Early Childhood Opinion

Build School Systems on a Solid Foundation

By Gerrit Westervelt & Cassie Schwerner — December 20, 2011 5 min read
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It’s time for the education policy world to learn a lesson from “The Three Little Pigs.”

To withstand the attack of the big, bad wolf, one pig built a house out of straw, the second built a house of wood, and the third built a house of bricks. All three undertook the same project and had the same goal, but they experienced vastly different results. Two houses—and their occupants, in some tellings—sadly succumbed to the wolf. Only the house of brick remained standing as a tribute to that pig’s foresight and hard work.

After 20 years of building education systems around standards-based reform, poor kids remain too often stuck with the least-prepared teachers; attend school in dilapidated buildings; and lack access to the top-notch preschool, child-care, and family-support programs that can help them start school on par with more-advantaged children.

The schools may be standing, but the promises of hope and a high-quality education have long since been blown away for far too many.

It’s time for this nation to start planning like the little pig that built his house with bricks. We must invest in the best materials and follow the right blueprint.

Let’s begin with the foundation. Research shows us that 85 percent of the brain is formed by age 5. Nurturing and supportive relationships with adults and positive learning experiences during those early years shape the brain’s architecture and wire it for future learning. As Walter Gilliam of the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center has noted, addressing missed opportunities later in a child’s life is like physical rehabilitation: It’s harder, less successful, and more expensive than investing early.

The need to provide early opportunities is greatest for students of color and those from low-income families. Latino children now make up a majority or near majority of 1st graders in nine major U.S. cities, and by 2050, students from “minority” groups will represent more than 60 percent of all children.

This new demographic includes groups that are the most likely to miss out on good early education. Donald Hernandez of the City University of New York highlights the consequences of a weak learning foundation: His “Double Jeopardy” report finds that one in four 3rd graders who have lived in poverty and are not reading at grade level will fail to finish high school by age 19. That is more than six times the rate for proficient 3rd grade readers.

The need to provide early opportunities is greatest for students of color and those from low-income families."

This leads to educational systems that don’t work for most students. Massachusetts, for example, has the highest percentage of 8th graders proficient in reading, but the rate—43 percent—is still well below half.

Fortunately, policymakers are focusing on early childhood, giving us a golden opportunity to give all historically disadvantaged children the strong starts they deserve. But to have the biggest impact, political and education leaders must increase quality early-care and -education opportunities for students who need them the most.

The federal Early Learning Challenge grant program, which named its first nine state grantees Dec. 16, is the latest effort to draw attention to early learning. More than two-thirds of states applied for a share of the $500 million in the program, which is aimed at improving the quality of—and expanding access to—early-learning programs. To leverage this effort and improve early-learning opportunities for those who need them the most, states and districts should:

Close participation gaps. We can’t close the academic-achievement gap unless we first close the early-education opportunity gap. Hispanic children are far less likely than white or black children to be in high-quality child-care centers or preschools.

Ensure that students’ home language and culture are encouraged and supported. The best programs help children develop essential concepts in their first language; actively involve families; provide alternative and collaborative learning strategies; and create multiple ways for children to demonstrate interests, knowledge, and skills.

Develop systems to rate quality and improvement of early-childhood systems. States must continue to develop, implement, and refine publicly accessible rating systems that measure teacher qualifications, classroom environment, health and safety practices, daily program structure, and how well programs partner with families.

Build effective preparation programs for early-childhood professionals. Better-educated and -trained teachers generally are more knowledgeable about appropriate teaching practices and deliver better learning experiences for children. Early-childhood teacher education programs must provide sufficient course content and nurture practical skills, particularly to support children of diverse backgrounds.

Commit to essential components of high-quality preschool. Other states need to follow the lead of New Jersey, Connecticut, and others that are providing comprehensive preschool education programs. The components of these programs include: curriculum geared toward school readiness; a qualified and certified teacher and assistant in every classroom; maximum class size of 15 students; adequate space and supplies; and supplemental services, such as transportation, dental, health, and other social services.

Make the necessary financial investments. The nation gets a great return on its investments in early education. Researchers have shown that up to $10 can be returned for every $1 spent on early-childhood education in savings later on remediation and criminal justice, or in the form of higher earnings.

To close achievement gaps and raise overall student proficiency, states need to create comprehensive early-childhood systems that support and strengthen families, provide health services that ensure children’s healthy development, and serve children with special needs. State policies need to reflect this “whole child” view of child development.

We can’t afford not to invest the time and money needed to get there. When children don’t get the opportunities they need to succeed, including quality preschool, the long-term economic effects are staggering. McKinsey and Co. estimated that closing the achievement gap in the United States in 1998 would have produced a $525 billion increase in our gross domestic product by 2008. That’s an enviable return.

Encouraging and inspiring work is going on right now. But let’s focus on starting where all successful projects begin: with a solid foundation. In the case of education, that means supporting and building early-childhood-education systems that give all children the start they need to succeed in school and life.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as Build School Systems on a Solid Foundation


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