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Opinion

7/27/2009, 11:29 a.m.
New year brings new hope for early education

The turn of the calendar to the new year offers an opportunity for reflection on where we’ve been, the lessons we’ve learned and how we can better ourselves for the future. Unfortunately, many resolutions to help our children better succeed in school have been broken.

Every year, about one-third of American children enter a kindergarten class unprepared to learn. Many will never catch up. That all-important door to learning is already, in effect, closed. The reasons for this are complex, but this much is clear: The multiple systems that should be supporting young children — from family to schools to government — too often fail to do so.

There is hope, however. Research suggests that investing in early learning is the best investment we can make in America’s future.

Studies by the Institute of Medicine, the National Research Council and others tell us that the achievement gap for poor and otherwise disadvantaged children is created in the first five years of their lives. A youngster’s brain works on a “use it or lose it” principle, and synapses not used or stimulated early on will be discarded.

The child’s first five years at home, then, constitute the most important years of his or her life. The first four years in school are the second most important phase. And the transition from home and community into school may be the most important transition in his or her life.

But in most school districts, there is little — if any — interaction between local childcare centers, early care and education providers and the public school system. Transitions to kindergarten usually consist of a “meet and greet” session for parents. Rarely is there an alignment of teaching or curriculum, or a coordination of teachers and parents.

Fortunately, that situation is beginning to change. In 2006, early childhood education was named a legislative priority by 24 governors, an increase from 17 in 2005. Some states, such as Washington, have created new departments dedicated to early learning.

To support states’ efforts, many national foundations, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) initiative, as well as researchers in academia and the federal government, have launched system-building initiatives that link parents, educators, early childhood service providers and their communities. A big part of this community-based innovative thinking is the movement toward ready schools. In communities as diverse as Miami, and Gwinnett County, Ga., where SPARK has made investments, we are beginning to see positive change.

In early 2007, the Gwinnett County Public Schools — the largest school district in Georgia and the 20th largest in the country — adopted and funded the SPARK Georgia school transition model. Using federal Title I funds to implement the nationally recognized Parents as Teachers program has resulted in increases in key school-readiness skills, including fine motor skills, problem-solving and socialization; greater parent participation and leadership in early education and schools — parents who participated in the Parent Leadership Institute now serve as chairs on seven committees; and parent attendance at GED and English as a second language (ESL) classes.

In Miami, our initiative identified a lack of alignment in expectations between elementary schools and childcare facilities. Support for an increase in the number of accredited centers eventually led to success in creating a quality rating system that further aligns expectations across early education and the early grades and includes criteria for those all-important transitions.

In the past, the burden was primarily on children and parents to get ready for school. But this “two-way street” approach helps shape schools so they are prepared to receive and serve all children. Some additional elements of this approach include screening children for developmental delays and health issues that impede learning; helping parents and families in their role as first teachers; and getting child advocacy organizations, businesses and state agencies to commit more resources to early education — because an investment now means savings later.

By focusing on the crucial learning period from birth up to the early grades we can also help ensure the success of existing programs such as No Child Left Behind, currently up for reauthorization by Congress. Policymakers at all levels should continue to provide tools and flexibility to nurture such community-based innovations on behalf of kids’ learning. We must resolve to create new structures, practices and programs to support the early learning of infants, toddlers and preschoolers. This is one New Year’s resolution we should keep. Millions of children are counting on us.

Gregory Taylor is the vice president for programs for youth and education at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.