President Obama recognizes that “lack of preschool education can shadow kids for the rest of their lives” and proposes “working with states to make high quality Preschool available to every child in America.” President Obama’s efforts in Early Care and Education are not only vital to our democracy’s economic strength, they are vital to the ability of children to learn how to function as healthy individuals and as a part of a community. There is strong research demonstrating the significant impact of high quality programs on children.
Governor Patrick’s proposal for increasing access to early education, improving professional development, providing more support for parents, and adding preschool classrooms in school districts are clearly in line with Obama’s vision. As Early Childhood Educators, we must ensure that the administration’s efforts and the efforts within our states are properly guided. Massachusetts has already appointed an Early Education to Higher Education Advisory Group to consider the issues and the importance of getting early education right.
All programs for America’s youngest children must include health, nutrition, social-emotional development and cognitive learning whether in Head Start or K-12 or any other sector. Our core knowledge base is very clear on this. But they need more than simply the basics. Children need meaningful experiences across all the domains of learning—physical, social, cognitive and emotional in order to learn and grow. Two year olds learn different things and in different ways than twelve year olds. It must be recognized that early learning is not only equally valuable, but also sets the stage for further learning. In order to better inform the national dialogue and develop improved policies, policy makers and government leaders need a broader definition of what “academics” truly are in early care and education settings. We need to increase awareness about the importance of play and social problem solving. We need recognition that the process of learning means it is necessary for children to decode symbols like trees or balls or rainbows before they can learn that “C-A-T” spells cat. It must become common knowledge that scribbling or working with legos develops motor skills, and that these skills, in combination with cognitive skills, enable children to draw pictures that represent ideas or to write their names.
Our task is daunting. The period between birth and eight years old is a distinct stage of development and field of study, with well articulated pedagogy. We know that infants need tummy time to develop motor control, that toddlers need support in developing language, and that preschoolers need practice to solve social problems. We know that individual learning styles take time to develop and the process is personal and varied. We know that children with special needs require special services. We look at second language learners as possessing an asset, not a deficit. We know learning is embedded in culture and language and that families are the first teachers and primary partners in their child’s learning.
Now that Early Care and Education is part of the national education agenda, as it rightfully should be, we must provide more appropriate understanding and greater protection of how the very youngest children learn. This requires nothing short of a transformational change in the cultural expectations for learning. At the same time, the status and compensation of early educators must be raised.
Early educators should be at the forefront, leading policy-makers and government leaders. We have core knowledge of child development during the first eight years of life and it is validated by solid research. We need to use that research to support learning. In our current higher education system, elementary and secondary education teachers are more highly valued, better understood, and certainly better compensated than early childhood educators. This needs to change.
President Obama believes we should do what works so that “none of our children start the race of life behind.” Governor Patrick agrees. We must ensure that the efforts of this administration and the efforts within our states are properly guided. Only then can America provide its youngest citizens with the learning outcomes that will benefit our entire nation. Obama said it best “Let’s give our kids that chance.” It is our belief that this is not only a worthy endeavor, it is crucial.Mary Kloppenberg Executive Director Wellesley Community Children’s Center, Wellesley College