Sunday, December 28, 2008

Advocates for early childhood education are understandably excited about their prospects under President-elect Barack Obama‘s administration. During the campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to increase federal early education spending by $10 billion annually.

Currently, the two largest federal early childhood programs, Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, spend about $12 billion annually combined. A $10 billion increase would almost double that investment.

Just as remarkably, Mr. Obama deliberately singled out early education as an important investment he would prioritize even in tight economic times. Add in a potentially $1 trillion economic stimulus package that’s raising the prospects for even previously inconceivable public investments, and advocates are downright giddy.

It seems terribly Grinch-like to throw cold water on these hopes. But in fact this is a dangerous moment for both Mr. Obama and the early education movement.

If new early education investments are made too quickly - if funding gets ahead of capacity to deliver high-quality programs - the results will not live up to the high expectations advocates have created. Policymakers and the public could ultimately lose faith in early education, backtracking on investments. That would be tragic.

To prevent this outcome, the Obama administration must ensure that any new early education investments focus on quality, invest in capacity, and are integrated into a broader education reform agenda.

A substantial and compelling body of research demonstrates that high-quality early education programs have positive long-term effects on children’s school performance, educational attainment and adult earnings. In other words, high-quality early education is an investment in our future economic growth. That new investment should come from the federal government.

Since 2002, states have more than doubled their spending on pre-kindergarten programs, fueling dramatic enrollment growth - even as federal investment has stagnated. Now, as the economic crisis puts increasing pressure on state budgets, it’s time for Washington to step up.

But money alone isn’t enough. The major lesson we should take from the past eight years of state pre-K experiences is that how policymakers design and implement early education investments is just as important as the money they spend.

States like New Jersey, which thoughtfully implemented high-quality pre-K in its highest-poverty school districts as part of a larger school reform agenda, have seen student achievement gains. Other states, which implemented large pre-K programs on the cheap with low standards, have not.

How can Mr. Obama ensure that new early education investments produce results?

First, he must ensure that all new early education investments focus on quality above all else. Research shows that early education has positive impacts on children’s learning and lives - but only if early education programs are of high quality. Expanding access to poor quality pre-K or child care programs doesn’t cut it.

Any new federal investment must be accompanied by strong quality standards that ensure states and providers use funds to deliver high-quality services that reflect what research tells us works to improve young children’s learning. These standards must include small class sizes, qualified teachers, well-designed comprehensive curriculum, and ongoing monitoring of classroom quality and child outcomes.

Federal funds must also help build the state and local infrastructure needed to support quality early education - monitoring capacity, technical assistance, parent resources, and high-quality training and professional development for early childhood educators.

Equally important, Mr. Obama and his incoming secretary of education, Arne Duncan, must integrate new early education investments into their broader education reform agenda. Too often, federal policymakers address early childhood and K-12 education in separate policy silos. This artificial division undermines the effectiveness of both early education and school reform efforts.

Consider: The No Child Left Behind Act seeks to narrow achievement gaps for low-income and minority children. Yet research shows that as much as half of the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers already exists before first grade. If we are serious about narrowing achievement gaps, expanding access to high-quality early education - particularly for disadvantaged youngsters - must be part of the education reform agenda.

At the same time, evidence shows that the benefits of even high-quality pre-K programs can fade out over time if children go on to poorly performing public schools. Therefore, public schooling reforms are critical to maximize the long-term impact of early childhood investments. Simply put, we must also focus on improving the quality of the elementary grades so precious pre-K gains aren’t lost.

The Obama administration must treat new early education investments not as ends in themselves, but as the starting place for a high-quality, aligned system of pre-K to third grade education that ensures all children develop a solid foundation of math, reading and social skills by the end of third grade.

Fortunately, Mr. Duncan has a strong record of supporting early education and pre-K to third grade reforms in Chicago, which should prepare him to integrate new early education investments with the administration’s larger education reform agenda.

To ensure the effectiveness of new early education investments, the Obama administration must resist the temptation to cram early education spending into the stimulus bill. That doesn’t mean early education has no place in the stimulus: School construction funding - including money to improve and expand early education facilities - is a good idea.

Congress should also increase child care funding to ensure that financially strained families can continue to access the affordable care they need to work.

But beyond these emergency measures, Mr. Obama must take a long view on early education. Focus on quality. Build state and local capacity before expanding services. Integrate early education into a broader education reform agenda.

This is a more challenging approach - both as policy and as politics - than simply pouring money into the system. But, in the long-run, it’s the only way to ensure early childhood investments really achieve our ultimate goal: better outcomes for our nation’s children and the adults they will become.

Sara Mead is a senior research fellow in the Education Policy Program of the New America Foundation. She previously was a senior policy analyst with Education Sector, where she focused on issues related to early childhood education.

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