As I think about the future of our country and what we need to be sure we're giving all kids a high- quality education, I always come back to early childhood education. Until we decide this is a priority we will continue to struggle to close achievement gaps and succeed in the global competition that is today's reality. The research on the value of investing in early care and education is very clear. Incidentally, the president took a page from our book -the one we've been preaching for years--about the need for high quality preschool.
Kentucky piloted a screening tool for kindergarten readiness this year and school district results have just been released, demonstrating the need for greater access to high-quality preschool programs. A recent newspaper article, "Two-Thirds of JCPS kindergarteners unprepared for academic demands" shows kindergarten readiness on cognitive measures varies across a large urban school district's 90 elementary schools, ranging from 6.5 percent to 77.3 percent. Overall, only 35 percent of the students were cognitively ready to begin classes without extra help. This is the challenge that many of our nation's schools face each year. It isn't to say that we cannot bring our kids up to speed quickly. I believe we can do that. But what it does say is that our children are behind before they start kindergarten. We must close this gap so they can compete at levels necessary for later school and workplace success.
Despite these results, it is also very important to note that Kentucky children showed strong social/emotional readiness, skills that lay the foundational basis for later learning including things like following instructions, communicating and completing tasks. These areas are particularly critical to children's long-term development and success according to Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, whose research has demonstrated the value of investing in quality early childhood programs over a child's lifetime. We need to celebrate that success and be certain that efforts to raise cognitive skills do not detract from our efforts to develop social/emotional skills.
I believe we must pay attention to all areas of early development for our kids, including early parenting, quality child care and preschool. These are the times when brain growth and development is at its peak. As kids grow from birth to five some have the advantages of high-quality care, be it organized childcare, preschool, or direct family care. I have recently watched my granddaughter progress through her first semester of kindergarten with an outstanding teacher who recognizes that her preschool experience with her parents, her grandmother's care, and a high-quality preschool propelled her forward. When you review the data in school districts, it is clear that not all incoming students have the same experiences.
"There are lots of children who need to be served who aren't," said Cindy Heine of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Prichard wants the state to serve more children by raising the qualification threshold for state-paid preschool from 150 percent of poverty ($35,325 for a family of four) to 200 percent ($47,100 for the same family). We must change our thinking from a spending mentality to one of investments . The economic returns on high quality preschool range from $2-$17 for each dollar invested, depending on what factors are included. The bottom line is this is one of the best investments we can make.
As advocates for excellence in education I urge you to let your leaders know how important quality early childhood programs are to the future of our country. What are the numbers in your community?
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