In This Series:
Laying a Strong Foundation for Learning
by Ana Tintocalis
Introducing youngsters to their first "classroom experience" can be a significant moment in their life, as well as in the lives of their parents.
Now, new research conducted by numerous nonprofit and academic organizations is placing even greater emphasis on this formative time. A Harvard University study shows early experiences, from the time children are born to the first day of kindergarten, shape whether a child's brain develops a strong foundation for learning and behavior later on in life.
The majority of education experts also agree that a quality early childhood education can improve a youngster's readiness for school and help prepare them to succeed as adults. Here's a snapshot of the findings:
High/Scope Perry Preschool Study: Perry participants were followed over the course of 40 years after attending preschool. They were less likely to be arrested, more likely to own a home, and more likely to be employed.
Preschool California (pdf): Latino children's test scores increased by 79 percent in letter and word recognition after attending preschool. Test scores also increased 39 percent in spelling and 54 percent in applied problems.
Children Now: Children who attend higher quality kindergarten programs, as measured by overall class test scores, have higher college attendance and are more likely to earn more at age 27.
In California, these and other findings are particularly poignant as public school children — especially African American and Latino students — continue to lag behind in school. The problem can be seen in the state's persistent achievement gap and high school dropout rate.
A RAND Corporation study found that low-income children are the least likely to attend high quality preschool programs, causing them to fall behind in school.
As a result, the focus of education reform in California is shifting to preschool and kindergarten through an ambitious list of initiatives which include: transitional kindergarten, a public rating system for early learning programs and a curriculum that is seamlessly connected from preschool to 3rd grade.
California has a complicated web of state, local, for-profit and non-profit early learning and development programs — ranging from individually licensed family child-care providers that operate out of homes to school districts that offer preschool. That's a problem because education advocates, parents and teachers say there is no consistency in access, quality, expectations and accountability.
The Obama Administration recognizes this problem in California and across the nation, which is why the U.S. Department of Education is pushing states to raise standards through its Early Learning Challenge Grant competition. States receive millions of dollars in federal funding if they promise to jumpstart early learning reforms outlined under the federal Race To The Top program.
California was one of nine states the Obama Administration selected to get a $52.6 million Early Learning Challenge Grant. California education officials will use the funding to develop a data system that publicly ranks early learning programs, provide professional development for teachers, and offer certain programs financial rewards if they commit to reforms.
This effort, however, coincides with the worst education funding crisis in decades. Governor Jerry Brown's 2012-2013 education budget calls for cutting more than $500 million from child care programs across the state by restricting eligibility and reducing payments to providers. The proposal could affect as many as 62,000 low-income children statewide. At the same time, Brown is looking to eliminate the state's transitional kindergarten program which is estimated to provide a pre-K public school option for an estimated 120,000 children.
The proposed cuts have prompted a storm of protest from superintendents, teachers and preschool advocates, who are urging state lawmakers to reject them. Parents are also angry and frustrated, saying they'll have even fewer options for their children.
According to UC Berkeley professor David Kirp, author of Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future, the average parent pays $7,000 a year for preschool. That amount is more than parents pay to send their child to a California State University campus. Compounding the problem is the fact that many high-quality early learning and development centers also have long waiting lists, and research shows that even in urban areas there is a lack of licensed facilities. Parents who live below the poverty line can access free programs like Head Start, but many critics say the quality of those programs often fall short.
Finding ways to expand access to quality early childhood education for all families is a priority for lawmakers and advocacy groups in California. Early childhood education is now a critical component of K-12 reforms. Economists have found that a high-quality early childhood education offers one of the highest returns of any public investment because it saves government spending on public school remediation, public assistance programs and the criminal justice system.
They say the U.S. is already falling behind other countries and California is also lagging behind other states. In a globally competitive workplace, experts say the Golden State can no longer allow our children to enter school unprepared.