A chance to lead on early education

Gov. Baker should make high-quality preschool part of his education agenda

“SUDDENLY, THE WORLD is waking up [to the fact] that it matters what you do with young children,” Abigail Adams Eliot told the Boston Globe in 1965. A Boston native who lived to be 100, Eliot was, as the Globe called her, an “indomitable” teacher and champion of nursery schools.

If she were alive today, I wonder if she’d agree with me that the country is now fully awake.

We’re awake and we’ve started to build a 21st century early care and education system that offers children the tools they’ll need for lifelong success. From the White House to business boardrooms to the offices of scores of Republican and Democratic mayors, governors, and members of Congress, we’re seeing historic momentum on expanding and improving preschool programs.

As the country moves forward, Massachusetts has a chance to lead. Standing on the shoulders of Eliot and other pioneers, the Commonwealth is poised to build a preschool system whose graduates will grow up to transform our families, workplaces, and communities.

We’ve already seen how innovative, high-quality models like the Perry Preschool program in Michigan and the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, two controlled trials of the long-term impact of preschool, promote high school graduation and employment and lower the likelihood of incarceration. State-funded models that target the neediest communities, like New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program, are helping to narrow the achievement gap in K-12. And Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman and Federal Reserve officials have already told us that every dollar invested in high-quality preschool produces a return on investment that can range from $3 to $10.

It is in this spirit of historic potential that we welcome Gov. Charlie Baker to the State House. He and his team have the opportunity to break new ground.

During a gubernatorial debate, Baker acknowledged Massachusetts’s progress on preschool, adding, “we have to make sure when we make that investment we have kids going into schools where they continue to benefit from the gain that they received as a result of being in that program.”

I whole-heartedly agree. The Commonwealth needs strong K-12 schools. But having served for nearly two decades as a school superintendent and as an interim superintendent in five Massachusetts communities, I can tell you that K-12 schools cannot reform education on their own. There’s too much work to do. Too many achievement gaps are already in place on the first day that children walk into kindergarten.

That’s why we need high-quality early education and care programs that start from birth and prepare children to become proficient readers by the third grade.

WHAT ARE WE UP AGAINST?

Research from Stanford University found gaps in language proficiency among 18-month-old toddlers from disadvantaged families. At that young age, they were already months behind children from more advantaged families. Letting these early gaps fester and grow dooms children to falling further behind in the early grades, a crushing and unnecessary experience.

In Massachusetts, achievement gaps are even wider by third grade. The 2013 MCAS scores revealed that 43 percent of our third graders are not proficient readers. Among children from low-income families, a heart-breaking 65 percent lag in reading. In our Gateway Cities — including Attleboro, Pittsfield, Salem, Taunton, and Westfield — 58 percent of third graders are not proficient readers. In Boston, it’s 68 percent.

I’d like to say that there has been progress, that scores have nudged upwards, but in fact the scores have remained stagnant for more than a decade.

Schools try to catch children up, relying on tutoring, remedial classes, and repeating a grade. But these are costly approaches that come late. It is easier, less expensive, more effective, and more just to give children the strong start they need before they get to grade school.

HOW DO WE DO THAT?

Prenatal and home-visiting programs prepare parents to become their children’s first teachers.

Talk, read, sing — that’s the sound advice from the national nonprofit Too Small to Fail. Talk about the colors on and shapes in the grocery store. Read Dr. Seuss or The Hungry Caterpillar. Sing nursery rhymes or lullabies. These activities engage families in the joyful work of helping their children thrive.

We have to follow up with high-quality preschool programs, led by skilled teachers with bachelor’s degrees or higher, using proven curriculum in language-rich classrooms where play and learning are the same, where building towers or castles in the block area simultaneously builds motor skills, teamwork, and early math.

Researchers are also chiming in with definitive and growing evidence of what works.

Findings from the University of Iowa encourage parents to try and figure out what their babbling babies might be saying because doing so could help these babies learn to communicate sooner.

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Nonie Lesaux argues that what she calls high-quality “teacher talk,” the number of complex words that teachers use, helps promote children’s reading success.

For Arthur Reynolds, a University of Minnesota early childhood development professor, the question is no longer whether preschool is valuable, but rather how much preschool do children need? His answer: More is better. After studying nearly 1,000 predominantly low-income, minority children in Chicago preschool programs during the 2012-13 school year, Reynolds found that children in full-day programs were better prepared for school than those in half-day programs.

Baker and others have questioned whether the benefits of preschool fade as children grow older.

The answer, as Timothy Bartik explains in his new book, From Preschool to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education, is that while “many early childhood programs have fading test score impacts,” these programs still “significantly improve adult outcomes,” including higher lifetime earnings.

An economist at the Upjohn Institute, Bartik writes that employability and productivity “depend upon social skills such as how a worker relates to supervisors, coworkers, and customers, and upon character skills such as reliability in showing up at work on time and being persistent in finishing work assignments.” Cognitive skills also matter, Bartik says, “but these cognitive skills must be applied effectively, which depends on character skills and social skills.”

HOW DO WE MOVE FORWARD?

Massachusetts can learn from and build on its own successes.

Boston’s preschool program has won national praise for a curriculum that combines play, hands-on activities, and projects, as well as individual, small-group, and whole-group work. Children learn about math, science, and art, and they participate in writing and story-telling workshops. And, the district is currently partnering with high-quality community-based preschools to pilot an expansion of this model, thus leveraging what we call the “mixed delivery system” of early education and care providers.

At my organization, Strategies for Children, we’re partnering with several communities that are committed to aligning research, policy, and practice to create high-quality early education programs and promote third-grade reading proficiency. We have seen incredible leadership in these communities — superintendents, mayors, librarians, business leaders, funders, and community leaders coming together to leverage resources and develop strategies such as high-quality pre-kindergarten — to close the achievement gap.

In the years ahead, state support in the form of policy, guidance, and resources will help ensure that this local momentum remains strong and stays focused on improving outcomes for children.

In December, Massachusetts made public policy headlines by winning a federal Preschool Development Grant. Announced during the White House Summit on Early Education, the award will bring $15 million to the Commonwealth in the first year to expand preschool programs. The state stands to get a total of $60 million over four years.

For Baker, these funds will provide a running start that builds on the crucial federal funding that Massachusetts was awarded in 2011, when the state won a $50 million Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant.

Federal funding, however, only goes so far. As Georgia, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma have all shown, state governments can improve preschool outcomes by boosting their own preschool budgets.

It will be up to Baker and the Legislature to make additional investments in our children. Fortunately, they can do so knowing that they will save money in the long run by avoiding expensive remediation and helping to develop a highly skilled workforce.

Back in 1965, when the Globe wrote about Abigail Adams Eliot, the country was rushing to make Project Head Start, an eight-week program, into a success. That meant struggling to involve parents, train teachers, and serve disadvantaged children — much of the work that we’re doing today.

Meet the Author

The difference, I’m happy to say, is that 50 years later we have decades of concrete evidence and an even broader coalition of supporters who are echoing and elaborating on Eliot’s 50-year-old declaration that children’s teaching “needs to be the best possible teaching, and they will learn.”

Chris Martes is president and CEO of Strategies for Children.