Here, Here, Head Start!

Everyone knows great teachers don’t always get our full support in their quest to educate our children, and this is doubly true for educators of children under age six.

Maybe it’s easier to allocate limited funds to the education of older children because they’re capable of telling a more compelling narrative about what they’re learning in school when somebody asks.  Preschool children, after all, can’t add and subtract large numbers, understand fraction and decimal concepts, and aren’t demonstrably proficient in data collection and analysis like, say, fifth graders are.  Perhaps this leaves us relatively unimpressed by finger painting, alphabet recitation, singing, dancing, fine motor skills development, creative art projects, and the learning age-appropriate logic and reasoning skills—some things that happen at Head Start, for instance.

This thinking can lead some to the perilous conclusion that public preschool programs are expendable.   But Head Start, in particular, is far too valuable to throw under the tot-sized school bus for lack of a more thoughtful assessment of its benefits.  And those benefits aren’t just for Head Start children; they’re for the adults who were once children who got quality early education—and for all of us who interact with those adults.   Certainly, the positive outcomes associated with quality early learning bring undeniable lifelong benefits to society.

I’m reminded of the landmark High Scope Perry Preschool Study that persuasively suggested everybody wins when children receive good early education and care.  The difference between being an adult who got good early care and education and being an adult who didn’t, the study results suggest, can be can be stark indeed:  Adults who got good early care education had more life success by age 40 than those who didn’t, the study spanning four decades reveals.  The adults who experienced quality preschool and early care as children had higher incomes, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to have graduated from high school, compared with adults who didn’t have quality early care and education.

Overall, the study documented a “cash return” to society of more than $16.00 for every one tax dollar invested in the person’s early care and education program.  That’s a 1600-percent return on investment!  Pretty good economic bang for buck for a country trying to carve its priorities against a backdrop of budget cuts.

More children who received high quality early education graduated from high school than children who didn’t receive high quality early education—especially girls, according to the study.  Fewer girls who received high-quality early education had to repeat a grade during the school years than girls who hadn’t gotten a good early education. Children who received high-quality early education on average outperformed those who didn’t on various intellectual and language tests during their early childhood years, on school achievement tests between ages 9 and 14, and on literacy tests at ages 19 and 27.

And try this benefit on for size:  Children who had high quality early childhood education experiences had far fewer arrests than those children who didn’t get quality preschool, and fewer children who got high-quality early education were ever arrested for violent crimes, compared to children who didn’t get good early care.

Those few short years of early care and education have a huge impact on the many years that follow.  So why would be ever want to downplay, de-fund, or fail to adequately fund or re-fund our public preschool programs?  The aphorism, “Not to decide is to decide,” seems apt for those who are content to sit on the fence and let others argue it out or table the discussion in a climate where funds are being allocated, un-allocated, and re-allocated to this  program and that one in the name of paring down national debt.  But varied research is solid that high quality early education adds much to the shaping of cognitive, social, and emotional development in the early years and beyond.

Look at the faces of Head Start children engaged in learning in the classroom or at a parent-and-family engagement school-readiness event, and apply a “common sense test” to what you see.  You’ll have no trouble confirming what early childhood educators and child-and-family advocates have taken as immutable truth since 1965:  public preschool and early education in general really does matter—to all of us.

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