Much of this new emphasis stems from research about the developing brains of young children.
“People learn more in the first five years of life than they do in any other five-year period,” said Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.
“Kids are just like little sponges in the first 2,000 days,” of life, said Meltzoff, who believes researchers are on the edge of profound new discoveries regarding early learning. “They’re engaged in very avid and rapid learning in ages 3 to 5 . . . They’re tuned into the physical world and how the world works, and they’re also tuned into the social world.”
In his Tuesday night address, Obama proposed working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America, saying that such education pays huge dividends by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy and bringing down violent crime.
“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own,” Obama said. “We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”
The president made no mention of how much it would cost to provide universal preschool or how it would be funded.
The Obama administration focused much of its first-term education agenda on K-12 school reform and college affordability. In 2011, it spent a relatively small amount of money, $633 million, on competitive grants for states to create high-quality preschool programs. Thirty-seven states applied for the four-year grants; nine won the funding.
Educators see high-quality early childhood education as especially important to help close the achievement gap, which has been demonstrated to exist among children as young as 3 years old.
By age 3, children of white-collar parents have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words, while children in working-class families know 749 words and children whose families are on welfare know 525 words, according to an oft-cited 2003 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.
Several studies suggest that preschool is particularly valuable for low-income children. These children are less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, more likely to be employed and earn higher incomes, and less likely to receive public benefits as adults, when compared to at-risk children who do not attend preschool.