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Brain Child: Barriers to Early Childhood Education

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, and prisons.

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 schooling.

"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 percent.

Some civic leaders have become enthusiastic about early education's benefits after taking a hard-nosed look at what really works in the fight against crime.

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 faces."

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 movement.

"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 broadly supported.

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."



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