President Obama on the national level and Gov. Deval Patrick on the state level are both proposing to dramatically expand early childhood education programs to strengthen what is considered a cornerstone to future success.
The governor’s plan would make early childhood education available to every child in the state, and address a waitlist that has grown to more than 30,000 children. Much of the debate has focused on the tax increases the governor has proposed to pay for the expansion, but few have questioned the value of ensuring that children enter kindergarten with the skills they need to thrive.
For the past 20 years, the state has invested billions of dollars and enacted reforms to improve K-12 public education and close stubborn race and income-based achievement gaps. Investing in high quality early education programs would attack the achievement gap before it forms.
Learning differences between low-income and affluent children become apparent as early as age 2. One study found that by age 4, the children of professionals have heard a stunning 32 million more words than their less affluent counterparts. Furthermore, research also shows that children exposed to high levels of environmental stress — stress that children in poverty are likely to experience — have lower “executive function” skills. These skills allow children to listen to and remember directions, ignore distractions and stay on task, and control their emotions. All of these skills are fundamental to both academic and social success later in life.
There are few places that universal early childhood education would help more than Lawrence, which faces daunting challenges caused by rampant poverty.
One-third of Lawrence children between the ages of 5 and 17 live in poverty. Almost the same share of the city’s young children enter kindergarten without having developed age-appropriate early literacy and numeracy skills; most of these children will continue to have difficulty meeting grade-level learning goals throughout the early elementary years.