We Have to Quit Playing Catch-Up

Only one in three four-year-olds attend a high-quality preschool program — and the number for three-year-olds is much lower. Across the country, children remain on long preschool waiting lists, and families who could benefit from support as they raise their children remain unserved.

Early LearningToday, six states learned that they will have vital new support to build systems that help to solve that problem. Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) funding was awarded to Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont. These states join 14 others that have received RTT-ELC grants and are building their capacity to serve preschool children with quality, accountability, and efficiency.

These new awards bring the Obama Administration’s education funding commitment in early learning systems building to more than $1 billion. With that investment and their own state funds, a bipartisan group of forward-looking governors have worked to increase support for high-quality early learning in their states.

President Obama has put forward a plan, called Preschool for All, that would make high-quality preschool available and affordable for all families, without adding a dime to the deficit. Last month, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced bills to support high-quality preschool services for low- and moderate-income families.

And, many states, and cities, are building new organizational structures, aligning systems, eliminating redundant programs, and raising the bar for teacher preparation. A recent report from the Education Commission of the States documents 38 bills from 25 states that establish state preschool programs; implement quality rating and improvement systems; pilot a school readiness assessment, and more.

In Michigan — one of the new RTT-ELC states — leaders realized that a robust investment in early learning is the best way to rebuild the state’s economy.  Led by Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.), the state legislature voted to invest $60 million more next year on preschool programs. This funding increase of nearly 60 percent will add up to 16,000 more four-year-olds to state-funded preschool next year.

Ultimately, RTT-ELC is only a down payment on early learning – strong systems are not enough. High-quality early learning programs fail to reach the majority of America’s youngest learners – due to a state’s limited capacity, lack of resources, or both. Much more needs to be done.

We have to quit “playing catch-up, and level the playing field for our children before they start kindergarten,” as Secretary Duncan recently said at a global education summit. As business and military leaders, law enforcement officials and educators have repeatedly said, high-quality preschool is the right move to make sure our youngest children are ready for the world ahead of them.

Libby Doggett is the deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education. Linda Smith is the deputy assistant secretary and inter-departmental liaison for early childhood development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Minnesota: Providing Students A Strong Start

Secretary Duncan and students

Secretary Duncan, right, joined Jody Bohrer’s Kindersprouts circle time during his Minnesota visit along with students Brody Mallunger, left, and Rubi Torres, at Pond Early Childhood Center, .July 16, 2013 in Minneapolis. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

This originally appeared in the July 20th edition of the Minnesota Star Tribune. 

The best ideas to put children on a path to school success rarely come from Washington, D.C.

President Obama has put forward a plan to make high-quality preschool affordable for all children — a vital step in putting young people on a path to a thriving middle class. As I saw firsthand in a pair of visits in the Minneapolis area on Tuesday, that effort builds on the work of states like Minnesota.

The day began at Pond Early Childhood Family Center in Bloomington, where I sat with students who sang a song, recited the alphabet and discussed some of their favorite words. The visit was an inspiring example of great educators helping kids get ready for kindergarten in a setting of joy and support.

Later Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, and other leaders from business, the military, government and the clergy, joined a town-hall discussion at Kennedy Senior High School. At that town hall, parents, teachers, education leaders and others from throughout the state made clear that they have seen the power of early learning — and that they know we must reach many more children.

That understanding did not emerge from Washington. Forward-looking states have led the way — including Minnesota, where Dayton this year signed a bill that invests nearly $200 million in early learning, helping tens of thousands more children attend high-quality child care, preschool and all-day kindergarten.

Minnesota has made a priority of preschool through an Office of Early Learning, a Children’s Cabinet and an Early Learning Council, which together ensure that the cradle-to-career continuum begins with a strong start. In addition, as a winner of a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant, Minnesota is creating systems and infrastructure that offer new ideas to other states.

Minnesota’s work represents real progress for families and children in the face of great need. The state’s new investments will reach about 8,000 children over two years, but that leaves many 3- and 4-year-olds — some 35,000 of them — without access to high-quality early learning opportunities. And that’s why we need to work hard, in Minnesota and across the country, to reach so many more students.

Why? Because of the pivotal role that quality preschool education can play in a child’s life. Studies confirm what every teacher knows: Young children who experience secure, stimulating environments with rich learning opportunities from an early age are better prepared to thrive in school. They reap benefits in high school graduation rates and employment, and are less likely to commit crimes.

