A recent front page New York Times story highlighted President Elect Obama’s campaign commitment to early childhood education and his pledge of $10 billion to this important cause. As the article correctly notes, the push for comprehensive early childhood education has had a tremendous boost from the research of Nobel-Prize winning economist, James J. Heckman, who showed in dollars what educators, psychologists and child advocates have been saying for years — that each dollar spent on quality early education can reduce and even eliminate the need for much higher government spending on remedial education, teenage pregnancy, and prisons. “Obama Pledge Stirs Hope in Early Education.”
Research from The Future of Children volumes on Poverty, Opportunity in America, and School Readiness support President Elect Obama’s plans 100 percent. Articles from various Future of Children publications show that quality early education can be instrumental to increasing social mobility, decreasing poverty, and closing the racial and ethnic achievement gap.
However, quality is the key word. All the research highlighted shows that substantive gains will only be made if preschool teachers are highly educated and well-trained, class sizes are small, and education is the focus of the programs. Such high quality programs are not inexpensive (one estimate is $20 billion a year, net of current spending), but the gains – a savings of $8-$14 for each $1 spent – could be enormous. Generally, current Head Start and average state programs do not quite meet these standards. Family child care does not come close.
Some may say that with the current financial crisis and budget deficit, such funding is unlikely. However, in its policy brief, “Closing Achievement Gaps,” The Future of Children has recommended that the federal government sponsor statewide demonstration programs in several states that agree to enroll all or nearly all low income four-year-olds or three- and four-year olds in high-quality programs.
To participate, states would have to agree to meet a series of conditions, including: 1) involving the parents to the maximum degree possible; 2) coordinating the preschool program with the kindergarten program in the public schools; 3) maintaining standards at least as strong as Head Start standards; 4) providing professional development to all teachers in the program; 5) maintaining at least current state spending on preschool programs; 6) participating in a third-party evaluation of program impacts; and, probably most important, 7) outlining a plan for coordinating all state and federal resources for providing quality preschool programs.
By pooling all child care and early education funds – including Head Start, Title I, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, state programs – a single coordinated program could be created as a first step to building a higher quality program for young children – one that exceeds Head Start and other current state programs in its ability to bring children out of poverty, work towards closing the achievement gap, and create a first step in the ladder of opportunity.
For more information, see:
The Next Generation of Anti-Poverty Policies, eds. Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill
Opportunity in America, eds. Isabel Sawhill and Sara McLanahan
Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps, eds. Cecilia Rouse, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Sara McLanahan,