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David Brooks: Early childhood initiative seems promising

  • New York Times
  • Published Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, at 12:32 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, at 12:33 p.m.

Millions of American children grow up in homes where they don’t learn the skills they need to succeed in life. Their vocabularies are tiny. They can’t regulate their emotions. When they get to kindergarten they’ve never been read a book, so they don’t know the difference between the front cover and the back cover.

But starting a few decades ago, we learned that preschool intervention programs could help. The efforts were small and expensive, but early childhood programs made big differences in kids’ lives. The success of these programs set off a lot of rhapsodic writing, including by me, about the importance of early childhood education. If government could step in and provide quality preschool, then we could reduce poverty and increase social mobility.

But this problem, like most social problems, is hard. The big federal early childhood program, Head Start, has been chugging along since 1965, and the outcomes are dismal. Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution summarizes the findings of the most rigorous research: “There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start. Further, children attending Head Start remain far behind academically once they are in elementary school. Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.”

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Over the past several years, there’s been a flurry of activity, as states and private groups put together better early childhood programs. In these programs, the teachers are better trained. There are more rigorous performance standards. The curriculum is better matched to the one the children will find when they enter kindergarten.

These programs do not perform miracles, but incremental improvements add up year by year and produce significantly better lives.

Enter President Obama. During his State of the Union address, he announced the most ambitious early childhood education expansion in decades.

But on this subject, it’s best to be hardheaded. So I talked with experts and administration officials, trying to be skeptical. Does the president’s plan merely expand the failing federal effort, or does it focus on quality and reform?

So far the news is very good. Obama is trying to significantly increase the number of kids with access to early education. The White House will come up with a dedicated revenue stream that will fund early education projects without adding to the deficit. These federal dollars will be used to match state spending, giving states, many of whom want to move aggressively, further incentive to expand and create programs.

But Washington’s main role will be to measure outcomes, not determine the way states design their operations. States will have a lot of latitude.

That’s crucial. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how to educate children that young. The essential thing is to build systems that can measure progress, learn and adapt to local circumstances.

This is rude to say, but here’s what this is about: Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills. It’s about instilling achievement values where they are absent.

Obama has taken on a big challenge in a realistic and ambitious way. If Republicans really believe in opportunity and local control, they will get on board.

David Brooks writes for the New York Times.

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