Let’s protect children against disadvantage with early education

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The Nellie Mae Foundation recently awarded the city of Danbury $295,000 to hold focus groups on residents’ perceptions of why there is a gap in high school graduation rates between the city’s racial minority students and their mostly white peers in wealthier suburban school districts. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan will give $30 million to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a digital screening tool to identify kindergartners who will have difficulty learning to read.

Both are worthy and interesting endeavors. But both are asking questions for which we already have the answers. In Danbury, more than half of students live in poverty and qualify for either reduced-price lunches at school (an annual income of $45,510 for a family of four) or free lunch ($31,980 for a family of four). In truth, it’s no mystery why Danbury’s students lag behind their wealthier suburban peers, and Danbury Schools Superintendent Sal Pascarella said as much in a News Times story about the grant.

{mosads}When talking about the many “capable kids” who dropout of high school, he noted that nearly all of them were from families with low incomes and students left school in order to earn money to contribute to the family’s income. In other words, economic inequality is a barrier to educational opportunity.


Likewise, the root causes of low rates of literacy are no mystery. Children who receive high quality early care and education, where the foundation for math, literacy and language acquisition is built with sequential, continuous learning, do better in school than those who do not. This opportunity gap is obvious by kindergarten and shows up on test scores by third grade.

What might happen if in addition to trying to develop digital tools to identify kindergartners at risk of low literacy, we took a public health approach to the problem? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu shot even though we know that young children, people with asthma, and older adults are most vulnerable to the flu.

What if we prescribed high quality early care and education for every child as an inoculation against the opportunity gaps that result in disparities in academic performance? Last year, new findings were released from the Carolina Abecedarian Project and the Carolina Approach to Responsive Education, two longitudinal, randomized-controlled preschool studies begun in North Carolina in the 1970s.

Children born between 1972 and 1977 were randomly assigned as infants to a high quality early care and education program or a control group. Previously published results have already shown striking benefits for participants who received high quality early education. By age 21 and continuing through age 30, they had completed more years of education, were more likely to have attended a four-year college program, and had higher incomes than their peers in the control group.


Results at age 35, however, surprised even the researchers, who are accustomed to documenting the benefits of high quality early care and education. The program participants were significantly healthier on measures of obesity, hypertension, and had much lower rates of substance abuse. And there was a two-generation impact on family income.

Because their children were receiving high quality full-day care as infants and young children, mothers were able to re-enter the workforce and advance their skills. So even the parents of adult children who received the early education intervention had higher incomes than the parents of adult children who were assigned to the control group.

Meanwhile, a study published last month in JAMA Pediatrics finds that high quality, early education has a major, positive impact on educational pursuits that lasts well into their adulthood. Researchers followed 1,539 children born in 1979 or 1980 from age four through age 35. All of the children were from low-income neighborhoods. They were similar in terms of the employment status of their parents and whether or not they lived in a single-parent household. They were also similar in terms of having experienced trauma, such as a parent’s substance abuse and addiction.

Most of the children (989) were enrolled by their families in the Chicago-based Child-Parent Center Program, an early intervention program for children from families with extremely low incomes that offers family support services. The centers that these children enrolled in also offered high-quality, full-day preschool. The rest of the children (550) did not attend preschool.

By age 35, rates of high school graduation were higher (51 percent vs. 44 percent) among those who participated in preschool at age four. Rates of college attendance (61.2 percent vs. 53.1 percent) were also higher as was successful completion of an associate’s degree program (15.7 percent vs. 10.7 percent); bachelor’s degree (11 percent vs. 7.8 percent); or a master’s degree or higher (4.2 percent vs. 1.5 percent). The results were even more dramatic for children of parents who never graduated high school as the rate of high school graduation for children who attended preschool was twice as high as those who did not.

Early childhood educators can have an exponential impact on the lives of very young children and their families. We must recognize them as the experts they are, and invest in their life-transforming impact. Many of tomorrow’s challenges — rates of employment, overall health, and community connectedness — could be significantly mitigated by investing in ways to ensure that every child has access to high quality early care and education.

Anne Douglass, PhD is an associate professor of Early Care and Education at UMass Boston, and the founding executive director of the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation. Her latest book, Leading For Change In Early Care And Education: Cultivating Leadership from Within, was published last year.

Tags Early childhood education Education Mark Zuckerberg

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