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Early-Childhood Education: Policy, Research, and Funding, or Fad?

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As educational leaders we have often been criticized for not paying attention to research. Equally, we have been criticized for jumping on every fad that is well marketed. And through it all, we are called to be authentic and transparent. We can be awakened to a long-standing, unresolved, question about early childhood education, by looking at a most recent example of the tug of war between research and fad. Let's pay attention to what is happening in Washington.

There is now pretty substantive research supporting the value of preschool and kindergarten programs. Since the early 1990's, research has existed that demonstrated the positive effects of full day kindergarten on later school results. Results were most positive for children in poverty. All day kindergarten has a greater impact than half day. The benefits extended to social and behavior indicators as well. (Patricia Clark wrote a helpful summary of this research that can be found at education.com).

Other research from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child indicates that the emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success in school and later in the workplace and community. In the first few years of life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, so that brain circuits become more efficient. Why wouldn't we invest in those young developing years?

International studies reveal the same conclusion. An international study involving 15-year-olds from 14 developed countries, reported that students who had attended a year or more of pre-primary education scored an average of 33 points higher on a comprehensive reading assessment. Meanwhile over half of our children between the ages of 3 and 6 who are not in kindergarten are in preschool. Interestingly, more of them in center based programs come from affluent families than from families in poverty (Child Trends Databank).

Both educational data and neuroscience agree that the early years have significant influence on later school and life success. So, isn't this the place to start educational reform even though the benefits may not be seen for many years? If so, when President Obama announced his educational agenda for increasing early educational programs no one should have been surprised. His proposal was for a new federal-state partnership to provide low- and moderate-income four-year old children with high quality preschool. It also expanded these programs to reach additional children from middle class families and incentivized states to provide full-day kindergarten. The plan went even deeper to offer high-quality early learning opportunities for children from birth through age three by increasing investments in Early Head Start and child care that meets high standards. These investments are designed to help close America's school readiness gap and ensure that children enter school ready for success. What are we waiting for?

In the presence of this convincing research, states are spending less on preschool than they did a decade ago. And last year was the greatest drop ever. A recent study released by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University reveals that all of what we know about the value of preschool and kindergarten has not made a difference. What we know has not influenced what we do. While the federal legislation called Race to the Top is pushing states to change and raise standards, to test students several times a year, and remediate those who don't make progress toward goals set by the state (all without the financial resources to make this happen) there is no plan to reach those youngsters with all of those growing neural connections! By the time our five year olds enter our schools, gaps already exist. In kindergarten classrooms across the nation we have those who can read and those who have yet to learn the alphabet. Some can make meaning from pictures and words and others don't know their colors.

We have dwindling resources to support the programs we already offer. None of us want existing programs be cut nor do we want to begin new ones of inferior quality. Where are we as educational leaders on this issue? If children really need to come to us as 4 year olds, do we become a system with one more year or is there something we are doing now that we give up? Do our seniors go on to college at 17? The debate will happen in Washington but the issue will come back to us, locally, for real life resolution. We will be watching to see if policy and research and funding can come together on this issue. Wouldn't that be refreshing leadership?

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