On January 24, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing to examine the importance of early childhood learning experiences. The hearing, with First Lady Laura Bush as the main witness, was originally scheduled for September 11.
“All of us are mindful of that day and the extraordinary impact that day had on this country,” stated Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA) in his opening remarks. He praised Mrs. Bush, saying that “what we remember most is the courage and inspiration of the First Lady in that difficult time and in the weeks that followed,” and he thanked her for her “extraordinary work” on early education.
“I have seen the faces of children who were directly affected by the attacks,” Mrs. Bush told the committee. “As a result, I am doubly committed to using my voice to give our youngest Americans a real chance to succeed in the classroom, in the university lecture hall, and in the workplace.”
Sharing her experiences as a mother, a teacher, and a librarian, Mrs. Bush said she “saw firsthand that many children simply did not have the early opportunities that help to develop a love for language and reading,” and realized that “not having those opportunities can have a devastating effect on children’s success in school.”
The First Lady described an initiative she launched last year called “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn.” The goals of this initiative are twofold: to ensure that all children enter the classroom ready to read and learn and to recruit the “best and the brightest to become teachers.” She also reported on the White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development that she convened last summer. Her purpose in convening the summit was “to develop a clear understanding of what parents, grandparents, early childhood teachers, childcare providers and other caregivers can systematically do to provide children with rich and rewarding early experiences.” The experts who participated in the summit all “stressed that reading is the keystone for academic and life success,” she said.
Mrs. Bush highlighted the “importance of nutrition and physical development or the development of feelings, behavior, and social skills,” which are inextricably intertwined with language and literacy development. She also mentioned that the President has asked Secretary of Education Rodney Paige and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy Thompson “to convene a task force on early childhood development to identify priorities for research to address these critical issues.” Scientists from the National Institutes of Health and HHS are in the process of developing materials for parents, preschools, and child care programs aimed at enhancing cognitive development.
Sen. Kennedy commended the First Lady for “intuitively understanding years ago what science has borne out” about language learning in infants and young children. Reiterating the importance of recruiting quality teachers in the classroom, he asked, “How can we attract the best and the brightest and what role can Congress play?”
“Pay teachers more and value them,” responded Mrs. Bush, adding that we also should “pay attention to how colleges and universities prepare teachers.” She told the committee of her intentions to hold a White House Summit on teacher preparation in March.
In response to the question regarding the role of Congress, Mrs. Bush recommended “holding hearings to inform the public of the importance of those very early years of a child’s life.” She also emphasized the role of Congress in funding education programs and research.
Additionally, Mrs. Bush offered some anecdotal stories about her role in providing effective early learning programs for at-risk children in Texas. She initiated a Reach Out and Read Program based on a program created at Boston City Hospital in 1989. At the hospital, doctors and nurses used regularly scheduled well-child visits to prescribe that parents read to their children.