When will we be 'Harvard smart' on early learning?

  • July 29, 2016
  • /   Shannon Nickinson
  • /   education

Kindergarten math worksheet.

The momentum for change in the early learning space is growing — and now coming from some of the most prestigious addresses.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University published a paper recently that was highlighted by The Atlantic. It calls for more science-based innovation to be applied to early learning.

“From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts” analyzes nearly 50 years worth of research papers on how young children learn and what strategies work to help their parents and caregivers be good influences on their brain development.

The bottom line?

“Achieving breakthrough outcomes for children experiencing significant adversity requires that we support the adults who care for them to transform their own lives,” the authors write.

That is one of three key shifts in policy and public thought that the authors argue must happen for our children to progress.

The others:

— Early experiences affect lifelong physical and mental health, not just learning.

— Healthy brain development requires protection from excessive stress, not just enrichment in a stimulating environment.

“Toxic stress” — repeated, frequent exposure of a young, developing brain to stress — damages that child’s ability to learn and process information throughout the rest of that baby’s life.

The paper notes two of what are considered the “gold standard” projects in the field — the Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian project. Both randomly assigned young children into all-day, five-day-a-week, year-round childcare in an education-rich setting. Alumni of both still demonstrate the positive outcomes of the experience in educational attainment, economic progress, and health outcomes.

Ten years ago, Florida voters approved a measure to mandate high-quality preschool for every 4-year-old, but the state has never funded the program for more than three hours a day of instruction. The per pupil funding allotment for next year is $2,437, less than it was when voluntary prekindergarten began in 2005.

Nearly 85 percent of a child's brain is developed in the years between birth and 4. The foundation laid then — the paths built into those little brains — will impact how well and quickly that child takes new information and retains it for the rest of his or her life.

The $395 million in the state education budget for VPK — which is supposed to be Ground Zero for a children's formal public education experience — is less than one-half of 1 percentage of the total $82 billion budget.

The Harvard authors advocate first and foremost for building the skills of caregivers — from parents to childcare workers, who the study note, make less on average nationally than parking lot attendants, animal attendants and funeral attendants.

Phyllis Pooley works for the Office of Economic Development and Engagement at the University of West Florida. She says that according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the median hourly wage in the Pensacola metro area is $9.27 for childcare workers.

That works out to $19,281 a year.

The state median wage is $9.55 — $19,864 a year.

What interventions do work give young children a better start?

“ The five core principles described in this chapter can guide improvements in the quality of a wide array of early childhood policies and programs that have evolved in the United States over the past half-century.

These programs typically fall within the following four tiers of investment:

  • — Universal services for all children and their families (e.g., prenatal care for pregnant women, primary health care for children and parents, and full access to preschool education in some states);
  • — Broad-based programs serving families across the socioeconomic spectrum (e.g., child care, services for children with special needs, and preschool programs with variable degrees of access);
  • — Targeted supports for families with low levels of education and income (e.g., parenting education and coaching, programs for infants and toddlers, financial supports, services to promote economic self-sufficiency, and nutritional assistance);
  • — Intensive interventions for young children and families at high risk for experiencing toxic stress (e.g., specialized services to reduce, prevent, or mitigate the adverse effects of child maltreatment, mental health problems in parents and caregivers, parental substance abuse, and/or exposure to intimate partner violence in the home).

The rationale for these four levels of investment is strong, but the evidence base for their effectiveness reveals relatively large, long-term benefits in some domains and much smaller or mixed effects in others. The well-documented impacts of model programs include multiple long-term outcomes with high policy salience, such as higher educational attainment, fewer unplanned pregnancies, increased economic productivity, and reduced criminal behavior.”

Science is telling us the answer to the question, what do we do to close the achievement gap?

The question now is, when will we demonstrate the will to match our deeds with our words when it comes to our children?