhoods, but those services were available to all children and families in the service area.  More than 1000 centers operated by 2006, and 3500 are slated to open by 2010 so that every child and family in the nation will have access.  Sure Start has proven wildly popular with parents.  

Whether Blair’s policies are accomplishing their goals is less sure.  In the most recent statistics, child poverty moved up not down.  Better funded public preschool programs produce better educational outcomes than the less expensive private sector programs.  Initial evaluations of Sure Start yielded a “mixed report card,” in Kirp’s (p. 234) words, finding little evidence of increased service use or usefulness, and at best, modest benefits for children and parents.  Some of the most disadvantaged children and families may have been slightly worse off.  Those familiar with the research will not be surprised.  As one evaluation reported “This general and highly varied approach to early intervention contrasts markedly with virtually all other early interventions demonstrated to be effective...” (NESS Research Team, 2005, p. 1).

This hasn’t seemed to dampen the Labour government’s enthusiasm for its policies.  One reason may be that the policies remain highly popular with the public.  The Sure Start brand name has been extended to programs for children up to age 14 and to16 for children with disabilities.  At the same time, the government has not neglected concerns about effectiveness, but has responded to the Sure Start evaluations by introducing reforms designed to improve the program. Still, it is as yet unclear whether investments will be sufficiently large to support quality and whether the quality of the resulting services will be sufficiently high to produce the kinds of outcomes promised.  The Sandbox Investment poses that question, but recognizes that we will all have to wait to see how this plays out.  

Given the political success of Kids-First policies in the UK, The Sandbox Investment asks whether such a policy initiative might succeed in the United States, and whether universal preschool education might be the leading edge of Kids-First politics here.  Policies that emphasize “making work pay,” increased tax credits, decentralization, children’s health care, and parental choice in early education and child care all have appeal here.  Much of the UK policy agenda came out of Treasury and was framed in terms that Tocqueville would have found familiar—the kind of benefit-cost analyses that appeal to self-interest rightly understood.  If this has not been emphasized quite so publicly in the UK as it might be in the United States, it is nevertheless there.  Will the American cousins succeed if they borrow back?  Kirp suggests they may well do so and offers as evidence several recent examples, including Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina and Congressman Chet Edwards.  Hunt’s Smart Start policies have much in common with, and may have been another source of inspiration for the UK’s Sure Start. Edwards was one of only two Democrats to survive the election after being targeted by Texas redistricting in 2003, and Kirp attributes his survival to Kids-First politics.

The Sandbox Investment should garner a broad audience of those concerned with early childhood education, and education and public policy more generally.  It is well-written and well-reasoned.  Like most good books it raises as many new questions as it answers. Foremost among these is just how far the American preschool movement and Kids-First politics will go toward addressing the needs of all children, and how much will policies remain limited by the means-tested, targeted approaches of the past?  As The Sandbox Investment recognizes, this is not just an economic question—it is also a moral one. The answer will depend on American habits of the heart and mind.  It is also political.  Democrats have largely led the advance of Kids-First politics here.  Will they advance these politics as the party of the poor or the party of all Americans?  Will Republicans cede Kids-First politics to Democrats or develop their own agenda and policy prescriptions as they have for K-12 education?  In the run-up to the 2008 elections, and in their aftermath, we may learn the answers to these and other questions.  The Sandbox Investment is a terrific resource for scholars interested in children’s policy.  It could become required reading for candidates and their advisors, as well.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992).  Child care in the Anglo-Saxon mode.  In M.E. Lamb, KJ. Sternberg, C.P. Hwang, & A.G. Broberg  (Eds.), Child Care in Context (281-291).  Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

NESS Research Team (2005). Early Impacts of Sure Start Local Programmes on Children and Families. Surestart Report 13.  London: DfES. Available at http://www.ness.bbk.ac.uk/documents/activities/impact/1183.pdf

Tocqueville, A. de (1966). Democracy in America. (Vol. 1) (H. Reeve, Trans.). New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House. (Original work published 1835)

Tocqueville, A. de (1966). Democracy in America. (Vol. 2) (H. Reeve, Trans.). New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House. (Original work published 1840)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 25, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14620, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 4:31:57 AM

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About the Author
  • W. Steven Barnett
    National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University
    E-mail Author
    W. STEVEN BARNETT is Board of Governors Professor of Education and Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. His research on the economics of early care and education includes landmark benefit-cost analyses of the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs. Much of his research focuses on the short- and long-term effectiveness of various types of preschool programs and on policy issues including the distribution of early educational opportunities. Dr. Barnett earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Michigan. Recent publications include “Early Childhood Development and Social Mobility” with Clive Belfield in The Future of Children (2006), and “Early Childhood Program Design and Economic Returns: Comparative Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Abecedarian Program and Policy Implications” with Leonard Masse in Economics of Education Review (2007).
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