Experts — including Art Rolnick, a former senior vice president at the Federal Reserve office here, who joined the town-hall discussion — have made a strong case that public investments in preschool return many times more in savings and benefits. As Rolnick — a tireless advocate for early learning — has said: “The best economic development strategy is investment in early childhood.” Acting on that knowledge will help to position young people to do well in an increasingly competitive and globalized workforce.

Yet today, millions of young children in this country lack that opportunity. Among 4-year-olds in the United States, fewer than three in 10 attend a high-quality preschool program. The availability of high-quality learning and development programs for infants and toddlers likewise presents challenges for families. And the gap is especially pronounced in low-income communities.

That’s why the president has put forward a plan to make high-quality, full-day preschool available to all 4-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line — a major help to families working to balance work and family responsibilities and the costs of child care. All federal costs of this proposed state-federal partnership would be covered by a new tobacco tax — meaning it won’t add a dime to the deficit. States would receive incentives to provide voluntary high-quality preschool with low class sizes, qualified teachers and stimulating learning experiences.

The plan also would launch a new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership to expand high-quality early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers, along with voluntary home-visiting programs in which nurses, family educators and social workers connect low-income families to health, social and educational supports.

President Obama has spoken about America’s basic bargain: that people who work hard and shoulder their responsibilities should be able to climb into a thriving middle class. Restoring that bargain, he said, is the unfinished work of our generation.

Minnesota is doing that work in earnest. Your children are better for it.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Early Learning in Your State

Early Learning ClassroomEvery parent wants their child to have opportunities for lifelong success – and that starts with getting kids off to a strong start. All of our nation’s students deserve a chance to compete on a level playing field, but too many children – especially those from disadvantaged communities – start kindergarten already behind.

We know expanding high-quality early learning opportunities is simply one of the best investments we can make as a country, and President Obama has proposed to dramatically increase access to high-quality preschool and expand early learning and support services for infants, toddlers and families.

Today, the White House released state-by-state fact sheets, outlining what states could expect to receive in federal funding to expand these early learning initiatives in their states.

The President’s proposal builds upon the strong work already done by states across the country.  Governors from states as diverse as Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Vermont, and West Virginia all called for expanded access to preschool to more 4-year-olds.  These state leaders – regardless of party affiliation – recognize that early learning helps prepare young children for educational success, provides crucial support for families, and ultimately strengthens our nation’s economy.

The White House fact sheets explain how the President’s plan will:

  • provide high-quality preschool for all 4 year olds,
  • invest in high-quality infant and toddler early learning and development and
  • expand effective parent and family supports.

These investments – financed through a mixture of federal funding and a partnership with states – will help close America’s school readiness gap and ensure that children enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

The benefits of investing in early education are well-documented. Research has shown that high-quality early learning programs and services improve young children’s health, social-emotional, and cognitive outcomes; enhance school readiness; and help close the school readiness gaps that exist between children with high needs and their peers.

President Obama understands that the stubborn opportunity gap that confronts far too many American children and limits their life chances often begins before they even enter school kindergarten.

Together these investments can continue to close achievement gaps, provide life transforming opportunities for children, and strengthen and build a thriving middle class.

Read how the President’s plan would increase access to high-quality early childhood education in your state.

Cameron French is the deputy press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education

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Early Learning: A Helpful Head Start

As I listened to the group of students across the table, I wondered about how they did it? How did these students- from the south side of Chicago- overcome the obstacles that continually stand in the way for many of our kids who are all too often on the wrong side of the achievement gap? What happened that helped these kids academically achieve and change the trajectory of their lives? Wanting to hear more about their past, but not wanting to invade their privacy, I asked, “How many of you will be among the first in your family to go to college?” Five students raised their hands. I followed up, “How many of you went to preschool or Head Start?” All five hands remained in the air.

Reams of data point to the positive impact of early education on the lives of students who hail from tenuous circumstances, and the Chicago Longitudinal Study shows that every dollar invested in early education has a substantial return on investment. The data is important, but what is more important is the very real impact that early education has had on the lives of some of our most vulnerable students, including those kids from Chicago.

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Students from Chicago’s Hubbard High School meet with Education Secretary Arne Duncan after the students’ briefed Department staff on issues facing their community.

