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Breaking the Code: How to Make Early Childhood About Reform

Wanna understand the political challenges facing the pre-k movement? Check out Joe Klein on the State of the Union. In a column praising the centrist tenor of Obama's speech, Klein writes:

When he dealt with education, he eschewed the standard Democratic talking points about early-childhood programs like Head Start, which have become code words for spending more money on poor kids. Instead, he talked about accountability, which is code for breaking the stranglehold of teachers'-union work rules.

Whatever you think of the substance here, the fact that Klein (and the large swath of conventional political wisdom he represents) views early childhood education as "code..for spending more on poor kids" is a huge political challenge for the pre-k movement. And it's something that early childhood advocates have brought on themselves, by too often cloaking their case in the language of money, access, and what's nice for kids rather than in the language of reform.

Look: There's no way around the fact that getting significant improvements in early learning outcomes for kids is going to take more money--and doing it right is probably going to take a lot of it. But, the big lesson of the past two decades of education policy is that significant investments must be coupled with significant reforms. That means early childhood advocates need to be about not just money, access, and quality, but about reform. It's not enough to just call pre-k a reform. It's not enough to say early childhood education is a necessary complement to or component to K-12 reform. It's not enough to call spending on early childhood "investment"--even if you trot out economists and business leaders to sing the same some. The only way to make early childhood about reform is to actually be about reform.

That means honestly acknowledging that many of our existing early childhood programs and funding streams are pretty darn dysfunctional (I'd use another phrase if this weren't a family publication). It means the quality conversation has to stop pretending we can regulate and improve our way to quality, and also talk about closing down lousy providers. It means being willing to talk in concrete terms about what changes in children's lives and skills as a result of pre-k--not just the 20-year-cost benefit analysis blah, blah, blah but what changes now, in terms of tangible learning results. And it means being serious about evaluating success and holding providers accountable for results. It means being honest that raising the money for early childhood investment is going to require redirecting existing government money in ways current beneficiaries won't like, rather than pretending that "return on investment" is a magical goose whose golden eggs will let us pay for early childhood programs without making hard choices. It means not being afraid to engage with hard truths that upset existing interests. And it also means learning from the experience of K-12 reform and working collaboratively with K-12 reformers on shared challenges (such as teacher effectiveness and ensuring accountability across diverse providers).

That's a very different tack than the early childhood movement has taken to date, which has tended to emphasize getting everyone on the same page and been highly resistant to any criticism of existing programs, for fear that such criticism undermines the broader case for early childhood investment. But in reality, the only way to get that investment in the long run is to be honest about the problems and put forward reform-minded solutions to address them.

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