Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

A Vision for Universal Preschool Education

reviewed by Patricia Cantor - April 25, 2008

coverTitle: A Vision for Universal Preschool Education
Author(s): Edward Zigler, Walter S. Gilliam, Stephanie M. Jones
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, New York
ISBN: 0521612993, Pages: 278, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

The movement to establish public preschool for three- and four-year-olds has mushroomed in the United States in the last decade. According to The State of Preschool 2007, a yearbook published by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), 38 states provide some kind of subsidized preschool education. A handful of these states offer publicly funded preschool for all children, while the rest offer preschool programs for targeted groups. NIEER estimates that over one million three- and four-year-old children attended state-funded preschool programs last year (www.nieer.org/yearbook).  

Public support for high-quality early education is strong. In 2001, nearly 90 percent of respondents to a national poll declared themselves to be in favor of state-funded universal preschool (Zigler, Gilliam, & Jones, p. 4).  A major foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, has committed about $75 million to the goal of “expand[ing] access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for all three- and four-year-olds in America” (http://www.pewtrusts.org/our_work.aspx?category=90). Other private foundations are engaged in similar, smaller-scale preschool initiatives. The business community, alerted by the work of economists such as Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Nobel laureate James Heckman, is excited by the cost-benefits of investing in the very young. And law enforcement officials are focusing on the correlation between attendance in preschool programs and lower incarceration rates later in life. As Richard Whitmire (2007) points out in “Introducing the ‘No Toddler Left Behind’ Era,” “Governors searching for poverty- and crime-fighting tools that pay off have settled on preschool.”

Yet despite the growing number of states investing in preschool programs, the movement is controversial.  Even among those committed to public preschool, there is disagreement about whether programs should be universal (accessible to all children) or targeted (accessible to poor and/or “high-risk” children). Critics within the education profession have expressed concerns about the challenges of providing high-quality preschool programs on a large scale.  

In A Vision for Universal Preschool Education, Zigler, Gilliam, and Jones offer a model for a universally accessible, publicly funded system for early care and education that would optimize young children’s growth and development. They define their vision of universal preschool as:

…A nationwide, universal system of preschool education that is of high quality, is developmentally appropriate, and is comprehensive in scope, targeting the cognitive, social-emotional, and physical domains of development. The preschool system will be available to all three- and four-year-old children whose parents want them to attend…The mission of public prekindergarten will be to enable every single child to begin school with the skills needed to succeed. (p. 2)

The book begins with an overview of the current state of the universal preschool movement, including its roots in research arising from high-profile early intervention programs like the Perry Preschool Project, the North Carolina Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers. Current state-funded preschool programs vary widely, in terms not only of access (universal or targeted), but length of the school day and age of children enrolled. Some state programs are administered by public school districts; others are operated by a combination of schools and community-based organizations.  

In addition to documenting the growing support for universal preschool from the business community, K-12 education, and law enforcement groups, the authors take stock of opposition to the universal preschool movement.  Although some resistance arises from conservatives who decry the creation of a “nanny state” in which the government takes child-rearing away from the family, opposition is not limited to those who think that young children should be cared for at home by their parents. Some educators and child advocates fear that institutionalizing preschool could lead to a premature focus on academics, a pushing down of No Child Left Behind-like standards of accountability, and an over-emphasis on cognitive gains measured by standardized tests. (These and other opposition arguments are thoroughly discussed in Bruce Fuller’s Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle Over Early Education, 2007.)  The authors remain cognizant of these criticisms, and try in subsequent chapters to show how their model will avoid these pitfalls.

The chapter on “School Readiness” addresses an issue that sends up a red flag to universal preschool critics like Fuller. The authors state up front that,

The purpose of universal prekindergarten (UPK) is to help all children get ready for the learning opportunities that will be presented when they begin formal schooling. How school readiness is defined has important implications for how UPK should be organized, the types and quality of services that should be provided, and the length and intensity of programming needed to have the best chance of achieving this goal. (p. 19)

They acknowledge the debate about defining school readiness, explaining that, “at the two poles of this controversy are those who champion a very broad, ecological perspective of school readiness versus those who advocate for a narrow, academically oriented view” (p. 25). The authors agree with the ecological perspective that “Children need strong families, high-quality child care, good schools and teachers, and communities that provide everything they need to help them grow and learn” (p. 26). They concede, however, that this definition is too unrealistic to guide policy, because, “As much as we would like, preschool alone cannot change the world.” At the same time, the authors reject a narrowly academic view of school readiness that focuses on literacy and math skills. Instead, they recommend what they call a “whole-child perspective,” in which school readiness encompasses attention to children’s physical well-being, social and emotional development, motivation for learning, use of language, and cognitive growth. This whole-child approach to school readiness is an essential component of the authors’ vision for universal preschool. Throughout the book, the authors emphasize that benefits of preschool programs should not be assessed in simple terms, such as scores on standardized tests; rather, states must develop goals that address all aspects of children’s development and sophisticated processes for measuring program impact. They point to the Head Start Child Outcomes Framework as a model that states can follow in developing their own readiness goals and processes for measuring outcomes.   