I am keenly aware of the difference that early education can make in a child’s life, because it made a world of difference in my own. As the son of a father who dropped out of the eighth grade in Oaxaca, Mexico, and of a mother who could only read at the 3rd grade level, I did not have the best odds at achieving academic success.

Other than an old family King James Bible, there were no books in my house. There were no puzzles, or activities to teach shapes, colors, or numbers. I, like many students in neighborhoods similar to my own, was at a disadvantaged starting place in the game of life. I, however, was fortunate in that I was enrolled in Head Start, an early education program that aims to improve education, health, nutrition and parent involvement for low-income children and their families. In Head Start, I was taught the foundations which better prepared me for the start of my educational journey. As opposed to entering kindergarten behind, I went in with knowledge and competencies that allowed me to participate in class and feel confident in my abilities. The Head Start program helped me have a fair shot at learning, and ultimately a fair shot at life.

As a teacher of high school students who have been removed from other institutions and who have been identified as potential dropouts, I often wonder about the educational journey of my kids. The vast majority of my students come to class with significant academic deficiencies. My school has been identified as a model for helping these students overcome barriers to academic success, but does so with a significant amount of resources to help these students with academic, physical, mental, and emotional issues. Being familiar with their backgrounds, I know that most of my kids started off far behind many of their peers at the traditional school sites. I cannot help but wonder what would have been if my students had been part of a quality, early education program that perhaps could have given them the head start they needed.

As we transition to more rigorous standards and assessments, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Achievement of these standards will help our kids compete in the flat world, but if we do not make a concerted effort to help all kids start out with the same basic competencies through high-caliber, early education programs, we may perpetuate the achievement gap we seek to eliminate. The five students that I met from Chicago transcended the achievement gap and overcame challenges, due to the support of family, teachers, strong-willed determination, and quite possibly, the impact of early education.

Marciano Gutierrez is a 2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, on loan from Alta Vista High School in Mountain View, Calif.

Obama Administration Budget Makes Major Investment in Early Learning

Early Learning Spending GraphicStudies prove that children who have rich early learning experiences are better prepared to thrive in school. Yet the United States ranks 28th in the world for the enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning, and 25th in public investment in preschool. Only 3 in 10 children attend a quality preschool program. Doing better is more than just a moral and educational imperative; it’s smart government: a public dollar spent on high-quality preschool returns $7 through increased productivity and savings on public assistance and criminal justice. From a growing number of voices, including from the recently concluded work of the Equity and Excellence Commission, the call has been clear to expand quality early learning in the United States.

To help all children begin school on a level playing field, the President has put forward in his 2014 budget request an historic new investment in early learning that would make preschool available to all 4-year olds from low-income families. The core elements of this proposal are:

  • Preschool for All ($75 billion over 10 years). This investment would support grants to States for the implementation of high-quality preschool programs that are aligned with elementary and secondary education systems. The Department would share costs with States to provide universal access to high-quality preschool for children from low- and moderate-income families and provide incentives for States to serve additional middle-class families.
  • Preschool Development Grants ($750 million). This program would provide grants to States to carry out activities that would build state capacity for implementing high-quality preschool programs, and expand model programs at the local level. The Department would provide competitive grants to States with preschool systems at various stages of development that are planning to provide universal access to high-quality preschool for four-year-old children from low-and moderate-income families to carry out the activities needed to successfully serve four-year-old children in high-quality programs.

The administration also requests funding to increase or maintain key investments in a number of programs that seek to improve outcomes for young children, especially for those with high needs:

  • Early Intervention Programs for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities ($463 million, $20 million more than the fiscal year 2013 amount). These formula grants help States implement statewide systems of early intervention services for all eligible children with disabilities and developmental delays from birth through age two and their families.
  • Preschool Grants for Children with Disabilities ($373 million). These formula grants help States make a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment available to all children with disabilities ages three through five to help ensure that young children with disabilities succeed in school.

The Department of Health and Human Services is also investing in young children by requesting significant increases in funding for programs that include Head Start, Early Head Start and the Child Care and Development fund.

Secretary Duncan talks with teacher and Teaching Ambassador Fellow Dan Brown about the importance of high quality preschool for all children. Watch:


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

To read more details on the Obama Administration’s budget request for investing in early learning, visit www.ed.gov/early-learning.

Read more about the 2014 Education Budget and the bottom line.