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Senate Committee Continues Dialogue on Early Childhood Education

“Early Education: From Science To Practice” was the focus of a February 12 hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The hearing was the second this year on early childhood education (see The Source, 1/25) in what committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA) called a continuing dialogue “on what we need to do to ensure that our youngest children reach school ready to learn.” He added, “the science is crystal clear…that what we do for our children in their earliest formative years, sets the foundation in school and in life.”

The two panels of witnesses included scientific experts on childhood development and state and national leaders who have established successful early learning programs for children. Most agreed that literacy begins at birth, and the child’s early environment and exposure to language during the formative years are strong contributing factors to later success or failure.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff of Brandeis University shared several conclusions from a recently published scientific report on early childhood development, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: the Science of Early Childhood Development. “We are the products of genetic development and the environment in which we live,” he said. Parents have the most influence over a child’s early development, and “how children feel is as important as how they think,” especially regarding their readiness to face the challenges in the classroom, he said.

Dr. Shonkoff noted that, according to a 1999 report by the National Household Survey, 61 percent of children under age four were in regularly scheduled child care, including 44 percent of infants under one year. “If we really want to strengthen” those early relationships that enhance child well-being, “then we must provide more viable choices for working mothers,” he said, recommending “both paid parental leave for those who wish to stay at home with their young children, and affordable, quality care and education for the children of those who return to work.”

Testimony by Dr. Edward Zigler of Yale University focused on a child’s ability to read and the “emphasis on literacy under the Head Start program.” Reading begins long before age four by exposing a child “to formal literacy skills through the interaction between parents and child after the child is born,” he told the committee. Strengthening literacy programs under Head Start can be achieved by “increasing pay to well-trained teachers,” and “expanding Early Head Start to encourage more low-income parents to be involved in their children’s learning.”

Sue Russell of the Child Care Services Association in North Carolina discussed the state’s high turnover rate among child care teachers, most of whom are women with children. “They leave because they are paid less than store clerks or parking lot attendants; their median wage is $7.50 an hour,” she said. “They have little formal education past high school but they want to take college courses to learn,” she continued, and added, “In the last three years, about one-third of these women relied on one or more forms of public assistance. And 27% have no health insurance from any source, all of which paints a bleak picture for the educational success of our children.”

In order to address the high-turnover issue, Ms. Russell told the committee her association designed a comprehensive scholarship program to help child care teachers take courses toward a degree in early childhood education. Teachers who complete a required number of hours are then eligible for a bonus or a raise. In return for the incentive, a teacher must promise to remain in her sponsoring center at least another year, and can renew her scholarship for as long as it takes to complete her degree.

Ms. Russell also described two other programs designed to improve the salaries and provide health coverage for early education teachers. The salary program pays teachers “graduated supplements based on their education level,” she said, adding that, “The program encourages early education teachers to acquire more training and discourages them from leaving their positions for better jobs.” The health insurance program “reimburses early learning programs for one-third of the costs they incur to provide health insurance for their teachers.” Both initiatives rely on funding from the federal Child Care Development and Block Grant program.

Rob Reiner of the I AM Your Child Foundation talked about the progress that has been made in California regarding early readiness programs. “Our ultimate goal in California is to stop funding K-12 and early childhood as two separate and distinct systems, and instead merge them into one seamless educational path for children.”

In November, 2001, the I AM Your Child Foundation began providing kits for new parents, which include educational videos on parenting skills, health and nutrition, literacy, discipline, and safety. Additionally, as part of their readiness efforts, the foundation has sent out mobile vans that bring books to underserved neighborhoods and bring public health nurses to help and teach new mothers.

Every state is dependent upon “federal initiatives,” such as “Head Start, SCHIP, Medicaid, the Child Care Block Grants, and Family and Medical Leave,” he said, urging that, “Congress must keep these programs strong, especially now as states face large deficits.” He also recommended that, “Federal legislation should provide incentives to the states to bring quality early childhood services into the education system and to develop and expand our best programs to best serve our children.”

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