01/17/2011 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Early Childhood Education: Two Essential Questions

Recently, one of my 4-year-old twin sons awoke one morning and flashed another spark of his learning desire.

"Mommy, it's Tuesday," he announced.

"Yes, it is. Very good," My wife Jennifer said in a voice tinged with praise and weariness at once. It was the kind of voice all-too-familiar to mothers. It's a soothing maternal sound rooted in lullabies, but which now has branched into a half-forced smiling refrain -- the sort of refrain that must still ring as authentic, without betraying the natural annoyance of having to appease your child at 6 a.m.

"But I'm going to miss the letter of the week!" my son protested. We had been away visiting family for the holidays. This meant that our twins would miss a few days of preschool. And, of course, Tuesday was time to learn the new letter. I'm not certain what the letter was, but I recall that it was very clear to Aidan.

I also recall being smitten with a bit of pride at the thought that we were raising children who had a hunger for the "letter of the day" before the morning's first bowl of Cheerios, or before their fancy turned toward thoughts of Ironman or the Transformers. Perhaps our efforts were paying off. Jennifer and I read to our twins every night. My wife, an elementary school teacher, had been teaching him some sight words. Though preschool seemed to have been having a definitive impact, we somehow felt we were fulfilling our parental duty to form the crucible for our children's education. Soon, however, I wiped that slate clean.

My child's desire is not so different, after all. Is it? I'm certain most parents can recount similar experiences with their children. Some may credit early childhood education as igniting a spark. They cite the benefits of preschools or the decision to home-school. Indeed, there's no shortage of studies and statistics trumpeting the need for early childhood education. It plays a leading role in every doting parent's education drama. But I look no further than my own experiences for the exception.

I didn't have parents who read to me or helped me with sight words, nor did I attend preschool. In fact, I didn't even attend kindergarten. My formal education began in Year Seven at a private K-3 school. It was exceptional only to the extent that it consisted of a sparsely furnished one-room classroom somewhere near Laredo, Texas. At the time, Laredo was widely considered to be the poorest city in America. Although many of its roads were unpaved, I have faded memories of playing barefoot beside the hard, sun-baked dirt streets. Since most classmates, like me, were native Spanish-speakers, the instruction was bilingual. I remember learning the ABC's. Within a few months, I had managed to gain basic literacy skills. Then my family moved to rural Minnesota before I completed the first grade. By the time I entered second grade, I had caught up. In fact, I seemed to be an above-average student.


The personal experience raises two essential questions about early childhood education and its place in the education reform debate: If early childhood education is considered so crucial, then why do some children thrive without it? After all, there is no shortage of studies testifying to the central need for it. Conversely, why might some children fail despite being exposed to it?

I don't raise these questions as a way to weaken the case for early childhood education. Rather, they are questions that could guide educators, researchers and legislators in developing and providing access to effective, quality, early childhood educational programs. For example, at least one early-learning advocacy group maintains that the most effective programs include mechanisms that involve and support families. In other words, early childhood education does not begin and end in the classroom. Families, especially those at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, need to be empowered with tools to help their children learn.

So why do some children fail despite access to early education programs? The reasons could be as simple as lack of proper nutrition, which could adversely impact a young mind's cognitive development. Or the answer could be as complex as culture and linguistics. There is overwhelming evidence establishing the need for nurturing young minds. Jumpstart, the nonprofit literacy advocate, cites a litany of sobering facts about the state of our nation's early education system:
  • 37 percent of children begin kindergarten lacking necessary skills for learning
  • Children who lack basic literacy practices when they enter school are up to 4 times as likely to not finish high school.
  • For every 50 kindergarten children who have difficulty learning to read, 44 of them will still have difficulty in third grade.

Even more troubling is that literacy gaps have far-reaching societal impact. As Jumpstart's 2009 report points out, every high school dropout costs the nation about $260,000 over the course of the individual's lifetime. The financial toll stems partly from the fact that high school dropouts have far lower income-earning potential and are more likely to seek aid from public welfare systems. They are also far more likely to commit crimes. In fact, California officials have been known to plan for new prisons based on "how many children are not reading on grade level by the fourth grade."

All this brings me to my first essential question: Why do some children thrive, without the benefit of equitable and excellent educational opportunity? In fact, a 2009 study found that 95 percent of Americans consider early childhood education to be an important concern, but 73 percent wrongly believe that unprepared kindergartners eventually will catch up by third grade. It's not surprising. After all, the great American story is that this is the "land of opportunity." The reward for hard work is success and prosperity. The eye of heaven shines bright on the strong.

But the fallacy inherent in this Calvinistic ethic is its level of certitude. The canvas of personal educational achievement isn't painted with a roller. (Anyone who's ever seen Jasper Johns' American "Flag" could testify). I would venture that some children thrive without the benefit of formal early learning because of the quality of the formal instruction that they eventually did receive -- I credit my own ability to overcome initial adversity to my elementary school's teachers.

Done right, early childhood education addresses all areas of a child's development and learning. What happens inside the classroom should take into account what is happening outside. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) points out that this includes emotional, language, cognitive, social and physical factors. Nowadays, advocates might find it difficult to push for public financing. But despite the huge local and state budget deficits, we should think twice before we sacrifice early learning programs. And blunt the sparks of learning desire.