WASHINGTON—Since the crash of 2008, early childhood education has suffered, but there are bright spots, according to a report by New America Foundation.
“We at the Alliance are struck about the number of governors and state legislators who not only are more aware and more knowledgeable, but also committing investment more in the early years,” said Lisa Klein, executive director of Alliance for Early Success, which provided a grant for the report.
Learning begins at birth, said Klein. Skills and knowledge by third grade serve as “a great predictor of high school graduation and college readiness,” she said.
“Subprime Learning: Early Education in America since the Great Recession” used 2009, when the Great Recession began, as the baseline for assessing the last five years.
The presenters at the report review Jan. 29 in Washington were cheered when President Barack Obama said, “Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education,” in his State of the Union speech Jan. 28.
According to Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at New America and one of the report’s authors, the researchers wanted to learn “What’s been working and what has not been working for young kids in terms of learning opportunities over the past five years.”
Guernsey summed up what they found:
“In our estimation, in the wake of the recession triggered by subprime lending, millions of children were left with subprime learning.” Guernsey has served on several national advisory committees on early education. Her most recent book is “Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child.”
In early 2009, there was great hope that the new president, who in his campaign drew attention to early education, might prevail in providing public investments for children from birth to age 5.
In an unexpected way, the recession provided an opportunity. The “stimulus” (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) in 2009 brought the total investment in education to $32.6 billion, of which $11.2 billion was for early education. For the latter figure, $6.3 billion went to birth-to-age 5 programs, according to the report.
There were high hopes among the early education advocates, but unfortunately, that $32.6 billion was a one-time infusion. Subsequent years, 2010-2013, have seen funding level off at between $21.4 and $22.6 billion.
Obama’s 2013 budget request to Congress recommended adding $75 billion for pre-school be paid for by tobacco taxes, but Congress didn’t accept the idea. States are picking up some of the decline. The report cites a finding that more than half the states will increase funding for early education in the 2014 fiscal year.
“In some places, more families are gaining access to quality programs and schools, but in other places and within subpopulations of children, access to good learning opportunities remains spotty and some programs have faced intense challenges and backsliding in funding,” stated the New America Foundation.
Teaching effectiveness has become a widespread concern even in the lower grades. The report says that these concerns have led to incorporating measures of student learning and growth in the pre-K-third grades. Today 41 states include student achievement as a factor in teachers’ evaluation.
The majority of states have third-grade reading laws, which require intervention on this crucial issue.
A Key Pivot
“A key moment in children’s development occurs when they pivot from learning to read to reading to learn,” says the report. This turning point occurs before or during the third grade. Failure to make this shift can result in “high risk of struggling in subsequent grades.”
Today 15 states and the District of Columbia require proficiency to be promoted to the fourth grade, and other states are considering similar provisions. However, there is an ongoing debate among the experts on the wisdom of holding students back.
Home Visits a Bright Spot
Home visiting programs have been “one of the brightest spots of progress in early education over the past five years,” states the report. A new program within the Affordable Care Act—Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV)—enables all states and four territories to receive funding for trained professionals to visit at-risk mothers at home.
Full Day Kindergarten Stalled
The movement for full-day kindergarten has stalled, despite the research that shows that children benefit. “Only 11 states and the District of Columbia statutorily require all school districts to provide publicly funded full-day kindergarten. Six states do not require districts to provide kindergarten at all,” states the report.
The report says that the polarized political environment has not been conducive for enacting early education funding. “Congress seems unwilling to complete basic, critical tasks, such as reforming and reauthorizing No Child Left Behind,” states the report.