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An Oasis of Bipartisan Support: Why Early-Childhood Ed Matters

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We welcome guest bloggers, early childhood experts, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D at Temple University and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D. at the University of Delaware.

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The results are in. Seventy-eight percent of Trump supporters and 97% of Clinton supporters strongly endorse the need for universal access to affordable early childhood education (First Five Years Fund).  In his September 13th speech, Trump backed maternity leave and proposed that early childcare be a deductible tax expense.  For Clinton, issues like affordable care, universal preschool and maternity leave have been cornerstones of her political life. It is rare to see such bipartisan support.

Exactly What Works?
While the populace is largely on board, there is dissention in the scientific ranks about how we should move the discussion forward. Access to universal care will not, in and of itself, be enough to prepare our children for school and beyond. In their widely cited report of the Tennesee Preschool initiative, researchers Mark Lipsee, Dale Farran and Kerry Hofer, found that children who attended preschool benefitted in school readiness scores, but that these scores were not maintained across early formal schooling. And Katherine Stevens from the American Enterprise Institute followed with a report sporting the provocative title, "Does Preschool Work".

Why would the academic and policy communities raise potential red flags at precisely the time when the public has reached a consensus?  Did these authors miss the reports from Professor Heckman suggesting that for every dollar spent in this sector, society reaps $7 to $13.00 in return?

No, what these reports are telling us that we need to take stock of the evidence as we consider the next steps.  Access to universal Pre-K, while critical in early childhood education -- is not enough to raise floor for every child.  With overwhelming public support and political will, it is time to move the needle further 1) by insisting that the programs be of high quality, 2) by demanding that we support families with children from zero to three, and 3) by supporting community outreach programs designed to reach families and children during out of school times.

The Case For High Quality Early Education
On the first point, the data are clear.  High quality early education can be scaled up, affordable, sustainable and impactful. A number of reviews of the literature make this point. One that we wrote offers a response to the Farran findings.  Another by Yoshikawa et al. (2013) is a classic review of the findings that support the role of high quality care in development Recent publications also flesh out what counts as high quality.  Zaslo et al.,'s  June 2016 Monograph from the Society for Research in Child Development, reviews the literature on Quality thresholds, features and dosage in early care and education. Another piece by Minervino (2014) also reviews high quality programs like those in Boston, New Jersey and Maryland and distills the common features that help the learning stick - among them are the quality of teacher-child interactions, quality of instructional support and using a proven curriculum. 

In our new book, Becoming Brilliant (Becoming-Brilliant.com), we make the scientific case that any high quality curriculum must be broad enough to include what we called the 6Cs  of collaboration (social skills), communication (language and listening), content (reading, writing and learning to learn), critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence (learning from failure and grit).  The new Head Start framework also broadens the curricular offerings for high quality programs. As Minervino concludes, access is not enough.  Schools must be of high quality. He writes, "High-quality early learning is the minimum level of quality required to meaningfully increase children's school readiness."

The Case for Zero to Three
The second way that we can move the discussion of early education forward is by recognizing the critical importance of the first three years. By age 3, there is already a 30-million word gap between low and middle-income children. Given that language is the single best predictor of school readiness and later school achievement, it is imperative that we address this gap in the homes and communities prior to preschool entry.  Lesser known is that these gaps extend to areas that will support the popular STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) outcomes.  When children do not have access to puzzles, blocks and board games, they are not prepared with precious skills that predict math readiness. 

Programs like Vroom's "Brain Tips" and Too Small to Fail's communication campaigns around reading, singing and talking to children have already changed parental values and expectations about our youngest citizens in impactful ways.   Indeed, the messaging seems to be working. A recent study by Daphna Bassok and colleagues shows that by school entry we now see a 10% decrease in the math achievement gap over the years from 1998 to 2010 and a concurrent 16% narrowing of the reading gap. She argues that these trends are less a product of preschool access and entry and more a product of effective communication campaigns targeting parental attitudes and behaviors with young children.

The Community as an Agent of Change
Third and finally, we can move the needle forward by thinking about the community as a positive agent of change for children. Children spend only 20% of their waking time in school. What are we doing with the other 80% of the time?  Our work is augmenting what we do at home and in school by exploring family engagement and playful learning in the supermarket and at the bus stop (NPR).  Urban investment in what we call learning landscapes can provide opportunities for spatial and language learning in places where families wait.

We are at a unique moment in history. Politicians and lay people recognize that the future of our children determines the future of our workforce and of our society. Early childhood education now commands political attention.This shared value offers a bipartisan oasis in a fractured political climate. It is now our job to move the discussion forward by ensuring that we provide high quality learning environments, that we invest in children from zero to three so that they are prepared for our preschools, and that we inspire community opportunities for learning by building supporting initiatives like learning landscapes. 

Contact information: Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff  

You can learn more from Kathy at the Science of How We Learn: Engaging Memory, Motivation, Mindsets, Making and Mastery Conference in San Francisco February 17-19, 2017.

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