Don’t Just Nod—Do Something

by W. Steven Barnett
Topic: Early Childhood

Policymakers often sidestep complicated or controversial issues by nodding– to indicate how much they would really like to be on your side–then sighing loudly and, finally, remarking that, indeed, “The devil is in the details.”

Well, say hello to the “devil.”

Last year, more than 1200 researchers signed a consensus statement describing in some detail what quality early care and education looks like and why it’s a sound public investment.

Relying on an extensive body of research in education, developmental psychology, neuroscience, medicine and economics, they concluded that quality early childhood education programs produce better education, health, economic and social outcomes for children, families, and the nation.

The candidates of both major political parties have put forward policy proposals for early care and education. As the campaign continues, voters and the press, including moderators in the next debate, will have the opportunity to ask for more details. Research indicates the most important questions concern quality–what each candidate believes is good enough early care and education for every child and exactly what their policies will do to help parents obtain that quality early care and education for their children.

To help inform this debate, the National Institute for Early Education Research is once again highlighting this consensus statement on early learning and development opportunities for all young children. You can read the full letter and see the signatories here.

Key points include:
Too many US children fall behind before they even start school. This problem disproportionately affects the poor, but it afflicts many children from middle-income families, too.

Good early childhood care and education can address this problem, but only if it truly is high quality. Poor quality early childhood programs may actually widen the achievement gap. Most programs today are not high quality.

Quality requires well-trained teachers using proven curricula to engage children in interactions that stimulate learning while being emotionally nurturing, and fostering engagement in and enjoyment of learning. Teaching is enhanced by systematic, sustained, in-classroom coaching and mentoring.

When government supports high quality early childhood programs, evaluations find long-term effects improving important societal outcomes such as high-school graduation, years of education completed, earnings, crime and health. Rigorous cost-benefit analyses demonstrate that although these high quality programs are not cheap, the economic benefits can far outweigh the costs.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns have recognized the demand for quality early childhood education, and both have responded with proposals to help families access preschool programs. But the real question is what kind of programs will families access?

Given that many early childhood teachers now earn near poverty level wages and lack benefits provided to K-12 teachers, how will they ensure that well-qualified early childhood teachers can be hired and retained?

And how will they guarantee that taxpayer dollars are not spent on early care and education that is low to mediocre quality, as is the case with most of today’s subsidy dollars?

If the devil is in the details, well, maybe it’s time to raise a little hell.

W. Steven Barnett Ph.D. is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. NIEER conducts academic research to inform policy supporting high-quality, early education for all young children.

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