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House Committee Addresses Early Childhood Education

On January 23, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on “Investing in Early Education: Paths to Improving Children’s Success.”

In a statement, Chair George Miller (D-CA) said, “[P]roviding a good educational foundation for our children during their earliest years of life not only improves student success down the road, but is vital to building a stronger, more innovative, and competitive future for our country. Over the past decade, there has been groundbreaking research on brain and child development that underscores the importance of the first five years of a child’s life. In combination with their genes, children’s experiences in these critical early years influence brain chemistry, architecture, and growth in ways that can have lasting effects on their health, learning, and behavior. Families are children’s first and most important teachers throughout life. But with nearly 12 million children under the age of five or nearly two-thirds of all American children under five in some type of regular child care arrangement, early care and education providers also play a great role in children’s development and growth. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to ignore the types and quality of early care and education settings that are available to our children.”

Ranking Member Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) said, “Before Congress and this committee even consider efforts to expand the federal role in early childhood education, I believe we need to focus on the following three principles. First, any federal program, existing or otherwise, must preserve and promote the role of parents to choose an education provider. Children enrolled in early childhood education programs are benefiting from a diverse group of public and private providers…This diversity of programs and providers in which parents have control over their children’s education and choose what program works best for them is one of the great strengths of our early childhood education system…Second, the federal investment should be narrowly targeted to those students who need it and those parents who can least afford it. Before enacting any new or duplicative initiatives, we must focus on serving those children not presently being served by the Head Start program. Since 1965, our federal education programs have been focused on ensuring that low-income and disadvantaged students and parents have access to those programs that will help them succeed in life. I strongly believe that any federal early childhood education program must continue this focus. And, third, the federal investment in early childhood education must be focused on ensuring that public and private providers are running high-quality programs.”

Deborah Phillips, a professor at Georgetown University, discussed the environment and its effect on brain development in a child’s early years. “One of the most significant insights about educational attainment in recent years is that educational outcomes in adolescence and young adulthood can be traced back to capabilities seen during the preschool years and the experiences in and out of the home that foster their development…Differences in high school completion can be traced back to preschool achievement test scores. Children thus embark on successful or unsuccessful pathways through school during the preschool years. Moving a child who has embarked on a pathway towards failure onto one that guides him or her toward success becomes increasingly difficult and costly over time. By the preschool years, however, the gap in what children living in impoverished environments and those who escape these environments know and can do has already emerged. Low- and higher-income children are already moving along different trajectories well before school entry, not because their brains are different or because they have different capabilities, but because their early environments in and out of home do not constitute a level playing field. This is not news. More recently, we not only have more evidence documenting this troubling fact, we have documented specific deficits not only for early literacy development, but also for early numeracy development, and there is longitudinal evidence suggesting that math concepts, such as knowledge of numbers and ordinality, at school entry are the strongest predictors of later achievement…perhaps even stronger than early literacy skills.”

Charles Kolb, president of the Center for Economic Development, said, “Economically, the long-term impacts of high-quality early learning programs translate into significant public and private benefits, with returns far exceeding the costs…Investing in children early is crucial. Learning is cumulative, and children develop skills during their early years that facilitate later learning. Currently, America is spending billions of its education dollars on remedial efforts. Gaps in student ability are already apparent by kindergarten, and those gaps are often difficult and costly to correct later. When a business has a problem, it tries to fix it at the front end, not at the back. Moreover, to guarantee positive outcomes such as the success of the No Child Left Behind Act [P.L. 110-107] America must work harder to educate our youngest citizens. Children who participate in high-quality early education programs demonstrate higher academic achievement, are less likely to repeat a grade or require special education classes, and are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college. Students are also less likely to participate in criminal activity during their juvenile or adult years, or be victims of child maltreatment or neglect. Adults who have had the benefit of an early learning opportunity are also less likely to be unemployed and more likely to have higher earnings than similar students who do not participate in these programs. These adults are also less likely to depend on public assistance, become teenage parents, or endanger their health by smoking. The positive impact of early education programs on students’ lives increases the likelihood that these students will become net economic and social contributors to society.”

