Bottom Line: Let’s Truly Invest in Children
Early childhood education has become a phrase that encompasses much for many-is it early intervention, designed to identify and treat physical and developmental delays before school entry? Is it pre-kindergarten services for four-year-olds to provide learning-related skills prior to kindergarten entry? Is it child care down the block, run by that nice lady, to provide a place for children while their parents work? Is it a panacea that will inoculate young children against all social ills from the time they enter school and beyond?
While early childhood education can be many of these things, it is not a panacea. But regardless of which goal "it" is meeting, early childhood education is an area of public policy that faces many challenges including:
- Limited funding,
- An array of program goals and designs,
- Dual needs of supporting working families across income groups, and children's development,
- The need to support the whole child, and
- Hardships associated with growing poverty.
The Brookings Institution and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) waded into this conversation with a new compendium, Investing in Young Children: New Directions in Federal Preschool and Early Childhood Policy. Even the title highlights the disparate views of early childhood education. Preschool policy should be part of a continuum of interventions for young children in their earliest years, rather than something that happens in addition to early childhood. The various essays are thoughtful, well-researched and important for helping the field address its many challenges, yet in many ways they also avoid discussing the daily reality of early childhood for millions of families.
Twelve million children under age six are in some form of early childhood setting each day for some part of the day. This could be Head Start, a state or locally funded pre-kindergarten program for a 3 and 4 year olds in a public school, a family child care setting in the home of a licensed provider, or a for- or not-for-profit child care center. Regardless of the name over the door, these settings vary in quality, in funding and in other resources for children. They may not have enough books, toys, qualified teachers or other staff. Or, they may provide developmentally appropriate services that help support children across the learning continuum by supporting cognitive, emotional, social and physical development while also addressing the needs of the family.
Regardless of the type of setting, child care can be a significant portion of a families' income. In 2009, child care fees for two children (an infant and a 4 year old) in a child care center exceeded annual median rent and mortgage payments in 18 states.
For families, the type of setting they use is often due to luck or chance. Head Start and Early Head Start, federally funded programs for children in poverty, only serve a minority of eligible children. Child care subsidy programs, which can help low-income families pay for the cost of care, serve one in six eligible families. Early intervention programs are severely underfunded. Most state pre-kindergarten programs are not universally available and many are less than four hours, making access difficult for working families. Across the country, study after study has found that parents have trouble finding affordable child care that meets their needs for full-day and year care, especially if they have an infant or toddler, a child with special needs, or are in urban or rural communities.
Yet when these children get to kindergarten, increasingly public policymakers want to know if they are "ready". When they fail-often on cognitive measures alone that may be inappropriate for their age, stage of development or home language and culture-public programs like Head Start and Early Head Start are held responsible and the public is told of the failure of the grand experiment of the War on Poverty. We hear that programs are expensive and that we are not getting the outputs we need.
What the public rarely hears-and what is important about programs like high quality Head Start and Early Head Start programs, as well as many other high quality child care and pre-kindergarten programs-is that they do help young children succeed by building the real skills needed to thrive in school and society. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, notes that we must "develop cognitive skills, social skills and physical well-being in children early-from birth to five when it matters most." Further, Heckman notes that the long-term rate of return to the country is 6 to 10 percent per year.
And it isn't only Dr. Heckman who promotes this broader point of view of what it means to be ready. In one study, while only 10 percent of kindergarten teachers thought that knowledge of the letters of the alphabet were essential or very important to being ready to start kindergarten, 84 percent thought that the ability to share thoughts and needs verbally were essential or very important.
The Association of Small Foundations has a similar point of view: "School readiness is more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. School readiness encompasses a child's 1) physical well-being and motor development; 2) social and emotional development; 3) approaches to learning; 4) language development; and 5) cognition and general knowledge."
What does all of this mean? Well, we can engage in meaningless comparisons of standard deviations across funding streams, or we can create a comprehensive, coordinated and well-funded system of care that starts with infants and toddlers, and supports children and their families throughout early childhood, ensuring that these youngsters move into kindergarten with the full range of skills and supports that they need.
It means that as a nation, we can commit to providing Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) for all vulnerable children, fully funding Head Start and Early Head Start, promoting home visiting programs for families at risk, and helping families at or below 200 percent of poverty get help paying for child care that is of sufficient quality to support their children's development while they go to work. We can take the best from what we know about early childhood education from thoughtful research and evaluation and make improvements to these programs in the form of high standards for teacher-child ratios, especially for infants and toddlers, program evaluation to ensure that teacher-child interactions help children develop across the full range of domains, and well-trained and well-compensated teachers for every young child in early childhood programs.
In short, it means, as Brookings and NIEER suggest, truly Investing in Young Children.