Bridging the Word Gap

Crossposted from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services blog

“We know that right now during the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family. By giving more of our kids access to high-quality pre-school and other early learning programs, and by helping parents get the tools they need to help their kids succeed, we can give those kids a better shot at the career they are capable of, and a life that will make us all better off.”

-President Obama

Last week, the Obama Administration, in partnership with Too Small to Fail Exit Disclaimer and the Urban Institute Exit Disclaimer, hosted a group of federal, state and local policy makers, philanthropists, researchers and advocates at the White House for a day of shared learning on “Bridging the Word Gap.” The convening is a follow-up to the President’s call to action Exit Disclaimer on early education and the word gap earlier this year.

The President and his Administration are not alone in their interest in the subject. A growing coalition across the political spectrum is devoting attention and action to children’s earliest experiences. The driving catalyst is a combination of the growing literature on developmental and brain science that has permeated public policy and public knowledge, a stubborn achievement gap, and socioeconomic-driven disparities appearing in children much earlier than any American can stomach.

So what does the word gap have to do with brain development and subsequent socioeconomic disparities? A lot. The word gap technically refers to the difference in the quantity of words a high versus low-income child hears in the first few years of life. But the word gap is really much more than that. It is a proxy for the varying levels of enriching or quality experiences children have in their early years. In this case, the quantity of words children hear is correlated with the quality of interactions they are experiencing. We know from almost two decades of research that early experiences shape brain development. If we can bridge this word gap — both in quantity and quality — and provide more children with the foundational early experiences they need to be astute learners in preschool, kindergarten and beyond, we may be able to make more progress on the stubborn achievement gap and ensuing socioeconomic disparities. But we can’t get there unless we start early — really early.

While much warranted attention has been placed on ensuring that all children have access to high quality preschool, the conversation at the White House last week was largely about what happens before preschool, in the first few years of life. Lead researchers in the field, like Dr. Anne Fernald of Stanford University reinforced the point that learning starts at birth and disparities between lower- and higher income children start early, in infancy and toddlerhood, in part due to the language environment young children are exposed to. Dr. Kathy Hirsh Pasek of Temple University presented data that show that the “conversational duet” (i.e. repeated back-and-forth interaction between caregivers and young children), is the most critical component of the language environment. Her findings demonstrate that toddlers who engaged in more “conversational duets” with their caretakers fare better in language measures down the road, regardless of their families’ income level. Dr. Dana Suskind of the University of Chicago drove home the point of the day in stating that: “Babies aren’t born smart. They’re made smart.” In all, the conversation focused on how, as a community, we can ensure that caregivers have the tools they need to “bridge the word gap,” be “brain builders,” and provide their infants and toddlers with enriching early experiences that foster cognitive and social-emotional development and truly prepare kids for preschool, kindergarten and school beyond.

At the convening, the Obama Administration highlighted several efforts to do just that. A coordinated effort by HHS, ED, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to bridge the word gap and enhance young children’s earliest experiences was unveiled, including:

  • An HHS-sponsored challenge to innovators to build low-cost technologies that help caregivers engage in more high-quality interactions with their young children
  • An HHS-funded research network to help connect academics from multiple disciplines to contribute to word gap solutions
  • A Word Gap Toolkit, jointly developed by HHS, ED, and Too Small to Fail, that will include a suite of resources for parents, caregivers, and teachers on enriching the language environment of our youngest children
  • A $2 million investment by ED, HHS, and philanthropic partners on a National Academies of Science study focused on how to best support young children who are dual and English language learners
  • A Parent Early Learning Toolkit to help parents identify high-quality early learning programs, funded by ED and co-developed with HHS
  • A “prescription to the library” that provides a new way for pediatricians to encourage reading and library use, as well as a deeper partnership to address the word gap that will likely include over 150 libraries and 75 museums, co-administered by IMLS and Reach Out and Read

Last week’s event at the White House focused all eyes, ears and brains on babies and helped us move toward ensuring that our youngest children, particularly infants and toddlers, have a diverse coalition of champions behind them. Our policies, investments, and attention as a country should be tightly aligned with what the science says: that brain development and learning start on day one. If we want to ensure that America remains competitive in an ever-evolving world economy, we must make sure that all of our children, starting at birth, have access to the high quality early learning experiences that will “bridge the gap” and set them up for a bright future.

Check out the White House Fact Sheet to learn more about the Administration’s efforts to “bridge the word gap.”

Shantel E. Meek is a Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development at Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America

This is cross-posted from the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom

All parents hope their child will start school ready for success. Unfortunately, not every parent can find the high-quality early learning opportunity that sets their child up for success.

Earlier today the U.S. Department of Education released a new report outlining the unmet need for high-quality early learning programs in America. Roughly 6 in 10 four-year-olds are not enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs, and even fewer are enrolled in the highest quality programs.

