Monday, February 18, 2013

Early Childhood Education Deserves Our Support

President Obama’s State of the Union speech last week extolled the virtues of pre-school, and proposed making quality preschool available to every four-year-old in the country. Not a bad idea. 

Predictably, some were calling it a new entitlement, and opposed the proposal on the grounds that it would be unaffordable. What we can or cannot afford is a problematic issue, and I’m not going to pass judgment on that part of the issue. I would agree with the new entitlement claim to the degree that, since millions of parents are currently paying for preschool, transferring those payments to the government, whether local or federal, would certainly be a drastic change. At that point, perhaps we ought to call it school rather than preschool and stop to think deeply about where school rightfully begins and how much should be at public expense. Moreover, we need to consider how much value the public will gain from what would certainly be an entitlement for more affluent populations

What ought not to be seen as an entitlement, however, is early education as a strategy to improve under-performing schools in high poverty areas. Parents in these schools want their children to succeed, but, for a variety of reasons, often do not have the skills to accomplish that. School principals both want and need those students to succeed so that their schools can succeed as well. Let's get them together. 

President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program and President Obama’s Race to the Top have drastically altered the starting point for discussions on accountability for success in America’s public schools. Holding teachers, principals, schools, and districts accountable for the performance of their students is no longer some pie in the sky dream, but a day to day reality across the country. Certainly there are varying degrees of success, but there is now very little argument about whether or not accountability is  going to happen or not. There are valid arguments being made about the amount of testing that should be taking place, and what the nature of the tests should be. There is also ongoing discussion about the standards for which students should be responsible. However, that they should demonstrate mastery, and that school staff should be held responsible for the achievement of that mastery, is no longer at issue.

This sea change in accountability has made school principals a cohort of highly motivated stake-holders uniquely positioned to leverage early childhood programs. 

Principals of schools in high poverty areas have a huge stake in the future success of the students who tend to show up at their schools woefully underprepared. Sadly, these principals are hampered by their lack of influence over the first five years of the lives of the children that show up at their doors for Kindergarten. Fewer than 48% of those students, according to Julia B. Issacs of the Brookings Institution, show up ready for school at age five. For children from moderate to high income families, that number is 75%. Issacs lists several factors for this difference: the mother has less than a high school diploma, the mother is not married or is a teenager, low birth weight, smoking during pregnancy, the mother is in less than ideal health or is depressed, there is little maternal supportiveness (often due to others of these factors), and lack of cognitive stimulation.

This last factor, is supported by research on vocabulary acquisition. Reporting in the Atlantic, David Shenk cited research dating back to the 1980’s, by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, in which they observed families from different socioeconomic groups and noted the differing tone and complexity of the words these families used with their children. They also reported a vast difference in the numbers of words spoken to the children, finding that children of professionals hear about 1500 more words per hour than children in poor families. Now this is the total number of words spoken, not the numbers of different words. The cumulative effect is nevertheless staggering, resulting in a gap of over 32 million words heard by age four.

What this research also suggests is that preschool at age four is too late to intervene for these children, because they are already behind by millions of words spoken to them, as well as by the difference in the kinds of words spoken.

New York Times columnist David Brooks’ devoted his Thursday column to this issue, speaking fairly glowingly (not his usual view) of President Obama’s pre-school proposal. He said something I thought was especially to the point: “Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills.”

This is the fact of life that principals of schools in poor neighborhoods face every day. I don’t believe that large numbers of poor parents lack interest in helping their children. They love their children as much as anyone else. They are, however, woefully underprepared for the task of giving their children an opportunity equal to that faced by children raised by more affluent parents, particularly when those parents are so much better educated. Poor parents are overwhelmed by hosts of factors that conspire to deny their children what every parent wants–a chance to have a better life than they’ve had.

Insuring that children from poor families have an opportunity to attend pre-school at age four is helpful, but it isn’t enough, nor is it nearly soon enough to help these children. 
If we want to spend money to help these students, we need to target it specifically at schools in struggling neighborhoods and begin reaching out to parents as early as birth to offer (not force) support in preparing children to enter Kindergarten five years on. Why not hire staff who are part teachers and part social workers to work both in the homes and in school centers to help teach the parents how to talk to their children more, read to them, help them learn how to behave in when they get to school? 

To insure that the money to fund these programs is used effectively, these outreach programs could be placed under the direction of the local principals, with the additional staff working as part of the school’s staff and having a goal of dramatically improving the school-readiness of future students. These principals would be uniquely positioned to be held accountable for the real-world success of these potential outreach programs, and the added staff would go a long way toward giving these principals and teachers a chance to be competitive in a world of increased school accountability. 

If we are serious about providing equal opportunity for all students, we need to get further ahead of the curve than age four, because by then it is too late.

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