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July 3, 2015

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Filling the void when families fail

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Today millions of American children grow up in homes where they don’t learn the skills they need to succeed in life. Their vocabularies are tiny. They can’t regulate their emotions. When they get to kindergarten, they’ve never been read a book, so they don’t know the difference between the front cover and the back cover.

But, starting a few decades ago, we learned that preschool intervention programs could help. The efforts were small and expensive, but early childhood programs such as the Perry and Abecedarian projects made big differences in kids’ lives. The success of these programs set off a lot of rhapsodic writing, including by me, about the importance of early childhood education. If government could step in and provide quality preschool, we could reduce poverty and increase social mobility.

But this problem, like most social problems, is hard. The big federal early childhood program, Head Start, has been chugging along since 1965, and the outcomes are dismal. Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution summarizes the findings of the most rigorous research: “There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start. Further, children attending Head Start remain far behind academically once they are in elementary school. Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.”

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Over the past several years, there’s been a flurry of activity, as states and private groups put together better early childhood programs. In these programs, the teachers are better-trained. There are more rigorous performance standards. The curriculum is better matched to the one the children will find when they enter kindergarten.

These state programs, in places such as Oklahoma, Georgia and New Jersey, have not been studied as rigorously as Head Start. There are huge quality differences between different facilities in the same state or the same town. The best experts avoid sweeping conclusions. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that these state programs can make at least an incremental difference in preparing children for school and in getting parents to be more engaged in their kids’ education.

These programs do not perform miracles, but incremental improvements add up year by year and produce significantly better lives.

Enter President Barack Obama. Last week he announced the most ambitious early childhood education expansion in decades. On Thursday morning, early education advocates were sending one another ecstatic emails. They were stunned by the scope of what Obama is proposing.

But, on this subject, it’s best to be hardheaded. So I spent Wednesday and Thursday talking with experts and administration officials, trying to be skeptical. Does the president’s plan merely expand the failing federal effort, or does it focus on quality and reform? Is the president trying to organize a bloated centralized program or is he trying to be a catalyst for local experimentation?

So far the news is very good. Obama is trying to significantly increase the number of kids with access to early education. The White House will come up with a dedicated revenue stream that will fund early education projects without adding to the deficit. These federal dollars will be used to match state spending, giving states, many of whom want to move aggressively, further incentive to expand and create programs.

But Washington’s main role will be to measure outcomes, not determine the way states design their operations. Washington will insist that states establish good assessment tools. They will insist that pre-K efforts align with the K-12 system. But beyond that, states will have a lot of latitude.

Should early education centers be integrated with K-12 school buildings or not? Should the early childhood teachers be unionized or certified? Obama officials say they want to leave those sorts of questions up to state experimentation. “I’m just about building quality,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me. The goal is to make the federal oversight as simple as possible.

That’s crucial. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how to educate children that young. The essential thing is to build systems that can measure progress, learn and adapt to local circumstances. Over time, many children will migrate from Head Start into state programs.

This is rude to say, but here’s what this is about: Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills. It’s about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It’s about instilling achievement values where they are absent.

Obama has taken on a big challenge in a realistic and ambitious way. If Republicans really believe in opportunity and local control, they will get on board.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. Mr. Brooks is spot on. The key to academic success by children and students is parental/mentor concern and involvement. But it is and has been sorely lacking. The solution was a government program: Headstart. It failed miserably and still does. Now the new mantra is pre-school made mandatory for all. Another waste of time and money for most. Why? Most children don't need it and spending 12 years in a classroom environment is enough alreaady with the right oversight by parents and guardians. Which those who fail in school don't get anyway, so now let's make it 13 years. Wrong minded thinking make for bad solutions. Think Headstart.


  2. Columnist David Brooks has a point. The one-size-fits-all approach to education has proven not to work, and Headstart (given all the multitudes of educational interpretation) has been also found wanting.

    Brooks states,"This is rude to say, but here's what this is about: Millions of parents don't have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children's future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills. It's about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It's about instilling achievement values where they are absent."

    Although quality early childhood education CAN expose underpriveledged children and parents to structures that promote life skills, it hardly influences parents and homelife. All it is, for the child, is a diversion for a few hours daily from negative treatment and negative influences at home. The major factor in a child's education is their parent. Typically, parent(s) with large families religate younger child supervision onto the older siblings, even if that sibling is a second or third grader (I see it all the time). By doing this, it thwarts the older sibling's academic and social successes due to having to care for the younger. Laws need to address this kind of treatment of children before spending another dime on education.

    Just imagine how private schools work: they REQUIRE a commitment by the student and parent to do what is asked of them at that school. This includes involvement with school activities and parents volunteering time at the school. If a child doesn't behave, they are warned, and if they don't comply, they are OUT. Public schools need to do the same thing.

    Behavioral/problem students should be separated from students who are working the program. Students with issues need to attend a school that focuses on getting them on track with their skills and behaviors, and when compentent, returned to mainstream school.

    Perhaps education will change for the better when we send the message to the parent and child that they must get with the program.

    A parent is a child's first and lifelong teacher. We must address the very adults who irresponsibly populate, encouraging them to "finish" their education, get meaningful employment, and have the proper skills to be successful in life. A child will mirror their parent, every time. Just ask teachers. Ask that child's family members. "The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree," as they say.

    Blessings and Peace,

  3. To Joe: One answer someone suggested, was to "hold an aspirin between the legs." Sure method to birth control.

    The crux of the problem is about being supportive to parents, be it life skills, parenting skills, or training for employment (with opportunities to get employed), and financial education.

    Earlier this week, the Sun released a study about black students in CCSD are 2.7 times more getting expelled. Causes were NOT released. You and I both know that by the time students are in secondary education, they are pretty well "set" in the path they are going for a lifetime, unless something drastic disrupts that. The Pregnant Minor educational programs deal with students after the fact they have become pregnant.

    Something has to change in our society. We live in an age of incredible technology and knowledge, and abundance. For the sake of the good of all society, mental health, birth control, and education that equips and prepares a person should be FREELY offered. Imagine IF contraceptives were utilized....less UNplanned and UNwanted pregnancies for young people. Financial literacy would be a course requirement for graduation. Career guidance to properly assist young people. These are all areas we can do better.

    Since there are no laws against being crazy or stupid, all we can hope to do is do what we can as a society to AVERT a crisis, that leads to a lifetime of bad thinking and bad choices.

    Blessings and Peace,