“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 a chance.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls early childhood education “a game changer” — the nation’s best hope to reduce the achievement gap.
“I’ve said repeatedly we have to get out of the catch-up business in education. In every level, whether it’s middle schools doing work that didn’t happen in elementary, or high schools doing work that didn’t happen in the middle, ultimately our high school dropout rate is far too high,” Duncan said at The Washington Post Live’s March 5th summit on children and families. “How do we once and for all get out of the catch-up business? High-quality early childhood education.”
An expert panel created by Congress to develop a strategy to improve public education studied the issue for two years and made five recommendations last month, including providing universal access to early childhood education so that poor children are as prepared as their affluent peers to learn when they reach kindergarten.
The achievement gap has shown up as early as the toddler years. By age 3, children of white-collar parents have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words. Children in working-class families know 749 words and children whose families rely on welfare know only 525 words, according to a frequently cited 2003 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.
With enactment of the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, the federal government made closing the gap a priority and a reason for increased accountability in public education. A host of strategies has been deployed in schools across the country to narrow the gap, but few have resulted in substantial progress. A 2011 federal study of the country’s 21 largest urban school districts found that every city displayed a difference in performance between whites and blacks and between whites and Hispanics.
Meanwhile, advances in neuroscience over the last decade suggest that the window between birth and age 5 is a critical period of rapid learning and brain development.
Studies have suggested that early childhood education benefits society, because children who are enrolled grow up to be more productive adults, more likely to hold a job and less likely to receive public benefits. Early education for low-income children is estimated to generate $4 to $11 in benefits for every dollar spent on the program, according to a 2011 cost-benefit analysis funded by the National Institutes of Health.