11/21/2012 08:42 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Education Begins Before School

This blog is co-authored by Dana Friedman, founder and president of the Early Years Institute. The blog is the first in a series of BBA blogs on early childhood education that explain the benefits of a comprehensive approach to early childhood and highlight effective efforts in specific states.

Most debates about educational reform have not embraced the most fundamental question: When does education begin? It certainly begins before school. In fact, babies are born learning. Over 85 percent of their brain weight will be formed by age five. Yet we spend 90 percent of our education dollars on children over age five. Furthermore, we know that early childhood is foundational to later success in school and beyond. There are countless studies showing that children who start behind, stay behind.

As stated by Federal Reserve Chair, Ben Bernanke, "Although education and the acquisition of skills is a lifelong process, starting early in life is crucial. Neuroscientists observe that... the child is more likely to succeed in school and to contribute to society as an adult."

Some states have gotten it right. Hawaii has a P-20 system. The "P" does not stand for "Pre-K." It is for "Pre-natal." In Burke County, North Carolina, Superintendent David Burleson learned about brain research at a Governor's conference and developed "baby mapping." Burleson compiled a mailing list from birth certificates in areas where children are likely to become his Kindergarten students. Letters were addressed to "The Class of 2025," inviting them to the first meeting of the graduating class, which was a parent-child workshop at the school that continued during that first year. Burleson explained that his goal was to make sure all children came to his schools prepared to succeed and all parents prepared to engage.

New York State used to be a national leader of early childhood education, but has fallen behind. Our pre-K program put New York in the forefront in 1997, but is now ranked 9th in the country in access for four-year-olds to pre-K and 24th in spending on pre-K, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research. On Long Island, only 60 of our 118 elementary school districts offer pre-K, with waiting lists, particularly in our underserved communities. Pre-K is still a potent tool that needs to be fixed and can help New York resume a leadership role. In addition, because New York State did not have a quality rating and information system that improves program quality and parent access, we did not receive $100 million from the second round of the Race to the Top competition from the U.S. Department of Education to improve early learning opportunities. QualitystarsNY has been designed and field tested and has great promise, but government support has not yet been forthcoming. Limited state dollars affects both the supply and affordability of child care. Currently, there are only enough spaces for half of all preschoolers in Long Island's child care, Head Start, nursery schools and pre-K programs. Much of the care that exists is unaffordable to working families. The costs exceed 10 percent of a family's income. This is a "system" we are entrusting to prepare our children for success in school. Somehow, what happens in these early years is relegated to "non-school" factors.

That is why The Early Years Institute is developing a suburban model of school readiness where the schools partner with the community to address non-school factors affecting school readiness from the time they are born. We use as our measure of accountability a tool called the Early Development Instrument (EDI) which was developed in Canada where it is now mandated nationwide. EYI enabled Westbury to be one of 14 sites in the country to test out this new assessment tool for UCLA and United Way Worldwide. Kindergarten teachers complete the EDI for each child, which covers all aspects of school readiness: health, social and emotional development, cognition and literacy, approaches to learning, and communications and general knowledge. The uniqueness of the EDI is that the data are reported back by neighborhood, rather than by child or classroom. This enables us to target, with laser-like precision, which vulnerabilities are occurring in what part of town. More importantly, it galvanizes the residents of that neighborhood to take action and help address the needs.

Educational reform must embrace the notion that when children come to school prepared, everyone in the classroom benefits and that ultimately leads to a higher quality of life for all of us. And when our children have high quality early education, research shows they have higher reading and math scores, better school attendance rates, and higher graduation rates. If we think of school readiness starting at birth, then educational reform must incorporate early childhood and it must be open to the contributions of organizations outside the school.