Can finger-painting, cup-stacking and learning to share set you up for a stellar career?
Research says yes, according to Dr. Celia Ayala, chief executive officer of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, a nonprofit that funds 325 schools in Los Angeles County, Calif., using money from tobacco taxes.
“When they enter kindergarten ready to thrive with all the social, emotional and cognitive skills, they perform at grade level or above,” she said. “When they don’t, that’s where that achievement gap starts.”
Kids without that early boost have been shown to be more likely to get special-needs services, be held back a grade or two, get in trouble with the law and become teen parents. Preschool alumni have a better chance, she said.
“Those who go to preschool will go on to university, will have a graduate education, and their income level will radically improve,” she said.
Dr. Ayala and other early-education advocates participated in a Washington panel on preschools earlier this month, arguing that days spent with Play-Doh could hold the key to job success in adult life.
The importance of preschool is considered gospel among those who can afford a private education for their four-year-olds. In some places, like Manhattan, competition for the best preschools is legendarily ferocious, and aspiring parents even opt for teacher-staffed daycare centers for the tiniest toddlers.
But fewer than half of U.S. kids go to preschool. The rest either stay home, where they play with parents or caregivers, or attend daycare, which may not have an educational component. Preschool isn’t mandatory, and in most places it’s not free.
Some countries, like France, are already sold on the importance of preschool for training their youngest citizens and future workers. All French children attend free public preschools called “l’ecole maternelle” from the age of three. There they learn social skills that will serve them well “to be students and citizens,” one Parisian preschool director said in an NPR profile of the maternelle system.
Policymakers in the U.S. are most concerned about eliminating the gap between kids who do well in school, going on to college and successful careers, and those who fall behind. Preschool, say policymakers, offers educators the best shot for getting children of varying backgrounds on equal footing.
The government has been in the preschool business for decades, notably with Head Start, aimed at helping children from poor families compete once they get to kindergarten. But the program has long attracted political criticism that its benefits do not extend into elementary school. Last month, the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced that low-performing Head Start centers will be forced to compete for future funding.
“We’re really focusing on the cradle-to-career continuum,” said Steven Hicks, special assistant for early learning at the federal Department of Education, where there has been a recent shift as officials realize “we need to start earlier.”
Although most education funding happens at the state level, the federal government has been trying to fuel a preschool wave with a half-billion dollars in challenge grants funded in January. The next five states in line will share $133 million in preschool money this year. Call it a pre-job-training program.
Most teachers and parents would agree that early-childhood education matters to a child’s trajectory in life. But with budgets stretched around the country, a lack of money is forcing some states to make choices about scarce education dollars. Too bad, the DoE thinks.
“Secretary Duncan says there are smart investments and some things you can do that are not so smart, and one of those is cutting early childhood education,” Hicks said.
By Chana R. Schoenberger
Source: Wall Street Journal - http://goo.gl/qADKz