Unmet Need

While both states and the federal government invest in early learning, these efforts have fallen short of what is needed to ensure that all children can access a high-quality early education that will prepare them for success.

Significant new investments in high-quality early education are necessary to help states, local communities, and parents close the readiness gap that exists between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.

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For Latino children, the unmet need is especially great. While Latinos are the fastest growing and largest minority group in the United States, making up a quarter of 3- and 4-year-olds, Latinos demonstrate the lowest preschool participation rates of any major ethnicity or race.

And while most children who have access to preschool attend moderate-quality programs, African- American children and children from low-income families are the most likely to attend low- quality preschool programs and are the least likely to attend high-quality preschool programs.

Building on Progress

To address the unmet need for high-quality preschool, states and the federal government have invested in initiatives to expand access. These investments provide a strong base upon which we can build voluntary, universal access to high-quality early education that will prepare our nation’s students for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Over the past decade, governors from both political parties have pushed for the creation
and expansion of publicly funded preschool programs. Since 2003, states have increased
their investment in preschool by more than 200 percent.

The federal government has also worked to improve the quality and expand early learning through the Head Start program. Twenty states have also received support through the Early Learning Challenge program, which helped states improve early childhood workforce preparation and training, and strengthened health services and family engagement.

Congress took an important step in 2014 to address inequities in access to high-quality preschool by supporting the Preschool Development Grants program, a 4-year, federal-state partnership to expand the number of children enrolled in high-quality preschool programs in high-need communities. Thirty-five states and Puerto Rico applied, but due — in part — to limited funding, only 18 grants were awarded.

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Preschool Development Grants will not cover every child in the funded states; however, these states will be another step closer to the goal of expanding access to high-quality early learning across the country. Over the 4-year grant period, and with continued funding from Congress, these states are expecting to enroll an additional 177,000 children in high-quality preschool programs, which will help put children on a path to success in school and in life.

Support for Early Learning

Over the last several years, an impressive coalition of education, business, law enforcement, military, child advocacy groups, and faith-based leaders have joined together to support the expansion of high-quality preschool programs. These groups recognize that investing in high-quality preschool means that more students will graduate from high school, go to college or join the armed or public services, and become contributing, productive members of our society with fewer youth and adults entering the justice system.

The evidence supporting early learning is clear. Research shows that children who participate in high-quality preschool programs have better health, social-emotional, and cognitive outcomes than those who do not participate.

Expanding early learning — including high-quality preschool — provides society with a return on investment of $8.60 for every $1 spent. About half of the return on investment originates from increased earnings for children when they grow up.

Moving Forward

This year, as Congress seeks to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), our nation is at critical moment. Congress can honor this important legacy and moral imperative – as our nation observes ESEA’s 50th anniversary – by reauthorizing a strong education law. This new law must reflect real equity of opportunity, starting with our youngest children.

By making a significant investment in preschool a key component of ESEA, we can help America live up to its highest ideals, as a place with real equity of opportunity. Congress has a chance to honor and extend the civil rights legacy of our education law by providing all children — no matter where they live or how much money their parents earn — an equal opportunity to begin school ready to succeed.

Join Shakira and Secretary Duncan for a Twitter Q&A on Early Education

Crossposted from The White House blog

For every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we see a rate of return of $7 or more through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these kids as adults.

Early education is one of the best investments our country can make. Participation in high-quality early learning programs—like Head Start, public and private pre-K, and childcare—provide children from all backgrounds with a strong start and a solid foundation for success in school.

Tomorrow, President Obama will host a White House Summit on Early Education, announcing new commitments and building on his call to expand access to high-quality early childhood education to every child in America.

As part of the Summit, Grammy award-winning artist Shakira and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be taking to Twitter on Wednesday, December 10, at 10:00 a.m. ET to answer your questions about early education. Shakira is a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, and has been a strong advocate for high-quality early education.

Here’s how you can get involved:

Learn more about the President’s plan to expand access to high-quality early childhood education, and then join Shakira and Secretary Arne Duncan for a Twitter chat on Wednesday, December 10, at 10:00 a.m. ET.

Engaging Families, Ensuring Education Success: A Back-to-School Tour with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics

Cross-posted from the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom

In Springdale, Arkansas, the Hispanic population grew by more than 150 percent between 2000 and 2011, largely driven by the arrival of mostly Hispanic immigrants. The school district’s public school population is now 44 percent Hispanic, and its English Learner population is also 44 percent of students. The city has done a remarkable job of embracing their newest community members and ensuring that all students and families are supported.

