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Duncan: Preschool Will Help Country 'Get Out of the Catch-Up Business'

In a speech to early-childhood education researchers meeting at Georgetown University today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed his belief that high-quality preschool programs can create a level playing field for all children at the start of school. "We're trying to get out of the catch-up business," he said. If early-childhood education is "glorified babysitting," he said, "we're not changing people's lives."

Duncan reinforced remarks he made last month at a conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Today's research meeting in Washington was hosted by the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program of the U.S. Department of Education; the Zero to Three program of the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families; and Georgetown University's Center on Health and Education.

The education secretary expressed his support for legislation introduced in Congress that would authorize $8 billion for early-childhood education over eight years. (The House version calls for $1 billion per year for eight years, according to Early Ed Watch.) He said national standards are needed for what preschoolers need to know and be able to do to be ready to learn.

Duncan also observed that the relationship between education and health- and human-services agencies in this country has been "pretty dysfunctional" at all levels of government. He expressed his desire for the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to cooperate in improving early-childhood education.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius also made remarks at the meeting about the need for the two departments to cooperate. "You can't learn unless you are healthy," she said. Sebelius called for more funding for early-childhood education. "We sure don't put the resources behind it." The nation is lucky, she added, to have a president who gets the importance of a strong preschool education.

The two Cabinet members honored a longtime advocate of early-childhood education, Barbara T. Bowman, a professor of child development at the Erikson Institute and the chief officer of the office of early-childhood education for the Chicago public schools. Duncan expressed his appreciation for Bowman's work to help the Obama administration create an agenda for early-childhood education. She is also the mother of Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement, who attended the Georgetown event as well.

Bowman spoke about how early-childhood education has improved since she entered the field in 1950. Back then, she said, the few half-day nursery schools that existed "were not viewed as educationally significant." But experts in human development such as Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Rene Spitz brought awareness to the need for infants and toddlers to receive high-quality care and education, she said.

She noted how the federal Head Start program, started in 1966, has "seesawed between being an employment agency for adults or a program for kids." She's happy that current administrators view it as a program for children. Bowman said the field has progressed so that educators now realize the value of early-childhood education. "The bad news is that going to scale with good programs is complicated," she said. The nation still doesn't seem to have the political will to provide high-quality programs on a large scale, she said.

Bowman lauded the cooperative spirit between Duncan and Sebelius, whose agency oversees Head Start. "The notion that the secretaries of education and health and human services would sit together and work together on a platform for young children is the best thing since sliced bread."

At that, Duncan and Sebelius scooted closer to each other at their luncheon table and draped their arms around each other to show their collegiality.

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