Throughout the education world, it seems virtually everyone is jockeying for position in terms of 2009 priorities. We go through President-elect Obama’s education platform and policy speeches, looking for indications of priorities and preferences. This week, many an organization waited with baited breath to see what would come out of the Gates Foundation convening, thinking and hoping for new issues or a new priority or two. And no one is quite sure when (or even if) we’ll see reauthorization of ESEA in the next 12-18 months.
Six years ago, Eduflack was neck deep in scientifically based reading, believing at the time that Early Reading First and similar issues could be the next big thing. For the past three and a half years, I’ve been focusing on high school reform efforts, seeing that STEM is the logical off-shoot and just the education improvement we need to effectively link education with the economy. So much so that I am now advocating for the notion of a national public engagement campaign to ensure families and communities recognize that STEM is a necessity, not a luxury, and an approach needed for all students, not just the fortunate ones.
But I can’t shake the notion that I’ve been missing something from the equation, a piece missing from the great learning continuum. For the past couple of months, my thinking on the “next big thing” has evolved. Years ago, we saw a spike in interest in preK, as governors across the country proposed the notion of making it universal. But current economic situations have many a state, most recently Massachusetts, questioning that commitment. Early childhood education is stepping forward, and is stepping with a hard boot.
Yesterday, Pre-K Now released a new study looking at the ability of middle-class families to afford quality preK for their kids. The highlight — more than half of the states that fund preK do so by using family income as a determining criteria. The result — many a middle-class family, families who can feel the immediate benefits of quality preK, are quickly becoming unable to afford the programs their young kids need to maximize the K-12 experience. Check out the full report here — www.preknow.org/documents/pre-kpinch_Nov2008_report.pdf
This study becomes important to the overall debate. So much of the discussion of preK is focused on low-income families. Too many equate preK with Head Start, or see it as glorified babysitting, or generally lack the vision to see that quality preK can serve as a foundational step for developing social and academic skills in all students, ensuring they are prepared for the rigors and opportunities of K-12 (yes, even those rigors of kindergarten).
In releasing its study, Pre-K Now offers three recommendations for the next generation of early childhood education:
* Expand preK, beginning with the most vulnerable children and moving to include those in the middle class
* Consider eligibility factors outside of include to include more children, including those from single-parent and military-connected families
* Offer full-day programs, rather than half-days, to better meet the needs of working families
It is clear we are still in a learning process here. Is early childhood education education or sociology? Is it for all kids, or just those at risk? What does the data show in terms of linkages between preK and K-12 student achievement? Is it part of the P-20 education continuum, or is it only for those who can afford it or those who qualify for assistance?
Last week, Eduflack called for the establishment of an Office of Early Childhood Education at the U.S. Department of Education, building off of Obama’s recognition of the issue’s importance and his pledge to prioritize the issue. Pre-K Now’s Libby Doggett has done me one better, calling for an “Early Education Czar” at the White House to ensure early childhood issues fit into the larger tapestry of education improvement.
Like so many of the great education reform issues, early childhood education is not a simple issue, easily boxed by the powers that be. It involves education and healthcare and parental engagement and public/private partnerships and funding mixes and intermediaries and places of worship. It requires levels of training and requirements and oversight and the determination of quality, both from an instructor and a delivery side. And it requires deep collaboration, particularly in the tough economic times where early childhood ed can be seen by some as a “value add” and not a necessity.
Time will tell if preK fulfills it possibility as being “the” next issue, or if it simply moves back into place and becomes like so many good ideas with promise, but the inability to seize the public interest and the public sense of urgency. We aren’t there yet. With the right approach, the right stakeholders, and the call to action, Doggett and her advocates may yet get their wish. Regardless, their study is a good step forward in reminding all of us that preK, particularly its funding, is a topic that hits all families, no matter where our economic markets may take us.