Education Opinion

Early Childhood: Closing the Gap Before it Opens

By Jessica Shyu — December 17, 2008 3 min read
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We are closing the achievement gap before it ever begins.

You heard me. The gap won’t have a chance.

It was late summer and I was at a coffee shop desperately pumping up my hesitant first-year teacher for her kindergarten interview. She had taught secondary math all summer and now she had a chance in early childhood. Understandably, she was scared. As someone with only secondary experience, I was mildly terrified too. But if it’s where she was needed to be, then let’s do it. She just needed a little urging.

Pounding the table with my fist, I explained: Preschool is where 3- and 4-year olds are getting the opportunity to learn their letters and be set up for reading on time. All across the district in Teach For America-taught Kindergarten classes, kids are learning to read at a first or second grade level by the time they enter first grade. Early childhood education (ECE) is where you’re putting them, not on the right track, but the better than best track. These children may come from low-income families, but you’re giving them an even greater head start in life. We are going to kill the achievement gap before it even starts.

By the time I finished my passionate speech, I was ready to take on a class of 5-year-olds myself. Thankfully, so was my teacher, who went off the next day to interview and scored the job. By the way, despite her (and my) initial fears, her kids (and I) are doing great.

Thankfully, our enthusiasm is not alone. Obama has just pledged $10 billion toward ECE. (1.4% of the $700 billion bailout money, but the biggest chunk of change toward ECE yet!)

The New York Times writes: “Driving the movement is research by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, James J. Heckman, and others showing that each dollar devoted to the nurturing of young children can eliminate the need for far greater government spending on remedial education, teenage pregnancy and prisons.”

Popular opinion supports it. Educators, foundations and researchers are all pouring time and energy into it. Early childhood education is in the spotlight more than ever. Let’s just make sure we do it right. Let’s make sure it’s quality (and fun!) education that teaches students developmentally appropriate and rigorous material that sets them up to be not just on-track, but ahead for first grade. This means learning their letters along with playing dress up. It means deliberately being taught how to play nice with others, how to sit quietly during Morning Meeting, and how to draw with lots of different colors of markers.

My pessimistic side is bracing for lots of preschools suddenly sprouting that end up being little more than glorified daycare and little care for quality (and age appropriate and fun) instruction. But it doesn’t have to be so. Educators across the country, including Teach For America teachers in DC teaching early education, have made significant and measurable gains for their preschool and kindergarten students. (I’m tooting our own horn, because the ECE team here is pretty incredible.)

According to the recent Education Week article, “During the 2007-08 school year, 124 pre-K pupils in the 49,000-student school district who were taught by TFA corps members learned to recognize all or most of the letters of the alphabet, according to the study by Westat.

The findings are “remarkable,” writes Nicholas Zill, the author of the paper, who recently retired from his post as a vice president of the Rockville, Md.-based research organization, “because getting young children from low-income families to learn all their letters before they start kindergarten is an accomplishment that is not usually achieved in Head Start or in public school prekindergartens serving low-income, central-city families.”

So, Mr. Obama, thank you for the promise of 10 big ones. But please, make sure we use it on quality care and instruction for children and parents like you promised during the debates. Because until we close this achievement gap, it’s a rough learning world out there and we need to arm these four-year-olds with all we can before they become a part of it.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.