Waiting Until Pre-K Is Too Little, Too Late

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Pre-kindergarten is a concept with a large following today. Aside from differing views on how to pay for it, President Barack Obama and many mayors, governors, and members of Congress support this issue with broad feel-good appeal.

As our country grapples with growing income disparity between the least and most privileged, it has become clear that, for disadvantaged youngsters, income disparity also leads to academic disparity by the time they reach kindergarten. What has generated little notice is how far behind these children already are by age 3 and how much more effective birth-to-age-3 (or -5) programs would be in eliminating this disparity.

For many years, I have tutored 1st graders who live in shelters or housing projects. This year I worked with a student I’ll call Jasmine, who lives in a shelter here in New York City. Her mother cannot afford a phone, so it is almost impossible to reach Jasmine. She typically does not do her homework and had already missed a third of the school year when I started working with her.

When she does make it to school, she is often too sleepy to focus. Jasmine lives with her extended family in one large room, and the clothes she wears are chosen from a bin of donated used clothes.

Numerous studies have confirmed that children from poor families like Jasmine’s are already at a significant social and academic deficit by the time they reach their third birthdays. That makes a solid case for birth-to-3 programs for these youngsters, who have a very steep slope to climb to start kindergarten on par with their middle-class peers, even if they attend prekindergarten at age 4.

"Communities must take the lead in creating early-intervention programs so poor children can enter kindergarten on a par with children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds."

We know that babies are born primed to learn and that their first years of life affect the success they experience later in school. Children who are exposed to more language and caring interactions have a large advantage over those living in stressful environments or with unresponsive caregivers.

The psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley have shown that poor children enter school with language deficits because their parents or caregivers have spoken less to them in comparison with children raised in higher-income households. This verbal achievement gap reveals itself as early as 9 months in age.

Although hearing words is important, so are the social skills one needs for the classroom—paying attention, cooperation, and sharing. James Heckman, a Nobel-Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, says that parenting matters as much as income in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality, especially in the years before the child starts school.

Diana Mendley Rauner of the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund agrees. In a 2010 article in Good magazine, she wrote that, even before literacy, children need to build their social and emotional skills. These so-called soft skills are the ability to follow directions, start and finish projects, and know when to ask for help. These skills are built through responsive relationships with parents from Day One and form the foundation for learning.

For these reasons, the future for Jasmine is not bright. Even if she had started school at age 4, she would still have been far behind her middle-class peers. She is the perfect example of a child who would benefit most from a high-quality early-education program.

The stumbling block is how communities already lacking in resources can finance such programs. Given the roadblocks to financing universal pre-K, it is reasonable to assume that there will be no universal early-years programs anytime soon.

A number of communities are tackling this problem by mobilizing available resources and focusing on high quality, continuity of care, blended funding, and partnerships with local public schools. Two examples of this are the nonprofit Educare and the Appleton, Wis., school district, each of which runs birth-to-5 programs.

Educare opened its first early-education center in Chicago in 2000. Head Start and Early Head Start programs fund much of its operating costs, with the balance coming from philanthropists, the local school district, and the state of Illinois. Educare centers provide early intervention for educationally and socially at-risk children from birth to age 5, with the goal that they will start school on par with their middle-class peers.

A 2013 study released by the Ounce of Prevention Fund showed that 67 percent of the Chicago Educare’s first graduates met or exceeded Illinois standards in reading in 3rd grade, as did 74 percent in math. And fewer than half the students who received special services at Educare still needed these services in elementary school.

In 2006, after seeing that many of its children were entering kindergarten with large academic gaps, the Appleton Area School District launched a birth-to-5 program with a goal of having children reading on grade level by 3rd grade. A common misperception is that Title I funds only support programs for disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds, but they can also be utilized starting at birth, and the district receives much of its funding from Title I.

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Like Educare, the Appleton program benefits from multiple state and federal funding sources and contributions from corporations and philanthropists.

The take-home here is that until the federal government tackles learning deficits at their earliest stages, communities must take the lead in creating early-intervention programs so poor children can enter kindergarten on a par with children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. The term for this is “owning” the situation. That such ownership is not just sensible but empowering should also become a rallying cry for early services.

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