What, exactly, is the future of the federal
investment in public education?
For months now, we have tried to cobble together an answer to that
question, using presidential campaign rhetoric, economic stimulus package
priorities, and now Presidential budget decisions to help us see where we are
headed as a nation. Since
assuming his position in late January, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has
provided us little more detail, sticking mostly to the talking points on
stimulus and education’s impact on the economy.
But few seem to have a clear sense of what the
U.S. Department of Education has in store for the future, particularly the
reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The general agreement is that
reauthorization could happen as early as this fall and as late as the summer of
2010, but it is indeed coming. The
common logic is NCLB will stay relatively intact. Along the way, we hear about efforts in Washington, DC to
construct more comprehensive reading legislation (to replace Reading First) and
a framework for national standards (expected to be delivered by Achieve to
Duncan in the coming weeks), but where, exactly, will our future priorities
Recently, Duncan and his lieutenants have been
focusing on four key policy pillars on which the new U.S. Department of
Education is constructed. First,
implementation of college and career-ready standards and assessments. Second, creation of comprehensive data
systems that track students throughout their education career and track
teachers back to schools of education to better understand which programs are
producing teachers that make a difference. Third, recruitment, preparation, and reward of outstanding
teachers, paying more to teachers who work in tough schools. And finally, turn around of chronically
What figured prominently during President Obama’s
campaign – but what seems to be missing from the core tenets – is early
childhood education. Early and
often, Obama campaigned on the notion of a strong national commitment to early
childhood education. Instead of
just focusing on access and an expansion of current programs, the President
seemed focused on committing to quality just as much as he committed to
quantity. The talk was not
universal preK; the rhetoric was high-quality preK.
But what, precisely, is high-quality early
childhood education? For decades
now, many have viewed the 800-pound gorilla in the ECE room – Head Start – as
being little more than glorified babysitting. Instead of using the time to help disadvantaged or
low-income students get a jump start on their academic futures, Head Start just
focuses on the “social” aspects.
We make our youngest learners more comfortable with existing in a
learning environment. The
pre-reading and pre-math skills such learners needed simply come once they
officially entered kindergarten – and entered miles behind their academically better-off
In recent years, we have watched the universal
preK movement transform from the hare into the tortoise. Supporters of universal preK have
watched new plans ground to a halt and have seen existing programs slowed or
scaled back, all because of a smaller pot of resources going education
needs. Smaller state budgets,
caused by less-than-planned real estate taxes, have forced some tough decisions
when it comes to public education.
And early childhood education was one of the first on the chopping
Last month, the Pew Center of the States
released Leadership Matters: Governors’ Pre-K Proposals Fiscal Year 2010. Looking at recent education budgets
proposed by the current state chief executives, Pew found that our greatest
fears are likely not going to be realized (unless state legislatures have
anything to do with it). Despite
our states’ economic struggles, 14 states are proposing increases in early
childhood education investment.
Thirteen states are proposing to level fund programs. And three states are looking to
establish preK efforts where there currently are none. All told, our nation’s governors intend
to boost FY2010 investment in early childhood education by 4 percent over
The Pew study only tells half the story,
though. The other 50 percent still
has yet to be written. Sixty
percent of our states are looking to start, continue, or strengthen their
investment in preK. But what are
they investing in? How do we
ensure that we are investing in high-quality early childhood education? How do we measure return on investment
in preK? How do we make sure our
youngest learners are gaining the academic building blocks needed to succeed
throughout their academic careers, overcoming some of the learning gaps that
have long dogged disadvantaged students and have long dug a deep scholastic
trench between the haves and have nots?
The doubting Thomases would say one cannot truly
quantify results in early childhood education. But we know that to simply be incorrect. When it comes to pre-reading, we know
the letter recognition and vocabulary skills three- and four-year olds can gain
to prepare them for the research-based K-4 reading instruction that will
transform them into proficient, confident readers. We know the numeracy that all students need to know to
maximize the start of their K-12 experience. And we know the core skills all students require to be ready
to learn when they pass through those kindergarten doors for the first time.
So what, then, does quality look like? We can turn our gaze to two unlikely
places – Washington, DC and Texas – to provide us some real insight into
high-quality, effective preK instruction.
In Washington, the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation,
through the DC Partnership for Early Literacy, is working in some of our
nation’s capital’s lowest-income communities, yet posting significant gains on
student early reading achievement.
Based on standardized, nationally normed assessments, AppleTree students
gained 21 percentile points in vocabulary proficiency, placing them higher than
the national norm and more than doubling the gains demonstrated by students in
DC Head Start classrooms. Among
AppleTree’s lowest 50 percent of students, learners posted even more impressive
gains – 26 percentile points, nearly tripling typical Head Start results while
working with students from similar demographics.
In Texas, the Children’s Learning Institute,
through its Texas Early Education Model (TEEM), is now working with more than
61,000 young learners across 38 communities in the Lone State State. There, students are achieving and
demonstrating progress in key literacy skills, including phonological
awareness, rapid letter naming, and vocabulary development.
These two programs are not merely the exceptions
to the rule. They are worth
acknowledging for two reasons.
First, they are demonstrating results. Both AppleTree and TEEM help define what high-quality early
childhood education is, how we can measure it, and the sort of results we
should expect from effective preK.
More importantly, though, both programs also demonstrate that our
youngest learners can benefit from the same policy pillars that Secretary
Duncan is putting in place for our K-12 systems.
In early childhood education, we also see that
standards and assessments are key, particularly if we expect to demonstrate and
measure the results that define quality.
In ECE, we also see that data systems are key, providing educators and
policymakers the information necessary to bridge three-year-old programs to
four-year-old programs to kindergarten and beyond. In ECE, we know that effective teachers are the key to a
quality program, and early childhood educators must be well trained, well
supported, and constantly encouraged to improve their practice and improve
their knowledgebase. And in ECE,
we know that our most disadvantaged students – those from historically
underperforming neighborhoods – are the kids that most benefit and most need a
high-quality, academically focused preK experience.
Nationally, we believe that every child should
have access to a high-quality education.
We believe that student achievement is king, and all learners should be
proficient and should be able to demonstrate that proficiency, both in the
classroom and on state and national assessments. We believe that a strong public education is the gateway to
a strong future, both for the individual and society. And we believe, or should, that we must hold our systems
accountable for the quality and effectiveness of the education they deliver.
Such belief systems should not be restricted to
our K-12 systems, or even more narrowly construed for grades 3-8 when we
measure AYP. If we expect to
transform every child into a successful learner, we also need to implement the
quality, accountability, and teacher effectiveness into our preK systems. As our states look to invest in the
future of early childhood education, as the Pew Center indicates, we need to
make sure this money is going toward good programs that demonstrate true
ROI. We need to look at programs
like TEEM, AppleTree, and others to guide our decisions. Demanding early childhood education is
no longer enough. We should be
demanding quality – and results – for our youngest learners as well.
Let’s leave the babysitting to teenagers seeking
some extra spending money. Our
early childhood education programs should be focused on providing the academic
frameworks that empower even the most disadvantaged of students to achieve in a