Naila Bolus is the President and CEO of Jumpstart.
One of the few lines during President Obama’s State of the Union address that received a bi-partisan standing ovation was this: “Tonight I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”
It’s an idea whose time has come, and one that everyone can get behind – not just Democrats and Republicans, but military officials, business leaders and law enforcement. Why such broad support? Because research has consistently shown that the smartest, most cost-effective way to support children’s academic success is to start early, when children’s brains are developing at a faster rate than at any other time in their lives. The President cited Nobel economist James Heckman’s research that proves an impressive return on investment – seven dollars for every dollar spent – “by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
For children living in low-income communities, the need for high-quality early education is acute. By the time they enter kindergarten, they are already 60% behind their more affluent peers. If they are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, they are four times less likely to graduate high school by the age of nineteen. “So let’s do what works,” the President urged, “and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”
High-quality early education works and over the next several months, proposals for universal preschool will begin to take shape, and as they do, here are three important considerations.
First, prioritize educators. Well-trained and prepared educators are the foundation of high-quality early education. They need on-going and well-designed continuing education and professional development opportunities, as well as access to current research, to stay up-to-date with current trends.
Future educators must be exposed to relevant courses that address developmentally, culturally and linguistically appropriate practice. They should also engage in rigorous contextualized field experiences that include hands-on training and classroom experience.
Currently early educators are woefully underpaid and their work is too important for that to continue to stand. Compensation must be reflective of their education and experience. Incentives, including student loan forgiveness, tuition remission and leadership development, should be provided to attract and retain strong professionals to enter and lead in the field.
Second, invest in and leverage evidence-based programs. Innovative, community-based initiatives play a critical role in mobilizing local resources and can provide community members—from college students to older adults—opportunities to serve in classrooms. For 20 years, Jumpstart has trained 28,000 volunteers to assist in the cognitive and social development of 54,000 young children, lowered the child-adult ratio in classrooms, and helped preschoolers develop strong connections with caring adults.
Consistent evaluations show these interventions work, and tapping programs such as Federal Work-Study, AmeriCorps and Foster Grandparents to focus on closing the kindergarten readiness gap is an innovative way to help the public and private sectors work together in a cost-effective way.
Finally, don’t sacrifice the present for the future. The looming budget cuts being debated in Washington could devastate the very programs upon which a universal preschool program will be built. Every effort should be made to sustain “what works” at the local, state and federal level.
As a nation, we need to develop a strong workforce for the 21st century. If we care about the future, we need to invest in every child and the educators and programs that support these children. The President’s bold initiative is a critical step. By encouraging the proper cultivation of every young mind – by putting children first – we’re ensuring our country keeps moving forward and that we’re living up to our best ideas and ideals as a nation.