Preaching Preschool

During last Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” Of course, Obama’s emphasis on early education is not new but rather a reiteration of Obama’s previous push for more funding to provide pre-kindergarten education for every four-year-old in America.

Research stands behind the importance of pre-k education. Investments in early education are believed to raise long-term skill levels, increase graduation rates, create jobs, reduce the stress on low-income parents and reduce crime and poverty. I spoke with a current early childhood professional who concurs, stating that preschool provides a space where kids “learn how to learn.” Before the structured academics that children receive from their educational journeys, preschool teaches kids how to behave in school, get into a routine, and socialize with others. Learning how to be one child in a group full of fifteen, twenty or twenty five others is not an easy thing to learn, and must be introduced to children at an early age.

Over the past year, many states across the country expanded or created preschool programs, including Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, and Alabama. Republican Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan believes that this policy move is important because preschool is “a human need and an economic need,” and proceeded to increase spending by $65 million last year. Additionally, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor in New York City on the promise of universal prekindergarten education for all city residents. In a recent interview with Jon Stewart, de Blasio spoke of his five-year, $2.6 billion dollar plan to provide full day pre-k for every child in the city.

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Bill de Blasio was elected on a promise of universal prekindergarten. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Based on research and recent state legislation, it seems that the country is in general agreement that preschool for children is necessary for the further development and success of the nation. However, this is not such a beautiful picture in Washington D.C. In Congress, Republicans have opposed Obama’s $75 billion investment in preschool, stating that the policy is too top-down and should instead be the responsibility of local communities and state governments. I think that Republicans in general are resistant to new social programs that Obama proposes, using this as an example to generate opposition. Mandatory pre-k education seems to be a bipartisan cause, but remains divided in our nation’s capital. I find it ironic that Republican and Democratic centered governments alike are on board for preschool policy changes, but that this issue cannot come to fruition in Washington. The way I see it, members of Congress simply want to continue to disagree with social policies, regardless of the good that they imply.

Of course, an issue as such always comes back to a question of funding. The New York Times sites many ways that states are planning to cover preschool, ranging from sales tax increases to legalizing marijuana to casino revenue. However, it remains unclear how to pay for universal access to preschool education. Could it be that politicians are simply preaching preschool to attract voters? In particular, these policy changes would attract the working class and women, which are demographics that many politicians need to charm. Is this a policy move, or more of a political power move?

Growing up in what I consider to be a privileged community, preschool education is taken for granted. It is a given that parents will pay for their kids to go to preschool so that they can work, as it was unusual for my friends to have stay at home parents. Part of the reason that this issue is so highly debated in Washington is because high-income districts can afford preschool funding while lower-income districts would have a harder time enforcing this type of policy. Given the importance of preschool education, it is my hope that funding will move toward city/state/local authorities rather than fall on the responsibility of private incomes, with a focus in problem solving for those lower income areas. I think that the United States has been criticized enough for our faulty education system. This should be one step that policy makers need to put on their priority list – a seemingly simple step that can set up great future success for a nation.

While this is a hot issue right now in national news, it has major global implications. If the United States is a global leader, the policy decisions that we make will be under close surveillance by the rest of the world. Whether this preschool policy shift will bring more success to the U.S. is yet to be determined, but it does have the potential to change some negative perceptions of our education system. I do think that these changes will come from more state and local authorities, as those in Washington continuously seek power over policy. I will forever be a firm believer in preschool education, and hope to see it promoted and enforced by these more localized authorities in the next few years.

A Talk with Jane Ervin: CEO of One of the Most Successful Head Start Programs in the US

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I recently sat down to talk with Jane Ervin, the current CEO of Lehigh Valley’s Community Services for Children. They currently host the Head Start program in the area, one of the top 40 in the country. When Jane started with the NGO in 2007, the poverty rate for children in the Lehigh Valley was 20%. It has risen to 26% in just a few short years, and contributed to the shrinking economy.

The program itself, as most other charitable programs and organizations, is under heavy scrutiny by the government. Each Head Start program is reviewed every three years. If it does not meet the standards, the NGO will be forced to recompete for the money allotted to the program in their area. Their money will be taken away and US$5 million will be given to the NGO that wants to start the Head Start program in that community. According to Jane, there are training centers throughout the US that can provide assistance to the faltering programs, focusing on Early Head Start, Program Management, Community Engagement, and other areas. Jane and I did not get into detail on the effectiveness of these centers. Perhaps that is a conversation to be had later.

Jane’s ideal path for the increased investment in early childhood education lies with businesses. She first discussed the history of Bethlehem, the transforming culture and increased need for specialized employees. When Bethlehem Steel was in operation, only a high school degree was needed to ensure a living wage and the ability to send children to college. The Steel plant closed and jobs have become much more technical. Now there is an adjustment period, a similar scenario to other areas across the US.