As part of ED’s Back-to-School Bus Tour, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH) visited Springdale to learn about the city’s community integration efforts. For the visit, WHIEEH collaborated with the Cisneros Center for New Americans, an organization that works to accelerate the integration of new Americans into American society. One stop was at an early childhood center where newly enrolled families pose for portraits that are placed in the classroom, to help ease the child’s transition and alleviate separation anxiety. Coffee sessions between new and veteran parents help familiarize families with the center and the community.

Another stop included the Turnbow Elementary School family literacy program where parents attend English language classes and scheduled PAC or “Parent and Child” time, in which parents join their children in class. They also learn about other subjects, including safety and financial assistance, from community partners such as the police and fire departments and local banks.

A mother described the program’s impact on her and her daughter: “When I signed up for this program, I saw my daughter with a huge smile, so I know it really mattered to her that I was in it,” she said.

At the Language Academy at Har-Ber High School, newly arrived students write their aspirations on classroom walls. These not only remind students to work hard, but they also provide instructors with daily reminders of their own role in helping all students reach their full potential.

The Academy has served to support integration into the larger community.

“The Language Academy helped me communicate with other people,” one student said. “At first, I didn’t know the basics …and now I’m in a regular class. I know all the things that the teacher tells me, and how they teach me and help me so much.”

A town hall for leaders from throughout the community provided context for the school district’s work. Superintendent Jim Rollins provided an overview of the district’s comprehensive efforts and a panel of experts discussed best practices on immigrant integration.

“Education is the great equalizer – quality education is accessible to immigrant families in Springdale,” said Professor William Schwab, University of Arkansas.

Throughout the tour, it was evident that efforts to break down language barriers and motivate students to succeed in and out of the classroom are making a difference.

Springdale’s family engagement and integration vision and efforts were recognized in aRace to the Top-District grant award in 2013. The program helps localities develop plans to personalize and improve student learning, increase educational opportunities, and provide resources that lead to a high-quality learning experience.

The program has enabled Springdale to provide 100 additional preschool slots to the community’s children and draw up plans to expand their family literacy program to each of their 30 schools.

The commitment to immigrant integration through family engagement is in the soul of the Springdale community. Superintendent Rollins put it best: “Those are the kind of things that can happen when you embrace children and help them find their true potential and promise.”

Emmanuel Caudillo is a Special Advisor for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Latino Education and the Fifth Anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

On February 17, 2009 President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).  This was in response to the worst economic crisis in the U.S. since the Great Depression.  At the time, private employers had cut almost 4 million jobs and trillions in dollars in household wealth had been wiped out. 

The Council of Economic Advisors has released its final report to Congress which affirms the investments made through ARRA have had a positive impact on the economy.  We not only see the effects of ARRA through the millions of jobs it helped create, but we also see how ARRA has helped in the classroom.

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National Summit on Hispanic Early Learning

On September 18th, key stakeholders met at Miami-Dade College for an all-day summit to discuss the importance of investing in quality early education for the success of our country’s economic future. The National Summit on Hispanic Early Learning, hosted by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and its President’s Advisory Commission engaged philanthropists, non-profit, business and community leaders, state and local government officials, media experts, researchers and advocacy representatives in a timely conversation on the critical need for raising awareness on and increasing access to high quality early childhood education for the Hispanics community.

Sylvia Acevedo, Early Learning Subcommittee Chair, Commission

Sylvia Acevedo, Early Learning Subcommittee Chair, Commission

The Undersecretary of Education, Martha Kanter, acknowledged in her opening remarks that the success of the nation’s economy coincides with the progress of the Hispanic community, and that in order for Hispanics to contribute to the United States and help us compete in a global economy, they need a comprehensive foundation.

Hispanics are the largest and fastest growing minority group in the nation, and by 2060 they are expected to account for more than one quarter of the total US population. However, in the current K-12 public school system, Hispanics already account for one in four students.

Unfortunately, only about 20 percent of those children participate in a high-quality preschool program.

The first five years of childhood account for the greatest developmental growth, allowing children to establish the social and cognitive skills necessary for academic success.

Lacking the appropriate educational groundwork, many Hispanics enter their first year of school on average 12-18 months behind their peers. Researcher Steven Barnett, from the National Institute for Early Education Research, discussed the lower enrollment rates in early learning programs and a significant achievement gap among Hispanics, pointing to language barriers and affordability as major contributing factors. He went on to say that when Hispanics participate in preschool programs, they have the largest gains among any other demographic, are less likely to repeat grades and drop out, and more likely to have higher test scores and graduate from both high school and college.

Panelists Gladys Montes, Vice President of the United Way Center for Excellence in Early Education, and Jeff Schoenberg, advisor for the J.B. & M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation, expressed their concerns with the discourse of early childhood education without effective advocacy and outreach.  They discussed the importance of having tangible results to back intuition in order to convince policymakers of the priority of early education.

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