Friday, February 28, 2014

THE FUTURE IS NOW: The Critical Case for Investing in Quality Early Learning

As noted, this site will branch out occasionally from its mainly literary focus into some other areas I am passionate about: investing in quality early learning is one such area. As with anything I write here, feedback is welcomed...

The Critical Case for Investing in Quality Early Learning

Early Childhood Education has received more attention of late, starting with President Obama’ Early Learning Initiative, which calls for availability of quality preschool for all, greater access to quality childcare through Early Head Start(EHS)/childcare partnerships, and expanded evidence-based voluntary home visiting. Another round of Race to the Top Early Leaning Challenge grants will continue to help awarded states build effective early childhood systems and increase quality and accountability of programs and outcomes. The fiscal year 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Bill indeed directs much-needed support toward federal early learning initiatives, particularly in light of last year’s devastating sequester, which cut programs and resulted in thousands of lost jobs and many more thousands of young children being jettisoned from their places of care. Hopefully the support for early childhood reflected in the 2014 budget presages a long-term commitment, given the critical need to invest in children’s most formative years.

I Believe That Children are The Future.

Oy. Never has there been a more obvious mantra, but despite the aforementioned good funding news, it is rather remarkable how little has been understood and acted upon regarding something so conspicuous—funding levels have ebbed and flowed, subject to budgets and political machinations, crushing reductions have occurred, and the resources have on balance, lagged behind the need.  Of course children are the future. But what are we going to do abou it, particularly in light of growing evidence that that the future is now?
We fret about our ability to compete in the global economy, our poor standing in math, science and other metrics, and we zero in largely on secondary and post- secondary institutions. These are vitally important, yes, but sequence matters here and what we have is a Purloined Letter, that which is so rudimentary and apparent that it may as well be emblazoned in garish, electric lights and yet for so long has been, in relative terms, neglected:

We should see it, but for all too long, we haven't, and that's a mistake. A critical one.

Because it matters. It matters a lot. And let's go ahead and put aside our personal biases about who should be educating children and where children SHOULD be, and deal with the reality of where children ARE. They are many places: at home, in child care, with grandma, at a neighbor's.  Statistics  reveal that in most U.S. families, all of the adults work. Fewer than one-in-three children today have a full-time, stay-at-home parent. Because of this, the majority of kids under five years receive child care from someone other than a parent. Almost one-quarter of children under five are in some sort of organized child care setting, which including  nurseries,  preschools and daycares, though some manner of family child care remains the common arrangement.

