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These three early childhood programs could make a huge difference in averting achievement gaps

Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash
Making preschool available for every child 3 and older regardless of their family income won’t erase the opportunity gap, but it would ensure that all kids at least begin from the same starting line.

K was a 10th-grade student in my English class during my first year of teaching. He was a great kid: goofy smile, laid back, loved to talk about music. But school wasn’t his forte. He misplaced work frequently, was easily distracted while reading, and struggled to write more than a few simple sentences at a time. In my naïveté, I chalked K’s difficulty in school up to motivation: He simply needed to work harder. Then I saw his standardized reading scores. As a 10th-grader, K was reading at a third-grade level. Suddenly, low motivation no longer seemed like the culprit.

How could this happen, I wondered. How is it that K entered high school so far behind? The answer, I quickly learned, is that K, and countless students like him, are too often placed on the conveyor belt of our education system and pushed along, grade after grade, even when they may not be prepared to move on. Even as an early career teacher, I have seen the pattern too often: Students fail a grade, make up a year’s worth of coursework in single week credit recovery class over spring break, and then are shuffled along to the next grade, ill-equipped to succeed.

I can only speculate about the reasons for which this happens. It’s expensive and logistically difficult to hold kids back. Educators feel guilty doing it. School and district leaders like promotion and graduation data to look pretty. But the consequence of this inertia-driven policy is that our most vulnerable students are not gaining the skills they need for postsecondary success.

For this reason, I listen with a skeptical ear as this year’s field of Democratic presidential nominees pitch voters on tuition-free college for all. Certainly, the idea is well-intentioned and appealing, progressive and bold. But if Democrats want to move the needle on education at a fraction of the cost, they should instead focus on investments much earlier in life that equip kids with the tools they need to succeed in college. Specifically, Democrats should fight for three early childhood programs: paid parental leave, child care stipends, and universal preschool.

Paid Parental Leave: When my 7-month-old son was born, I took two weeks of paid paternal leave while my wife, a psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the local Veterans Affairs hospital, did not have a single day of paid maternal leave. She used a combination of sick leave and FMLA (unpaid time off), and returned to work nine weeks postpartum. We were fortunate to have savings and family who flew into town to support us. Many other Americans, including most of my students’ families, aren’t so lucky. For these families, the birth of a child means an impossible decision that pits financial survival against the health and well-being of a newborn. Investing in paid parental leave is investing in early education, because parents are a baby’s first educators. Through touch and talk, parents and babies lay the groundwork for crucial cognitive and social development. No amount of schooling can replace this.

photo of article author
Christopher Mah
Child care stipends: My wife and I are incredibly lucky. Our infant is in a Spanish-immersion day care, five minutes from my school, where he is held, talked to, and sung to by loving adults. It’s a wonderful facility, but we dig deep into our savings to pay for it. We are not alone. According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, here in Minnesota, the average cost of child care exceeds $16,000 annually. For a single infant, that amounts to over one-fifth of a median family’s income. For some, this means a choice between paying for child care or quitting a job. Others do not even have a choice; simple math makes the choice for them. Those who choose to enroll their children in day care often cut back on necessities like groceries, utilities, diapers, clothing, and home repairs. Providing relief in the form of stipends or tax credits would allow parents who choose to work to continue doing so while ensuring that their children are in a learning-rich environment.

Universal Pre-K: According to Close Gaps by 5, a Minnesota nonprofit that seeks to broaden access to high quality early education for children from low-income families, nearly half of the state’s children enter kindergarten already behind, kick-starting an opportunity gap that persists and widens as they progress through school. Making preschool available for every child 3 and older regardless of their family income won’t erase the opportunity gap, but it would  ensure that all kids at least begin from the same starting line.

A child’s first five years do not dictate her future outcomes, but they certainly orient her initial trajectory. Would I love for kids like K to have access to free college? Absolutely. But we don’t do our young people any favors by sending them off to college unprepared. Investing in early education alleviates this problem by removing barriers from birth.

Money is finite, but so is political capital. Rather than pursue a goal like free college for all – which, while a worthy policy proposal, is also a largely partisan one – Democrats should double down on early education investments that garner broad support. Doing so would yield better educational, social, public health, and economic returns at a fraction of the cost of free college.

If lawmakers are serious about closing the so-called achievement gap, they should also get serious about preventing it from taking root in the first place. If we can give kids and families what they need in the first five years of life, there is no ceiling to what they can accomplish.

Christopher Mah is a fourth-year language arts teacher in Minneapolis.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 09/04/2019 - 12:00 pm.

