Getting the biggest bang for our buck

Lengthen the school day. Extend the school year. Provide more extracurricular activities. Supplement with ACT preparation courses. These are some of the reactive initiatives that we see schools add to their programs in hopes of catching students up, in hopes of evening the playing field. These initiatives, although an attempt, are often too little too late. Children growing up in low-income communities begin kindergarten behind their more affluent peers. When these same children have had no preschool experience they are even further behind. Our schools are band-aiding a large problem—a crisis, really. Where are the proactive measures? Where are the high-quality early childhood programs for * all * children?

National early childhood initiatives like Head Start have been around since the 60s and Johnson’s War on Poverty. Yet, despite the large body of research that says early investment in children and families is the best way to mitigate the “failure of schools” and our entire economic system, we still do not have preschool for all families. Our neediest families are the ones who have the least access.

But, why early childhood? Why is this * the * vital proactive measure? High quality programs are proven to develop the critical executive function skills that allow children to develop into contributing adults and citizens. High quality programs develop children’s language and critical thinking skills—skills that are essential for high performance on rigorous high-stakes tests in formal schooling—the same tests that determine the success or failure status of a school.

Early childhood education can break the cycle of poverty. We live in a communicative world where the power of one’s voice and words is critical. Children and families in poverty have little voice. Not only can early intervention help children, it can help entire families by empowering them as advocates. Early intervention proves to be a game changer in the lives of children growing up in poverty.

Over time, we’ve seen there is little argument that high-quality early childhood programs are a value add. Obama supports it and philanthropists champion it. Still, we don’t see politicians putting their money where their mouth is. We still don’t see early childhood education access increasing on the whole. Why not invest in this proactive measure? Why not invest in programs that are shown to reduce incarceration rates while increasing the rate at which adults secure jobs?

We can continue to invest in the reactive measures that we hope will increase test scores and strengthen our schools. However, we’ll continue to climb an uphill battle until we truly think about where our kids * start * falling behind. We need to be proactive not reactive. We need to invest where we can work with children and their families to ensure they are truly off to a strong start. Early childhood programs for all kids and families are truly the biggest bang for our buck.

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