Early childhood education promises much for many. Is it early intervention, designed to identify and treat physical and developmental delays before school entry? Is it pre-kindergarten services for four-year-olds, two hours a day to provide learning-related skills prior to kindergarten entry? Is it child care, run by that nice lady down the block, to provide a place for children while their parents work?
Regardless of which goal it is addressing, early childhood education is an area of public policy that faces many challenges such as limited funding, as it tries to reconcile parental needs and children's development, and address hardships associated with growing poverty.
The Brookings Institution and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) waded into this conversation with a new compendium, Investing in Young Children: New Directions in Federal Preschool and Early Childhood Policy. The various essays are thoughtful, well-researched and important for helping the field address its many challenges, yet in many ways they also avoid discussing the daily reality of early childhood education for millions of families.
Twelve million children under age six are in some form of early childhood education each day for some part of the day. This could be Head Start, a state or locally funded pre-kindergarten program for three and four-year-olds in a public school, a family child care setting in the home of a licensed provider, or a for profit or nonprofit child care center. Because child care is expensive, and because public programs are underfunded, the type of setting families use is often due to luck or chance.
Regardless of the name over the door, these settings vary in quality, in funding and in other resources for children. They may not have enough books, toys, qualified teachers or other staff. Or, they may provide developmentally appropriate services that help support children across the learning continuum by supporting cognitive, emotional, social and physical development while also addressing family needs.
Yet when each of these children get to kindergarten -- regardless of whether they have been in a program of sufficient quality and funding -- public policymakers increasingly want to know if they are "ready". When they fail -- often on cognitive measures alone that may be inappropriate for their age, stage of development or home language and culture -- programs like Head Start and Early Head Start are held responsible. We hear that programs are expensive and that we are not getting the outputs we need.
What the public rarely hears is that high-quality programs do help young children succeed by building the real skills needed to thrive in school and society. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, notes that we must "develop cognitive skills, social skills and physical well-being in children early-from birth to five when it matters most." Kindergarten teachers agree that self-regulation and other social and emotional constructs are the most important skills for children to have for school.
The Association of Small Foundations has a similar point of view: "School readiness is more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. School readiness encompasses a child's 1) physical well-being and motor development; 2) social and emotional development; 3) approaches to learning; 4) language development; and 5) cognition and general knowledge."
Further, Heckman notes that the long-term rate of return for investments in programs that work -- such as Head Start and Early Head Start -- is six to 10 percent per year.
What does all of this mean? It means that as a nation, we should commit to providing Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) for all vulnerable children, fully funding Head Start and Early Head Start, promoting home-visiting programs for families at risk, and helping families at or below 200 percent of poverty get help paying for child care that is of sufficient quality to support their children's development while they go to work. We can take the best from what we know about early childhood education from thoughtful research and evaluation and make improvements to these programs by implementing higher program standards, especially for infants and toddlers, providing health and other supports to help children develop across the full range of domains, and paying for well-trained and well-compensated teachers for every young child in early childhood programs.
In short, it means, as Brookings and NIEER suggest, truly "Investing in Young Children."