Brain Child: Barriers to Early
by Jennifer Lawson, Scripps
Howard News Service, May 28, 2003
Educators and child development experts know what needs to be done to get
kids ready to learn. They know that money spent trying to help kids catch
up with their peers in fourth, eighth or 12th grade would be better spent
in the first few years of life.
A 1999 RAND study concluded that every $1 spent for early childhood
development saves $7 later on in costs for remedial education, welfare,
Yet significant barriers remain that keep the early childhood development
bandwagon from gaining speed: People believe myths about learning
Tradition and a history of well-intentioned, but wrong beliefs about how
children learn have slowed the pre-kindergarten education movement,
education officials say. These are similar to barriers that thwarted the
push to begin school with kindergarten decades ago, they say.
Jan Bushing, director of the Tennessee Department of Education office that
oversees early childhood education, knows well the arguments against pre-k
"Why is it so difficult to help people understand how important those
first years are?" she asked rhetorically. "First is the belief that a
child really isn't a "being" until they are 5 or 7 years old. Also, many
people believe that any program for children younger than 5 is merely
"baby-sitting." An even older, lingering, idea is that children should be
seen but not heard."
Educators know well the value of exposing toddlers to words, letters,
colors, shapes and sounds. Every year they see kindergarten students
coming to school with huge variations in their readiness to learn. Yet the
education establishments in most states aren't in a good position to make
a shift toward early childhood education.
"The truth is, right now, we educators have all we can do to keep our
heads above water financially," said Alabama's Jefferson County Schools
Supt. Bobby Neighbors. "We have to fix what we've got first." In his state
alone, more than 5,000 Alabama teachers and other school employees could
lose their jobs because of budget cuts.
The estimated cost of providing pre-kindergarten programs for every
Alabama child would be about $120 million a year, according to the Alabama
Department of Children's Affairs Office of School Readiness. "So (early
childhood development efforts) have got to be collaborative efforts," said
Page Walley, Alabama's newly appointed commissioner for the Department of
Children's Affairs. "Nobody should rely on the government to be the
answer. It should not be and it cannot be."
Families that have higher incomes are likely to do better in terms of
helping their own children find early childhood development options. About
60 percent of early childhood education costs are absorbed directly into
family budgets. Government funding provides 39 percent of the costs of
early childhood development programs. Businesses and foundations provide 1
Some civic leaders have become enthusiastic about early education's
benefits after taking a hard-nosed look at what really works in the fight
In Washington, D.C., the 200,000-plus members of Fight Crime: Invest in
Kids is beginning to rally around early childhood research. "We're tired
of locking these folks up," said CEO David Kass. "Cutting crime impacts
everyone. This isn't about someone else's kids, it's about crime everyone
Fight Crime, one of the nation's largest alliances of police chiefs,
sheriffs, prosecutors and victims of violence, has stepped up research and
lobbying efforts on behalf of early childhood development.
It's starting to pay dividends in legislative agendas.
Kass points to Chicago's Perry Pre-school Project and the subsequent
Child-Parent studies as examples of the early childhood development
"I think it's starting to break through, but we really have a long way to
go," Kass said. "With the evidence so strong that prevention works, we
should be making these investments all across the country. It's much
better to be investing now than paying the price later."
Susan Craven, executive director of Texans Care for Children, said a lack
of standards for what is, or isn't, an acceptable early childhood
development program, hinders the effort to make these programs more
Day care is one example of this lack of standards, she said.
Greater public awareness about what good day care means for children could
revolutionize the early education efforts in schools and daycare centers.
So far, champions for early childhood development have failed to make the
cause a priority for families choosing daycare facilities. Most parents
don't know what good daycare involves, and most states don't enforce
standards for good daycare centers.
David Lawrence, president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, in
Florida, sees none of these barriers as insurmountable.
"Any first grade teacher in the country can tell you how critical it is
for kids to arrive eager and ready to learn. And we know what it takes to
make that happen, " he said. "This is a local problem that can be fixed in
local cities and counties. What every community needs are local champions
who will build a public will."