    When everything is tallied, having a parent stay home to raise their kids is a mathematical wash. And that is before we consider the immeasurable benefits kids get from having a dedicated parent.

    Most people want to have children, but they’re not willing to make any sacrifices to do so. Instead, they want others to subsidize their lives.

    This is not a sustainable situation. We need to get back to the nuclear family.

  2. Submitted by Els Erzo on 09/04/2019 - 03:02 pm.

    We must never forget that the greatest education we must start at home, that makes the relationship stronger as they grow, not having left it alone to the teachers. I love this program;, helps us a lot as parents for our children. We should not leave teachers teaching our children alone, Please.

  3. Submitted by Michael Ofjord on 09/04/2019 - 08:46 pm.

    Although there is controversy about what ages are the most important for any child’s development, it seems common sense and intuitive that the first few years are extremely important. It also seems intuitive and common sense to make sure basic skills such as reading and basic skills are made universal for all children, especially for those who are more poor overall. Of course, we want there to be nuclear families, but that’s not always going to happen in the real world. That is fact. Therefore, we need to figure out the science and social science of what makes a healthy child. I think the information is out there, such as Search Institutes 40 positive supports and strengths. Now the systems out there in the real world need to come up with a true plan to implement what we already know.

  4. Submitted by David LaPorte on 09/05/2019 - 05:45 pm.

    I agree with most of this letter, except the starting age. A child’s brain is 80% developed by age 2 and 90% by age 5. The author is correct that the parents are the first, and most important, teachers. However, they need to start the child’s education as early as possible. A lot will be missed if it starts at age 3.

    The challenge is the parents, particularly parents in poverty, are not skilled educators. Programs that trained the parents and then did periodic followups were successful in erasing the achievement gap.

    This is a good investment for the government. There are 2.5 million prison inmates in this country, 80% of them are high school dropouts and their incarceration costs about $35,000 a year each. Early childhood education (not daycare) could save money in the long run and make society safer.

  5. Submitted by Carla Mahnken Woolf on 09/06/2019 - 09:03 am.

    Thanks everyone for your voices on this matter. I appreciate these comments profoundly as I have been working for over 25 years to encourage people to understand how crucial the first 5 years of life are and how parents are children’s first teachers. I’ve written 3 books on the matter and one that has served as a dissertation for which I have been awarded a PhD. It’s true — the best intervention and preparation for success and “educational reform” is at the preschool level and nuclear families do make ALL the difference. But here is where the difficulty lies; understanding the truthful postulates of early cognitive brain development and this is where Parental input can really make the difference. It’s easy to believe that early reading and numeracy skills are the basis for early learning. If that were true then we should be at the top of the academic scale because we have put so much emphasis on it. Kids do indeed need their parents to care for them and being financially awarded to do so would be the first step. The next step would be to know for sure what the real learning “apps” are to ensure a lifetime ease for learning. So the question is ‘”What really defines K – 12 school readiness”? The most important skill is Critical Thinking because it supports ongoing creativity and curiosity for learning. Most folks fall short of realizing that the most fundamental basics for these skills are locked in during the ‘pre-k’ 3 – 5 year old stage of brain development. We are prone to believe that critical abstract thinking is so sophisticated that it is part of the latter more complex years of learning, but the fundamental structures for these skills are built in early intuitive language development, indeed they must be built into early language development. We, as adults – parents and teachers alike – need to become more educated about educating the very young mind. Essentially this involves a few Jin-Anegotiable tasks regardless of what we each personally believe in. These tasks include imprinting and implementing (ready?) The fundamental principles of math, which is never to be confused with knowing just numbers and counting/arithmetic, but covers a diverse spectrum of basic knowledge that defines ALL fields of knowledge. Next early learning must include the properties of Natural Science and the opportunities to explore in nature settings and most finally all early learning skills and experiences must be simultaneously tethered with Emotional Literacy sills delivered and dispensed with non- negated optimal information processing as the primary language tool while the impulse to teach in accordance to consequences is delayed and/or used only as secondary knowledge applications. I realize that all this sounds overwhelming, but if we want to upgrade both our children’s learning and emotional intelligence potentialities, then we must upgrade our own learning and development skills as Parents and Early Educators. I hope we can consider how significant and crucial all of this is when we consider the genuine meaning of “Pre-K as the foundation for EVERYTHING in life” – – because it really is either the everything foundation or it’s nothing, it’s time we made an actionable choice … to properly reform everything in society is to properly reform preschool brain development. This is how we can change the future !

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