"Pre-k" and "preschool" are often used interchangeably in education circles and by the news media. After all, the two can mean the same thing: schooling that happens prior to kindergarten. But rarely do politicians who’ve declared early education a top priority say they want to expand access to preschool.
Pre-k is seen as a solution to those problems. Preschool, on the other hand, connotes nursery school. And when people imagine nursery school, they think of daycare. A babysitting arrangement.
It’s all about the single year that precedes kindergarten: pre-k. In edu-speak, pre-k typically refers to a specific category of early learning that focuses on ensuring kids are prepared for kindergarten.
Framing the final year of preschool as pre-k, some say, implies that it’s an essential building block in a child’s educational experience. The benefits of early education aside, critics question the accuracy of that message, particularly because pre-k isn’t considered compulsory. After all, few states even mandate kindergarten.
It also highlights the growing emphasis placed on the quality and accountability of early education programs and the widespread belief that access to early learning should be a basic government function—something to which every child is entitled. And this is deliberate.
But Steven Barnett, director of NIEER, says there’s a societal value to thinking of preschool as pre-k because it promotes equality. Rather than treating early education as a private service to which only wealthy kids have access, thinking of preschool as pre-k makes it a learning experience that is—or should be—available to every child, rich or poor. The preschool-prekindergarten dichotomy, in contrast, creates a two-tiered education system.