But the cost of care is prohibitive for all too many families. The annual cost of child care for an infant in a child care center is higher than a year’s tuition at the average four-year public college in most states. Low-income families spend a much larger portion of income on child care: The average monthly income for a family making less than $1,500 per month was $938 in 2010—49.5 % of which was spent on child care(as compared with 8.6 % for families earning more than $4,500 per month). We exhort folks to join the workforce, but will we ensure they have quality, affordable care for their children to support their ability to remain gainfully employed?  The bottom line: We must support families’ ability to find affordable, accessible, quality care for their children.
Is there an ethical imperative? I say, yes. But I also recognize the folly in imposing one’s ethical beliefs onto others. Besides, reasonable folks can disagree. And though there are surely some Grinches out there, I try to presume positive intent and believe that everyone involved in the discourse cares about children and families. This is not a morality play. But it is stone cold serious. Let’s consider a few more reasons why.
Studies reveal that by the age of 3, a baby's brain has reached almost 90 percent of its adult size, developing nearly 1,000 neural synapses per second. This firestorm of neurological growth and activity is critically dependent on appropriate and consistent stimulation which provides the foundation for learning. Vocabulary skills at 3 years old predict how well a child will read: research has shown  that because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households. It has also been demonstrated that vocabulary skills at 3 years accurately predict how well a child will read, which in turn correlates with future educational success or struggle--88% of kids with difficulty reading at the end of first grade have similar difficulties at the conclusion of fourth grade and 75% of students who read poorly in fourth grade remain poor readers in high school. The challenges and disadvantages faced by these children only compounds from there. What about the role of the family? , critics may ask. A fair inquiry; and the quality early learning interventions embrace and address family engagement, and the belief that a child’s parents, or whatever their family unit, are the first and most important educators. It is not so much a matter of en loco parentis as socium parentis. The goal is to empower, support and involve parents in all aspects of their children’s education and care.
The research is pervasive, but is it persuasive? Is the message getting through to funders and legislators in a way that resonates and compels action?
Well, that depends—largely on the messenger, as it so happens. And while it is essential that early childhood educators, leaders and advocates continue to lead the way, we must nevertheless contend with the “chorus effect”—wherein no matter how much we believe the same message from the same people ought reinforce said message all the more, it is instead diminished or even tuned out, because it is the same message from the same people. Everyone expects early childhood advocates to advocate for early childhood.
But do they expect it from business, law enforcement, even the military?
They soon will. Leaders from these and other sectors of society are recognizing, and witnessing first-hand, the critical role early learning plays in every sector—economic, educational, criminal justice, and yes, even military. On February 18, 2014, two national initiatives designed to rally business leaders behind the notion of improving the economy through investments in early learning,   joined forces. Ready Nation, previously existing under the umbrella of America’s Promise Alliance, merged with America’s Edge, a project of the Council for a Strong America. The combined initiative will operate under the Council for a Strong America umbrella as the largest of its kind in the country. Their focus will remain the identification, mobilization and support of business leaders behind the early childhood cause, with a specific call for leaders to educate and prevail upon policymakers at all levels to see the wisdom in investing in quality early learning. Remember the old EF Hutton commercials? Well, when business talks, legislators listen. At least they should. The correlation between early childhood and future productivity and economic impact is undeniable. As Executive Director of my state’s early childhood advisory council(the Missouri Coordinating Board for Early Childhood), we commissioned an America’s Edge report which revealed among other things that were the funding provided to enable all of Missouri’s youngest kids   access to quality early care and education, that investment would generate $3.5 billion in new spending in the state. Other measures of Return on Investment (R.O.I.) are even more compelling: the venerated longitudinal Perry Preschool Project projected an R.O.I. of 16-1, 80% benefiting the general public. You can bet EF Hutton would do cartwheels for such a return. Critics may argue that we cannot afford to make these new investments in the current fiscal climate. But studies show that investing in preschool will pay for itself by increasing future tax revenues and decreasing future spending obligations. When one considers the evidence on every level, another glaring headline emerges: we cannot afford NOT to invest.
It doesn’t end there. George Lombardi, Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, is a tireless and eloquent early childhood champion. “Helping the youngest of children to establish an ethical, moral and educational foundation is critical in interdicting them from the criminal justice system later in life,” Lombardi says.  Study after study support his claims, and law enforcement is not alone in their recognition of the inherent connection between early opportunities and future productivity: the military has taken note too--in a big way. Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan national security organization of senior retired military leaders operating under the umbrella of the nonprofit Council for a Strong America, has as its principal mission the call for smart investments in America’s children. “As former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” said founding members General Henry H. Shelton and the late General John M. Shalikashvili, “It’s clear to us that our military readiness could be put in jeopardy given the fact that nearly seventy-five percent of young Americans are unable to serve in uniform. We joined Mission: Readiness because we believe that investing in our children through early education is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It’s a plain commons sense issue critical to our national security.” Shelton and Shalikashvili headline a compelling list of generals and other leaders putting their names behind the early childhood cause.
The cadre of champions from an ever-widening breadth of society augers the best chance yet for early learning to secure the support so desperately needed. And needed it is: Following its stimulus-infused zenith in 2009, federal spending on early childhood dropped nearly $12 billion dollars through 2013. The fiscal year 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Bill restores most of the federal education funding that was dramatically cut in March 2013 during sequestration, including 86 percent of Title I funds for poor districts and 86 percent of special education funds. The bill also includes appropriations for Head Start of $8.6 billion, an increase of $1.025 billion over current funding levels, $500 million of which is to expand Early Head Start for children and families from before birth through age three(as positive as this in, bear in mind EHS  currently only serves 3-4% of eligible families). And it comes too late for most of the estimated 57,000 children who lost access to Head Start due to last year’s cuts, and is only a good first step on the road to making up lost ground and supporting early learning over the long-haul. As Generals Shelton and Shalikashvili exhorted, this should not be a partisan issue. It would be Pollyannaish, however, to think it won’t be. Myriad factors contribute to any significant decision on policy and funding and there will always be push-back and debate and so we must be ready to do our part. But the public will is there, and it’s growing: A recent poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research on behalf of First Five Years Fund found that 70% of Americans favored a plan to better provide low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds with access to high-quality preschool programs.
What can you do? Pay attention to early childhood issues and legislation pending at both national and local levels. Hundreds of early childhood-related bills have thus far been introduced in states throughout the country—take the time to research what may be percolating in yours. Support evidence-based models of intervention, such as Parents as Teachers, Head Start and others. Urge your legislators to support quality early learning, and talk to business leaders where you live and ask them to do the same. Take a few moments to peruse sites which offer the latest in early childhood research and provides user-friendly data and ammunition when educating others about the cause. The youngest among us need us now more than ever  to fight the good fight, and now more than ever leaders and ordinary folks from all sectors of society are primed to come together to do just that. "Safety and security don't just happen,” Nelson Mandela reminded us.  “They are the result of collective consensus and public investment.” 


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