As the book’s title makes clear, the authors endorse universal preschool—specifically, “a voluntary preschool system with universal access” (p. xiii). To reinforce this point, they include chapters on the need for universal access to preschool, both for children who live in poverty and children who do not. In contrast to industrialized nations in Europe and elsewhere, in which public preschool is widely available to all children, the United States has developed a “haphazard, two-tiered preschool system where poor children attend one set of schools and wealthy children another, and many in both groups and the majority of the vast group in between may or may not get the chance to receive high-quality early education” (p. 91). This early experience with inequity is hardly the way to prepare children to participate in a democracy. The segregation of children by income troubles the authors. One of them, Edward Zigler, expresses his discomfort with the two-tiered system even more starkly in another book advocating for universal preschool, David Kirp’s The Sandbox Investment (2007). Kirp quotes Zigler as saying, “I’ve been troubled from day one that we came up with a system that segregated kids. Does anybody think that that is a moral society?”  (Kirp, 2007, p. 90).  

In addition to ending an inequitable system, making preschool available for all children could also enhance its political viability.  As the authors note in the book’s final chapter, “Another compelling reason to champion preschool for all children is that this may be the best way to attract the political will needed to mount and sustain these programs” (p. 246).

Having made their case for a universal, as opposed to targeted, preschool program, the authors devote several chapters to fuller descriptions of the components of a high-quality program.  Along with the taking a whole-child approach to school readiness, their ideal program would involve parents in their children’s education and be staffed by well-qualified, experienced teachers with bachelor’s degrees in early childhood.  Chapters describe in detail what is needed to achieve each of these components and identify areas for further research.  

Lead author Edward Zigler is well known as one of the architects of Head Start and as the founder of the Schools of the 21st Century. It is fitting, then, that the book discusses each of these programs in relation to universal preschool. The authors propose the Schools of the 21st Century as “a framework for a strong partnership among educators, child care providers, and parents to work together in the best interest of children” (p. 210).  Just as the Schools of the 21st Century tapped into existing public schools to offer comprehensive services, the authors “think a system for the care and education of young children should be established within the existing structure of public education” (p. 201). The principles that guide Schools of the 21st Century, they suggest, can be used to guide implementation of universal preschool at the local level. With regard to Head Start, the authors propose that if/when universal preschool becomes a reality, Head Start could build on its current strengths by “serving infants and toddlers, addressing comprehensive child and family needs, and providing special educational services” (p. 236). These functions, which Head Start currently does well, could become areas of specific expertise to supplement universal preschool.

A Vision for Universal Preschool Education is carefully constructed. Each chapter is intended to stand on its own “as a complete statement of its particular topic” (p. xx). This creates some overlap, but also emphasizes the correlations among aspects of program quality. The chapters build the case for universal preschool logically and lucidly, thoroughly discussing each program element needed to achieve their vision.  The writing is clear and accessible, well-suited for the intended audience of the educated general public and policy makers. The chapter on “Economic Return of Investments in Preschool Education,” for example, offers a reader-friendly explanation of the complex concept of cost-benefit analysis and its implications.

Zigler, Gilliam, and Jones make a compelling case for their vision of universal preschool and how it can be realized. They appear convinced that universal preschool will happen, and that the focus now should be on how to shape universal preschool. But will policymakers be influenced by this book? Zigler’s name carries national standing, which may bring this book to the attention of key decision makers. Given the complexities of legislating educational policy, it is a little frightening to think about whether politicians and policymakers have the wherewithal to envision a comprehensive, high-quality universal preschool—or to adopt the vision of this book. While the economic benefits of universal preschool may be convincing, the temptation may be strong to focus on narrow, easily measured cognitive aspects of school readiness rather than adopting the whole-child approach recommended here. While reading this book, I kept thinking of the old nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When preschool is good, as envisioned here, it’s very, very good for children. But when it’s bad—as is too often the reality—it’s horrid.


Barnett, W.S., Hustedt, J.T., Friedman, A.H., Boyd, J.S., & Ainsworth, P. (2008). The state of preschool 2007.  Retrieved April 22, 2008 from http://nieer.org/yearbook/

Fuller, B. (2007).  Standardized childhood: The political and cultural struggle over early education. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kirp, D.L. (2007). The sandbox investment: The preschool movement and kids-first politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Whitmire, R. (22 October 2007). Introducing the ‘No Toddler Left Behind’ era. Retrieved April 22, 2008 from http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1007/6482.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 25, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15237, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 8:49:34 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Patricia Cantor
    Plymouth State University
    E-mail Author
    PATRICIA CANTOR is Chair of the Education Department and Professor of Early Childhood Education at Plymouth State University, in Plymouth, New Hampshire. She is co-author with Mary Cornish of " 'Thinking about thinking...it's not just for philosophers': Using metacognitive journals to teach and learn about constructivism," which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education. Dr. Cantor is a member of the New Hampshire State Child Care Advisory Council.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue