Investing in early childhood education

Nov 17, 2011

When Governor Rick Snyder talks about education in the state, he doesn’t talk in terms of K-12 but rather P-20 education. He describes it as pre-natal through post-graduate.

Early education increasingly considered key to future success

Susan Neuman is a Professor of Educational Studies at the University of Michigan. She served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education from 2001-2003. (You can read more about her work in early childhood development here.)

Neuman says she can measure an achievement gap between children as early as 9 months. She says birth through age three turns out to be pretty crucial for a child’s future. “This is when brain development is increasing at an enormous rate,” Nueman said. “This is when language development is spurting this is when cognitive development and this is when our belief in ourselves is developing.”

Nueman says the best early childhood education programs are those that strengthen a parent’s ability to become their child’s best teacher in those first years of life.

The pre-K years

People with the means are able to pay to enroll their children in preschool, early Montessori programs or daycare. Head Start is for families at or below the poverty level. It was founded during President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1965. The program helps children up to 5-years old pick up early math and reading skills. Head Start programs in Michigan serve more than 34,000 kids.

25-year-old Krystin Gossett was laid off from her fulltime job at a nursing home because of medical restrictions with her pregnancy. Gossett is nine months pregnant with her second child – a baby boy.

Gossett lives in Grand Rapids with her boyfriend and 2-year old daughter, Ashley. During an Early Head Start home visit she sits with Ashley on their living room floor. They pull out green and brown playdough and dump lots of plastic tools all over the thick red mat spread out over speckled white carpet.

The person who brought the big crayons, colored construction paper, and playdough is Katie Fox. She visits the family every week for an-hour-and-a-half through Early Head Start.

Early Head Start is like regular Head Start but it’s for kids under age three and pregnant women – like Gossett. Every week Fox brings something different for Ashley and her parents to do together.

“It’s always just something fun but amazingly there’s always an agenda underneath that you don’t always realize,” Gossett said. The playdough tools - the little yellow plastic safety scissors - help Ashley with her hand and eye coordination and learn words like yellow and scissors.

“When we first started Ashley had maybe tops a ten word vocabulary,” Gossett said. She says that was one of her concerns when she enrolled Ashley in the spring (She heard about Early Head Start through a family member – it’s not as well-known as Head Start.) Now, Ashley is making huge strides – learning at least three words a week. Gossett says Ashley used to be really shy too, but Fox noted significant progress during a recent “socialization” visit where Early Head Start families meet up once a month.

Gossett says she'll enroll Ashley's little brother in Early Head Start too, once he arrives.

The argument for investing early  

Head Start and Early Head Start Program advocates say the country gets seven dollars in return for every dollar invested. They site statistics that show children in these programs are less likely to need special education, less likely to get in trouble with the law or end up dependent on welfare later on in life. They say they’re more likely to be healthier overall (there’s a nutrition component), graduate from high school and make more money.

Head Start and Early Head Start are funded entirely with grants from the federal government. In 2009, Congress authorized more than $7 billion for Head Start nationally for the first time.

Those involved in the programs in Michigan say the biggest threat to Early Head Start success is cuts at the state level; cuts that impact the safety net for low-income families

This year the State of Michigan eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit that benefited working people who made low-wages. This year the state also put a limit to the amount of cash assistance it gives to families. Cash assistance is supposed to help cover basics like rent and utility bills.

When parents are dealing with possible eviction or are struggling to feed their family Head Start home visits (as one administrator told me) “just aren't as high a priority".

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