Literacy Begins at Birth

Early childhood education has become the public-policy bobblehead of our time. An expanding raft of scientific and economic research underscores the need to significantly expand quality early learning in the first five years of life, particularly for at-risk children. Many key policy-makers know this. They nod. And nod.

That's often all they do.

They acknowledge quality early learning can be the most cost-effective public investment available to curb later extensive interventions for special education, teen pregnancies, juvenile crime, and high school dropouts.

But all this goodwill still lacks a way.

After a decade on a federal starvation diet, early education seemed to be delivered a feast by President Barack Obama's election. Finally, here was a policy-maker who would give more than a nod in support of early childhood education. Candidate Obama had pledged a "comprehensive platform" for early childhood and whipped up hopes and dreams for a new day, and, presumably, new investment. Early policy victories were also promising -- a nearly $4.1 billion infusion of funding for Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care as part of the economic-recovery package. The administration also proposed a major new investment of $8 billion to create an Early Learning Challenge Fund, a new competitive grant program designed to help states build stronger early-learning systems. But, as every politician turned policy-maker learns, having good ideas and implementing them are two wildly different matters. At the last minute, the Early Learning Challenge Fund was jettisoned from the budget-resolution package that carried health-care and student-loan reform -- a devastating defeat for the early -- childhood community. Even the $1.5 billion investment in home visiting included in the health-care bill couldn't compensate for that disappointment.

Despite recent progress, the early-childhood policy to-do list is very long. The $4.1 billion infusion of Head Start and other child-care funding in the 2009 economic stimulus package, significant as it was, merely returned programs to the purchasing power they had at the end of the Clinton administration, before nearly a decade of flat funding (plus the forces of inflation) slowly but surely chipped away at their ability to serve children.

Rhetorically, this administration has reframed how the nation must regard early education: Early childhood education can no longer be seen as just an entitlement or work support for parents in need but as a critical component of education reform, a necessary long-term investment in the nation's future economic success. "Education and, in many ways, success in life begins with high-quality early-learning experiences," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan after the House passed the Early Learning Challenge Fund. "We know that increasing the number of high -- quality early-learning opportunities, especially for low-income families, improves child outcomes. Research shows children who receive such services are less likely to be referred to special education and more likely to graduate and be successful adults."

The insidious achievement gap becomes evident far earlier than most realize. Language development among children of professional parents begins to take off as early as 18 months, and at the same time begins to flatline among children of low-income parents. By the time an average child whose parents are on welfare reaches age 4, she has heard 32 million fewer words than a child of professional parents, according to a seminal study published in 1995 by University of Kansas researchers. Without intervention, that language gulf only expands over time. Few children who enter kindergarten far behind more advantaged peers are able to catch up.

The administration's emphasis on early childhood education as a component in a larger education-reform strategy was, and remains, the right agenda, accompanied by pitch-perfect talking points. But making that rhetoric a reality will require much greater investment in smart policy at the federal level.

Smart policy acknowledges that at-risk infants, toddlers, and preschoolers need comprehensive services in the early years, delivered by well-trained professionals who understand how to help develop a child's sense of curiosity, motivation, impulse control, and group participation. And they need these supports from birth, ranging from home visits for pregnant and new moms to health screenings, quality child care, and preschool and Head Start services.

Young children don't need kill-and-drill sergeants on letters, numbers, and colors to prepare for kindergarten. Appropriate academic learning should occur alongside social-emotional learning, according to research. Nobel laureate in economics James Heckman found that "non-cognitive skills" -- self -- regulation skills such as the ability to focus and sustain attention, persevere through frustration, and organize -- play a far more important role than once believed in long-term educational outcomes, ranging from high school graduation to adult employment rates.

Take it from another class of experts: Kindergarten teachers. When surveyed about which skills are most important for entering kindergartners to experience success, teachers gave as their top answers abilities like self-care and motor skills, followed closely by self-regulation. Academics, though not unimportant, show up much further down the list.

This isn't just self-interested hope for a class full of well-behaved students who march in two perfect Madeline-esque lines. Skills like attentive listening, following directions, and exhibiting self-control really do translate to success in school and in life. Research confirms this: In a measure of self-regulation called the Head-to-Toes Task, preschool- and kindergarten-age children are instructed to touch their toes when asked to touch their head, and to touch their head when asked to touch their toes. This simple task combines three core elements of self-regulation: attention, working memory, and impulse control. A study at Oregon State University found that young children who performed well on this task in the fall had markedly higher test scores in math and reading the next spring. The effect was particularly strong in math, where they performed 3.4 months ahead of their peers.

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If we accept that "soft skills" are in fact important, what role can public policy possibly play in helping a child refrain from hitting the classmate who yanks away a favorite toy or avoid a temper tantrum when it's time to transition from blocks to circle time? The answer is in policies that support high-quality relationships -- be they through parenting, caregiving, or preschool. Skills like self-regulation and positive peer interactions emerge only when very young children have a stable base of relationships on which to build confidence to handle new situations and an understanding of their surrounding world. If you want a class of kindergartners with calm, consistent behavior, give them calm, consistent caregivers for the five years before they show up at school. That requires special skills and training and a level of professionalism that today isn't adequately supported by public resources.

Quality caregiving is particularly critical for children who grow up amid chaotic family lives, depressed parents, frequent disruption, or extreme stress. We know these same children from stressed households often end up in child care that is equally stressful or chaotic. And that, scientific research tells us, carries physiological consequences on how neural connections in the brain develop in those early years, which in turn affects a child's ability to learn and succeed long-term.

The most important relationship is between the child and his parents. The Obama administration and Congress' recent investment in home visiting acknowledges this reality. Parenting a newborn can be profoundly difficult. Many new parents need help in order to get off to the right start. Home-visiting programs, where a nurse, doula, or other trained professional provides information, resources, and support starting in pregnancy and extending into the baby's first year, are one way to provide the kind of support that new parents used to get from their own parents but that can be hard to come by in today's complicated, fragile, absent, or just geographically dispersed families.

Unfortunately, a whole host of policies get in the way of building the consistent relationships that lead to socio-emotional health and school success. Without any national system for paid parental leave -- a sad distinction the U.S. shares with Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea -- new mothers are left to cobble together whatever little time off they can afford. Most return to work within a few weeks, disrupting the mother-child relationship far sooner than is ideal. While American moms won't soon enjoy the year of paid leave that a number of other wealthy nations offer, President Obama's budget proposal did include a $50 million State Paid Leave Fund, which would provide competitive planning grants to states to design and implement new paid family-leave insurance programs. These would operate like unemployment insurance programs and allow parents to receive a percentage of their wages while taking maternity or paternity leave to care for their young children.

In a country where nearly two-thirds of children under 6 receive care from someone other than their parents, relationships with caregivers also play a vital role in shaping children's development. We hope children are left in some sort of Mary Poppins ideal, with educated, engaged, attentive professionals. Instead, many child-care arrangements are staffed by overwhelmed, untrained, and poorly compensated caregivers. It is a stressful job that is both emotionally and physically demanding. The hours are long and the pay is terrible, with many child-care providers earning about $10 an hour. Turnover is high. Neither a frazzled caregiver left in charge of too many children nor one who leaves after a few months for a better-paying job will succeed in building stable, enduring relationships with the children in her care.

These scenarios can exist in any setting: For-profit centers, church -- basement day cares, and the kindly neighbor down the street can all be hit or miss when it comes to the quality of the care they provide. Child-care quality too often ranges from so-so to lousy, particularly for infants and toddlers. Children who need the most help are often in the lowest-quality settings. A child whose parents coo and cuddle him, who read to him at night, and who use expressive language and varied vocabularies will probably be just fine with "just fine" care. Children whose parents are in poverty, who have mental-health or substance-abuse issues, or who are facing other risk factors need more than "just fine" -- they need a high-quality, comprehensive intervention.

After years of neglect of child-care at the federal level, Congress and the administration now have an opportunity to improve the quality of child care. The president's budget proposed a $600 million increase (on top of maintaining a $1 billion-a-year bump the program received as part of the economic-stimulus package) for the Child Care and Development Fund, which subsidizes child care for low-income working parents. The early -- childhood community dreams about having that investment available for meaningful quality improvements. We know the minimum ingredients necessary to ensure quality early education. Among them: high teacher standards, small group sizes and low teacher-to-child ratios. Any proposals to increase child-care money must include more meaningful incentives and accountability to assure quality, and better compensation has to be offered to teachers to reach those higher standards and, once there, to stay in the profession.

Separate from the child-care subsidy system is the grandmamma of early-learning programs, Head Start. Head Start is the cornerstone program for early learning in poor communities across the country. It began in 1965 amid the Great Society zeal, and today Head Start attempts to provide comprehensive developmental support to children and their families in half- and full-day programs across the country. In the 1990s, Early Head Start was added to serve low-income pregnant women and infants and toddlers. Head Start reaches 900,000 poor preschoolers, a fraction of the more than 6 million children under the age of 6 who live in poverty in America. Early Head Start reaches a mere 3 percent of eligible infants and toddlers (a figure that may or may not creep up after new programs begin thanks to economic-stimulus dollars, given that, unfortunately, the number of poor children is growing at the same time).

If we truly intend to give every child a shot at the American dream, if we really want to close the achievement gap, we must improve and fortify Head Start. Head Start itself must use research to set ever higher standards and better define programming.

Head Start also must embrace open competition among programs, letting the very best programs succeed and grow. Let the others -- those that are not achieving results or those in areas with low demand -- die. Programs that can't do the job should be shuttered, allowing the resources to go toward those that can.

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Even if it takes an aggressive stance toward program improvement, it's unlikely that Head Start could close the achievement gap all on its own. Smart early-education policy also means more meaningful integration with the K-12 system. No magical learning switch turns on the moment a child enters her kindergarten classroom for the first time. Brain science tells us the most significant learning begins at birth, not at kindergarten; our federal, state, and local education policies must reflect that reality. To improve K-12, we must create a seamless system that supplies elementary schools with children ready to learn, and that means early childhood education -- not baby-sitting.

Early childhood education, we now know, is the first step toward college readiness. It is the very first and most cost-efficient investment we should make in human capital if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

But to get there, early childhood needs a more coherent system upon which to build and offer a wider array of effective programs. Early learning has been characterized as "1,000 random acts of good intentions," a "tossed salad" of a system and a patchwork quilt. There's home visiting. Center-based child care. Pre-K. Family day-care homes. Unlicensed care. Most policy-makers -- and, for that matter, members of the public -- haven't a clue about how one differs from the other.

In order to give more disadvantaged children some semblance of the comprehensive experience they need, savvy early-learning programs serving low-income families are forced to do a kind of juggling act: to patch together different funding streams like Head Start, child care, and state preschool funds. But each of those programs "lives" in a different bureaucracy, with wholly different sets of eligibility rules and procedures and paperwork and reporting and audits and hoops to jump through. We could give a lot more children a much more meaningful, comprehensive, and effective experience if we didn't make it so hard to let them stay in one program with one set of teachers who know and care about them.

Building links between those disparate systems is one of the goals of the Early Learning Challenge Fund. Faced with a budget reality in which any new funding for Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care is going to be a tough slog, the idea is to invest in "glue" that could help all of these programs be more coordinated and of higher quality. It must get easier for states to articulate meaningful quality rating systems for programs, build professional -- development career ladders for providers, and create coherent data systems to begin to understand where and how children are receiving care and to start to conceptualize what kind of standards and assessments make sense for tracking the development of the youngest learners. The idea is to be a "Race to the Top" for early education, encouraging states to coordinate their programs, innovate policies, measure effectiveness, and focus on improving outcomes.

How can early childhood evolve from something everyone thinks is a swell thing to do but then dismisses as less than vital? For starters, the field must simplify its arguments. We need to be clear that early-childhood investments are not just about meeting children's and families' immediate needs but making a long-term, positive impact on children's educational and life outcomes. These investments are in everyone's economic self-interest. We can invest a little now or pay a lot more later playing catch-up. And, in exchange for increased public funding, the early-childhood community must be willing to accept increased accountability for results -- including developmentally appropriate measures of the impacts programs are having on children's learning and lives. The potential for public policy to accomplish a world of good for vulnerable young children is enormous. Children need policy-makers to be much more than bobblehead dolls -- they need them to be vocal champions and, ultimately, prolific check-writers.

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