Keeping Our Eyes on Both Birds in Early Childhood Education

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Jack McCarthy

There is a growing consensus in the United States that early childhood education is important. The newest Education Commission of the States report highlighted that “total state funding for preschool programs increased by $767 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year to a total of nearly $7 billion.”

It’s the rare issue in U.S. politics with bipartisan support– 22 states with Republican governors and 10 states with Democratic governors (plus the District of Columbia) increasing funding for pre-k programs in 2015-16.

And it’s not hard to figure out why. When you listen to early childhood advocates, it sounds like investing in early childhood education is like investing in a super policy. It can close the achievement gap by getting all students on the same level from the start. It can close the gender pay gap by allowing mothers of all races and classes to continue working after having kids.

If we just invest in early childhood, then we can quickly, simply and easily, kill two birds with one stone.

Turns out, like everything else, it’s not quite that simple.

Early childhood education does have the potential to do two things at once. But only if we keep in mind that our policy has two goals.

First, there is the achievement gap. The first five years that you are alive are the most influential of your life. These are the years where your building blocks are set up, the years your brain’s architecture is shaped. In the first five years, your experiences have a direct impact on how well you develop learning skills as well as social and emotional abilities.

The achievement gap is largely a result of just how different experiences are for low-income students in the first five years.

Tracking families from every socio-economic group, research has shown that children born into low-income families heard, by age three, roughly 30 million fewer words than those from more affluent backgrounds. Stanford University analysis found an intellectual processing gap that appears as early as 18 months as a consequence.

Underserved students also begin school with much less well-developed background knowledge, numeracy, comprehension and behavioral skills than those acquired by classmates with parents of greater means. Because disadvantaged students arrive at kindergarten millions of words behind their peers and lack early learning skills, they perform much less well at school. Those negative effects last a lifetime.

The achievement gap is the result of socioeconomic circumstances setting students’ building blocks up very differently.

Debates about early childhood education often concentrate on the best way to increase access, which is important. But the conversation needs to distinguish between effective early learning and childcare. Effective early learning drives school readiness by developing cognitive and social-emotional skills.

Parents need a safe, affordable place for their children while they work. Society needs many of these children to be more prepared to succeed in school, careers and life.

Effective early learning should be defined in terms of important measurable outcomes that lead to success in school.  Programs need to constantly focus on assessing children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills and adjusting classroom interventions to address any shortcomings.

People in New Jersey saw the effect of focusing on quality first hand. In 1999-2000 the state began implementing NJ Supreme Court mandated high-quality preschool education in 31 of the highest poverty districts in the state. At the time, less than 15% of pre-K classrooms had a “good” or “excellent” quality rating. Nearly 25% had a “poor” rating.

The state focused on improving that quality through high standards, professional development, and a continuous improvement system. By 2007-08, the vast majority of classrooms had a “good” or “excellent” rating and very few had a “poor” quality rating.

A longitudinal study concluded that high-quality pre-K in New Jersey helped to close the achievement gap by about half over the next few years, with the gap closing more and more each year. In addition, the high-quality pre-K is estimated to have reduced grade repetition from 19% to 12% and special education from 17% to 12% through the fifth grade.

There’s a reason it’s referred to as effective early learning. And effective early learning is found all over the country—schools that focus on high standards, professional development, and continuous improvement systems are pretty apt at achieving high quality. It’s just that when people demand early childhood education, they tend not to demand those key aspects along with it.

But here is where the second goal comes in—closing the gender pay gap. According to the National Women’s Law Center, on average, childcare costs more than rent. As a result, women, especially women making the minimum wage, tend to drop out of the workforce when they have children. And, after caring for those children for years, it’s that much harder to move back into the workforce at the same rate of pay as when you left.

We need to remember that while there is a difference between school that is focused on learning and school that is a place for children to go, there is a paramount need for a place for children to go in this country.

If we ignore quality in favor of access, we risk early childhood education being unable to close the achievement gap. If we ignore access in favor of quality, we risk early childhood education being unable to close the gender pay gap.

The solution is to use the bipartisan support and the money states are investing in pursuit of both access and quality. To provide childcare while not ignoring any and all opportunities for effective early learning within it. Doing so can maximize the return on our investment and solve both problems at once.

The first five years are the most critical of a child’s life. And, the first five years are critical for their mother’s lives as well. Let’s keep both people in mind when investing in early childhood and we’ll all benefit from the result.


Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.


Jack McCarthy is President and CEO of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation and AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School. Jack advocates passionately to influence early education policy and practice to help close the achievement gap before kindergarten.

Choose your Reaction!