President Obama used his penultimate State of the Union to call for a significant expansion in college access and increased investments in early childhood. This follows his administration's efforts in the last two years to increase funding and investments in high quality preschool and early learning opportunities. Given the correlation between educational achievement and a child's access to high-quality early childhood education, every sector should support better learning opportunities for our children to ensure our economic competitiveness down the road.
Early education opportunities are critical to lifelong success. The first three years of childhood are a period of extraordinarily rapid brain development. Several studies have documented significant cognitive gains for children who attend Pre-K programs. Furthermore, research has shown that students who attended Pre-K and kindergarten are more likely to have higher reading and extrapolation skills by the third grade than students who did not. This is key, considering third grade tests scores are a remarkably accurate indicator of whether or not a child will go to college.
Yet, while we know the importance of early education, the reality is that as a nation we are not doing enough to make sure it is available to the ones who need it the most. Data from 2011 shows that over half of African-American children and more than 60 percent of Latino children ages 3 to 4 are not attending preschool. Likewise, low income children of all races, are not afforded the opportunities to access early childhood programs which has tremendous implications down the road. By the time children start elementary school, the educational gap between the wealthiest and the poorest children is significant. Children from low-income families are often a year or more behind their more affluent peers. By the age of 4, low-income children have heard 30 million fewer words than children from wealthier families and have vocabularies that are half as extensive. These gaps only grow larger as time goes by, and catching up becomes increasingly difficult. By the time children reach first grade, for example, there is already a full one-year reading gap between English language learners and native English speakers.
While number of federal programs--including Early Head Start and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program--exist to address some of the early education needs, programs specific to infants and toddlers remain underdeveloped and underfunded. Thus, a re-commitment to investing in all our children is urgently needed. This can be done by aligning programs with the needs of our families and children and expanding the scope and resources of existing programs that serve infants and toddlers in order to create seamless service delivery.
If we are truly committed to closing the educational achievement gap in K-12 or the income gap down the road, we must start by ensuring that our kids have access to early childhood education. This is not just an educational but an economic issue and as such, every segment of society should support the president's efforts to find ways to expand early childhood education access for all children.
Vanessa Cardenas is the Vice President for Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress which seeks to build a progressive agenda that is more inclusive of the rich racial and ethnic makeup of our nation. Her work focuses on the intersection of policy and race, with particular attention to demographic changes, immigration, and issues relevant to the growing Latino community in the United States.