President Obama said: ‘Investments in quality early learning have a 7X return”

February 14, 2013

Many of the ‘fact checkers’ who examined President Obama’s remarks in his State of the Union address took exception to his notion that a $1 investment in quality early childhood education can return $7 in future benefits.

They cited some recent studies which have shown that the big vocabulary and social development gains for at-risk students in pre-kindergarten programs often disappear by the time these same students reach third grade. Unfortunately, one of the most recent studies (2012 HHS Head Start Impact Study) offered plenty of statistical data, but no explanation or hypothesis to address this counter-intuitive information.

In the U.S. we have 2 parallel childhood education systems: one for pre-K children which is federally funded and delivered through private, not-for-profit providers; the other for K-12 children which is funded by local and state sources and delivered through K-12 public school districts.

The funding streams are disconnected and the two systems are not required to talk with each other. It often turns out that children do not retain all of the benefits of a quality early childhood education program when the alignment and vertical integration issues between these 2 systems are ignored.

There is clear evidence which tells us that in those school districts where quality early childhood education (Head Start, etc.) is closely aligned and integrated with the K-12 structure, the performance drop-off is greatly reduced and/or eliminated.

A recently released report from Center for American Progress – http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education/report/2013/02/07/52071/investing-in-our-children/ – touches on this and makes some recommendations that might help improve the connection between the systems.

I personally love the idea of tying federal match funding to a robust Quality Rating Improvement System!

A recent pilot program – STEPS – took place in the South Bronx over 3 years, beginning in 2009.

The STEPS project was inspired by the questions surrounding the large number of students from low-income areas in NYC who continue to struggle in elementary school, particularly concerned with the students equipped with the solid initial advantages of Head Start who clearly were losing those advantages by the time they reached third grade.

One key finding of the project came from K-3 public school teachers who indicated that, prior to STEPS, they had received almost no assistance, training or tools to develop the skill set needed to understand and address the social-emotional issues that can undermine both individual student and overall classroom progress.

These teachers – several with over 20 years experience teaching in elementary classrooms – stated that – like child development – the field of social-emotional awareness is almost never covered in teacher training programs; and is almost never raised once teachers begin working.

Here is a comment from one second grade teacher who participated in the STEPS pilot:

“Nothing disrupts a class as much as a child having a melt-down. Nothing discourages the other children as much. And nothing makes a teacher more upset. Ask any teacher. But I have to tell you, I’ve been teaching for 24 years and never, not once – not in my own graduate school education, not in any professional development course, not in my supervision at school – did anyone ever give me the understanding, or the language, or the strategies to help me deal with kids’ social-emotional problems, before STEPS came along. It’s like no one wants to acknowledge that these things happen. It’s like it’s something we are all ashamed of. So until now, I’ve coped on my own.”

So basic and so powerful, yet it took until 2012 for someone to uncover this magic ingredient!

This and other related projects should be telling us that quality early intervention is important, and until we start to look carefully at our childhood education system from birth to 18+, we really won’t be creating sustainable and positive models which can improve outcomes for our future workforce.

Strategic investments in R&D programs like STEPS have tremendous potential in the area of human capital formation, and our future ability as a nation to be economically competitive, both domestically and globally, is closely correlated to the investments in strategic systemic change projects we make today.

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