Magazine article The American Prospect

Building Blocks

Magazine article The American Prospect

Building Blocks

Article excerpt

It's September and the return of yellow school buses and back-to-school sales reminds us that a record 53 million kids are heading back to the classroom. Of those children, nearly four million will be starting kindergarten this year. The good news is that almost all of them are eager to learn, well-behaved, and healthy. And according to a major study on early childhood by the National Center for Education Statistics, most have the basic skills and knowledge they need to begin to read and count and discover more about their world.

But there is also some bad news. A small but significant percentage of our youngest children, primarily kids from low-income families, are in poor health and lack the pre-literacy, pre-math, and social skills that more advantaged youngsters have when they start kindergarten. Most of these children are perfectly capable of acquiring those skills, but they just haven't been exposed to the kinds of experiences and informal learning opportunities that produce them.

Without those early learning opportunities, it's hard for disadvantaged children to catch up with their more affluent peers. In fact, the study found that, while the children who had been behind at the beginning of the school year made great strides and had closed the learning gap in basic skills by year's end, the more advantaged youngsters continued to have an edge, especially in higher order skills. In short, despite the terrific job their teachers did, they were unable to compensate for what many poor youngsters, because of their poverty, could not get outside of school.

Outside influences

It is clear that a critical part, of closing this achievement gap is to get it right from the start. That's why we not only need full-day kindergarten available to all children, but also a national commitment to make high-quality, preschool education, starting at the age of three, universally available--not compulsory, but accessible and affordable to all--with first priority given to needy children.

A few communities are now doing this, but we need a national effort. We already have a foundation on which to base such a system of early childhood education: Head Start, the early learning program for disadvantaged children. It will be up for reauthorization soon. We must fully fund it so it not only covers all eligible children, but also provides them with a high-quality program and includes the health and social services and parent involvement components now present in Head Start. Evaluations tell us those features are as important to children's success as getting them academically prepared. …

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