How Should Obama's $10 Billion Pledge for Early Childhood Education Be Used?

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrea J. Martin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The importance of early childhood education, particularly for children at-risk, is well-documented and is key to our nation's growth and prosperity.

Children who receive the right type of early childhood education services benefit physiologically through the effects of those experiences on early brain development, as well as academically and emotionally. Society reaps the benefits of this investment by seeing declines in crime and public assistance and increases in tax revenues.

Therefore, President-elect Barack Obama's $10 billion pledge for early childhood education is potentially a win-win situation for everyone.

The key, however, is that we provide quality early education services and that is where things become more complicated. In order to provide these types of services and not waste yet another $10 billion, two factors are vital to the success of this initiative.

First, we need to implement programs that work and where we have evidence of their efficacy from research that meets the established scientific standards. Unfortunately, most of the studies conducted to evaluate these programs have been inadequate.

To be fair, the best way to evaluate the effects of these programs is to randomly assign students to conditions or programs and to test them before and after their placement. This is not something that is either practical or ethical to do in most situations.

Given the fact there is great diversity in terms of the types of early childhood education services and programs and it is often simpler to choose what appears to be the easiest and/or least expensive, it is essential that we do not end up using these funds for nothing more than an expensive baby-sitting program.

This will result in furthering the gap between low-income students and their counterparts because low-income students can benefit the most from solid early childhood programs. Therefore, we cannot afford to take a wait-and-see attitude because another generation of students will fall through the cracks.

We need to replicate the programs that have worked, and we must continue to evaluate and monitor programs so we do not lose more children.

The components of early childhood services that appear in programs with documented success are hardly surprising and include a language rich environment, age-appropriate materials and consistent levels of child participation. Furthermore, high adult-to-child ratios, and highly qualified teachers are also components of successful programs.

The importance of having high adult-to-child ratios in the classrooms and of having highly qualified teachers addresses the second factor that is vital to the success of this initiative. Too often in discussions of educational initiatives, we overlook the key player.

Teachers, more specifically, having large numbers of qualified teachers is essential for both early childhood programs and all other educational programs. The effect of the teacher on student learning is greater than the effects of student ethnicity, socioeconomic status, school attended and class size. …