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As noted in my previous blog on the Head Start Program, research tells of the tremendous value of early childhood education. Yet, we have to question why there is little investment in it. Businesses are focusing on the technical training required to fulfill their positions. Fewer and fewer are able to meet the requirements to begin this type of technical training and the jobs are either being sent to other countries or employees from overseas are coming to the US to do jobs we can’t. Jane proposes the more efficient solution of growing our own labor force. Her goal is to help businesses see the connection between early childhood education and the employees that will need to be hired in 15 or 20 years. She advocates for tailoring the education to meet the specific needs of a particular community and the businesses within that community.

While this may be beneficial for the businesses and the economy of that particular area, where is the choice for children and their families? Where is the equal playing field? If students are prepared for a specific job from a young age, what other choice will they have? What if they decide that isn’t where they want to be?

It’s an interesting debate I think, one we can look at cross-culturally. Universities within the US are filled with students studying in unpractical fields with no clue what to do after graduation. In a way, a great deal of our youth is lost because they are given too much freedom. In a country where you can “be whatever you want to be,” how do you decide? In China, social roles and college majors are chosen for the youth and futures are clearly defined. Are the Chinese finding more satisfaction out of life just because they feel they are fulfilling their predetermined niche in society?

As Head Start prides itself as a high quality childcare program, Jane is naturally an advocate for all children to have this available to them. In addition to suggesting the businesses invest long-term in their future employees, she also suggests these local businesses encourage their employees to seek out high-quality childcare for their children. Day cares and babysitters are not always enough. Parents are unable to identify and seek out high quality childcare and may be unaware of the long-term benefits. Perhaps she sees the connection between an understanding of the benefits of high-quality childcare and the willingness to invest in it. Her forerunner in the evaluation of a childcare program is Keystone S.T.A.R.S.. They rank the programs on a 1-4 star scale. As the S.T.A.R.S. scale has the potential to make a childcare program more marketable to families, there are no direct repercussions to the program for not being evaluated.

On the local level, Jane’s ideas have potential. For businesses to succeed, they need quality employees. What then is the role of the government? Should it not be ensuring children’s education reach the level needed to partake in the student’s choice of training, vocational or higher education programs? Is the goal of this nation to make money through the success of their businesses and economy is the goal for everyone to have the equal opportunity to find their own success?

The Current Debate on Universal Preschool in the U.S.

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It’s a common philosophy that, to fix the issues of the world, the world needs to invest in its youth, as they are the future. In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address, he announced his plan to push for universal preschool across the US. He proposes $75 billion be spent on universal preschool in the next 10 years, through his 2014 budget that has yet to pass through congress. It calls for an almost 100% increase in cigarette tax to pay for the program.

This additional preschool funding would be in addition to the 50 year-old Head Start program. The Head Start program is a federally funded preschool program aimed at serving the children of low-income families. Its annual budget is around $8 billion; a majority spent directly on services and is primarily run through local nonprofit organizations. It was started in 1965 under the Johnson administration as part of the Great Society campaign, which was aimed at eliminating poverty and racial inequalities. Most of the children who are in Head Start range between the ages of three and five. Early Head Start is also offered for infants and toddlers.

The research done on the effectiveness of the Head Start program, and other high quality preschool programs, is very mixed. It’s often the private organizations that claim the effects of a quality preschool program wear off within a few years, while academics, on the other hand, believe there are many long-term effects that cannot be seen right away. James Heckmen, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, researches the disparities in achievement between children with low and high socioeconomic backgrounds. According to New York Times, his research “confirms that investment in the early education of disadvantaged children pays extremely high returns down the road. It improves not only their cognitive abilities but also crucial behavioral traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem. Yet, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the government spends three times the amount on higher education as it does on preschool. Recently, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart exposed some of the bias hidden behind the research “findings.”

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-march-6-2013/kindergarten-stop

JaneErvin

Jane Ervin is the current president and CEO of Community Services for Children, the nonprofit that runs the very successful Head Start program of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. In a recent conversation, she expressed her view of the public opinions on preschool and Obama’s plan. She believes that people are not interested in paying for children in poverty because it’s not their responsibility to help the teenage mothers or the illegal immigrants. What they do not understand is that these children will grow up and keep contributing to the culture of poverty rather than contributors to society. People are not brave enough to step up and fix the problems knowing the results will become visible in 15 or 20 years. Politicians won’t focus on it because there are so many other things that affect people’s lives. This has a negative impact on children and families who are out of sight, and therefore out of mind. It’s difficult to get people to care about children’s education when the economy is under attack. Jane believes everything will come down to the practicality of funding and ability to convince others of the importance of preschool education.

I think that Jane may be right. As we continue to compete with each other, we become only concerned with the things we have and the money we make. We are no longer concerned with those who fall behind and cannot pick themselves back up. And the gap is increasing. Jane reported that 26% of children are currently living in poverty in the Lehigh Valley. When she started at Community Services for Children six years ago, it was 20%. With the world’s population growing as rapidly as it is, we can no longer afford to not invest in our youth.

More to come in my next blog, on my talk with Jane Ervin!