Early childhood education has suddenly become a hot topic, thanks to the new government initiative announced by President Obama in his State of the Union Address. Parents of young children in particular, are surely appreciative of this focus on the importance of the early years of life. As parents and educators, we are acutely aware of the amazing learning that takes place in those first years, when cognitive, social, and emotional development lead to the rapid acquisition of new skills. In fact, more than ever before, parents enroll their children in preschool, even pre-preschool programs if they can afford the cost, or compete for places that are cost free, believing that these will give their children an advantage.
Whatever the label, this new government initiative to provide such programs for all preschool age children is very much part of the current “race to the top” philosophy in education generally. As such, it is tied to the emphasis on evidence-based results. What this means is that the success of the program will be measured by whether or not children achieve certain results later in their academic grades that reach desired goals. These might be specific skills, such as reading and comprehension, or behavioral skills such as impulse control and attention.
In a New York Times article, David Brooks writes about the importance of early childhood education and the belief that if government would provide quality preschool education, this would reduce poverty and increase social mobility. This is part of a long American pattern of attempting to solve social problems through education and child-rearing. Brooks refers to Head Start, a model for this approach started in the ‘60’s as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society’s War on Poverty. The idea then was to provide comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. The goal was to foster stable family relationships, enhance children’s physical and emotional well-being, and to develop strong cognitive skills.
Brooks is dismissive of Head Start, saying, “…the outcomes are dismal.” He quotes a Brookings Institution summary of what he calls the most rigorous research findings, “There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start. Further, children attending Head Start remain far behind academically once they are in elementary school. Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.”
In fact, the results of various studies are mixed, and reflect differences in what is being measured. Also, many factors are involved in any long lasting effects of children’s Head Start experience. Some studies equate various positive outcomes to the length of time children were in the program. Other effects are related to racial, ethnic and family background. The inability to maintain gains made in the early years has also been tied to children’s subsequent enrollment in disadvantaged schools.
Most important, any parent can testify to the importance of good teachers in benefits to children. Teachers in Head Start have had mixed qualifications and in the past have earned half the salary of public school teachers. Despite the emphasis on the importance of education, teaching generally has not been remunerated accordingly and attracting highly qualified teachers has not always been possible. Brooks writes that some of the newer state programs have better trained teachers, more rigorous performance standards, and a curriculum better matched to the one children will find when they enter kindergarten.
The point, however, is that the value of all these programs, and of the ones yet to come, will be determined by measuring outcomes. Will those outcomes measure a broad range of values, or will the measurements be geared to what may already be negative in the existing “race to the top?” This brings to mind that old maxim, “The early bird catches the worm.” If you get a head start you may win the race. But what is the worm we want to catch? Are we trying to start a competition at ever earlier ages?
Whichever outcome studies of Head Start are valid, for the children and families that have been served, the program has been immensely valuable. Having been involved with Head Start some years ago, I can only think of what it meant to the children, who were exposed to a range of activities and materials that would not otherwise have been part of their lives, and to the parents, who could leave for work knowing their children would be well cared for, would be given nutritious food to eat, and would have supervised play activities rather than questionable child care arrangements.
It is understandable that the use of tax payer dollars would require demonstrated benefits. But we need to expand our definition of benefits. More than reading, writing and arithmetic are at stake. Early childhood programs will not in themselves eliminate poverty, but they can enrich impoverished lives. Children have more to offer than abilities reflected in academic skills if we pay attention, and nurture their individual talents.
Catching the worm may be the right outcome for early birds, but children need a more nourishing diet – not always provided by a race to the top.