Elisabeth Chun, executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance in Hawaii, emphasized the need for the federal government to ensure that states provide quality education. “The federal investment in early childhood education is critical. The federal Child Care and Development Block Grant provides most of the funding for child care assistance as well as quality initiatives for all programs regardless of the family’s income, such as licensing, professional development and education scholarships, and resource and referral. Head Start and Early Head Start are key programs in our states, and yet many eligible children are unable to attend [them] for lack of funding. Special education for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers has had its funding cut at the federal level. These programs provide the foundation for early childhood education in Hawaii as in every state, and yet none has had a significant increase in funds for six years. Given what we know from the research on the value of the investment in high quality early childhood programs, they should be made Congress’ first priority for increased investment starting now. Legislation, such as Congresswoman [Mazie] Hirono’s [D-HI] [Providing Resources Early for Kids] Act (H.R. 3289), would provide incentives for states to ensure that as they rush to expand capacity, they do not do it at the expense of quality.”

Ms. Chun continued, “Hawaii was an early leader in the promotion of early education. Led by advocacy from our philanthropic leaders, Hawaii in 1943 was one of the first states to implement a full day public kindergarten program for all five-year-old children. This action was prompted by the acknowledgement that children’s educational journey must begin early and that our Hawaii economy depended upon an educated future workforce and a current workforce that could be confident that its youngest children were in the best nurturing environment while the parents worked.”

Dr. Ron Haskins, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said, “Even after more than four decades of operation, we are now spending $7 billion on a program that produces only modest impacts on students, as measured both in a national survey of several thousand Head Start students and in a nationally-representative random-assignment study. These modest results are especially unfortunate because Head Start is a major part of our national strategy to even the playing field for the nation’s poor children…In addition to the modest accomplishments of Head Start, two other factors should capture the attention of this committee. The first is that the nation now has a broad array of preschool programs that have little coordination, differing standards, and different degrees of quality…If we combine state and federal spending on this broad array of programs, we are now spending a total of about $25 billion a year on preschool programs. It seems reasonable to inquire whether we’re getting the maximum benefit out of what we are now spending before we begin spending much more. We have the ever-expanding state pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs, which spent nearly $3.5 billion of state money on preschool programs. These programs are unique to each state and are usually not coordinated with other preschool programs in any way. All but about ten states now have their own preschool program. Research on some of these programs seems to show that they are producing quite substantial immediate impacts, but we lack information about whether these effects last. Then we have the $7 billion Head Start program, operated by local grantees with funds supplied directly by the federal government. Despite the fact that both state pre-K programs and Head Start have the primary goal of preparing children intellectually and socially to enter public schooling, the two programs operate independently in most states. Finally, we spend nearly $12 billion in state and federal money on the Child Care and Development Block Grant and associated child care programs. Coordinating all this spending to create high-quality programs would be an important achievement. The status quo is unacceptable. We are spending $25 billion and are not getting $25 billion worth of results.”

Dr. Haskins continued, “A major goal of federal policy should be to work with states, counties, and cities to encourage coordination between these programs. The legislation written by this committee and passed by Congress last year recognizes the need for coordination between Head Start and state pre-K programs, but I’m not certain that mandating cooperation will actually cause programs to work together. I hope the committee and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) keep a close eye on whether this provision actually improves coordination between the programs…A second goal of federal policy should be to ensure that all children are in programs that have explicit goals based on a tested curriculum that focuses classroom work on academic skills and social behavior. Federal policy should also pursue a third goal. To evaluate whether Head Start is achieving its goals, the committee, Head Start researchers, parents, and teachers need to know whether children are progressing intellectually and socially during the Head Start program and are approaching national norms. In short, we need a system that measures the progress of every student during the year, based on a reliable and valid assessment of language, math, social behavior, and perhaps other domains.”

Dr. Eric Karolak, executive director of the Early Care and Education Consortium, and Kathleen Priestly, early education coordinator for the City of Orange school district (NJ), also testified.

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