Embarking on what proved to be a relatively short-lived career as a high-school math teacher, I was surprised to discover a wide range of experience and ability among my students. I quickly found that lesson planning and teaching were much more complicated than I could have ever imagined as I struggled to move through the required material at a pace that didn’t terrify on the one hand or bore on the other. While I felt that I knew what each of my students needed to take the next step, there simply wasn’t enough time to work individually in the way they needed. So, I did my best and my students did their best, and next year the cycle started all over again with a fresh crop of students.
Unfortunately, my youthful experience was not unusual. Teachers all across America face similar limitations of time and resources, which unsurprisingly lead to the same less-than-ideal outcomes. Said another way, our public schools are much more engines of equality than equity: we are very good at ensuring that every student receives access to a teacher, a classroom and a curriculum, but we are not able to guarantee that each student receives the individual support needed to reach her or his potential. This is particularly troubling for children who are behind—the statistics show unequivocally that these children cannot catch up.
So what if we got every child to the starting line on day one?
The promise of early childhood education
There are a number of reasons to look to early childhood education as a possible solution for our school woes. The first is that young children, all things being equal, seem to have a lot of time on their hands and are willing, curious learners. Why not take advantage?
The second is that the set of skills and knowledge that we need children to acquire in order to be school-ready are relatively minimal and basically agreed-upon. Fortunately, these are not overwhelming or even particularly technical in nature. After all, children need to start with the basics.
Thirdly, young children tend to be around adults in much smaller groupings than they will be in school, suggesting that there is inherently more time for individualization. If we take the time to engage early and often with our children, it seems reasonable to assume that we could have them arrive at school ready to learn on day one.
The state of ECE in America
In pursuit of this goal, various groups have invested heavily over the past few decades in building ECE infrastructure with the intent of providing families high-quality options. When researchers, practitioners, and policymakers discuss this infrastructure, they often refer to it as a patchwork quilt of programs that are unevenly distributed and of varying quality -- oh, and with a lot of holes in it. In short, it’s complicated.
There are good reasons for this, starting with the fact that families have differing needs. Many parents of young children work outside of the home; we have a growing number of single-parent households, and a wide variance in cultural and religious beliefs about where young children should be and what they should spend their time on.
Further adding to the complexity is that we have families of differing means. Some families can afford to pay for others to watch their children (either in or outside the home) while others cannot. Some states offer programs to some or all of their families (usually based on geographical constraints), while others do not. And there are federal dollars and programs to help augment or subsidize these efforts, but they come with their own constraints.
As I said, it’s complicated. And with this complexity has come, unsurprisingly, highly uneven outcomes. Thirty or so years into expanding and developing our ECE infrastructure, we still have yet to see positive impacts on key indicators like NAEP fourth-grade reading scores. While there are pockets of excellence, the reality is that this infrastructure is not solving our national equity problem in school readiness.
The path forward
So how can we ensure that all children have these critical early experiences? The more that I have mulled this question over the past quarter century or so, the more I have come to believe that the only answer is to partner with parents.
Parents and families are the first teachers of their children. They spend more time with their children than anyone else. They are increasingly aware of the importance of a good education for their children, and they are anxious to make sure their children have a successful start. By providing families with the information, support, and tools they need to help their children with early educational experiences inside the home, we can ensure all children have the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in school and in life.
My call to all of us who are involved in ECE is to re-center our efforts around parents. If we are worried that some parents currently lack the knowledge or skills to help their children become school-ready, then let’s work on building their capacity instead of sidelining them or seeing them as the problem. If a teacher in a classroom is struggling, we provide support, encouragement, tools, advice, and services. Why should it be any different with parents?
One of the added benefits of engaging with and helping serve parents before their children enter school is that we need parents to stay engaged throughout the entire K-12 odyssey. Schools that try to operate independently of parents are destined to fail. There is no better time to start to build a relationship, and agree on common goals and expectations, than before that odyssey has begun.
Does this mean that we should abandon our efforts to build out an ECE infrastructure? Of course not. There are many things that this infrastructure helps provide for parents and children that are valuable and important. When parents are polled, many of them continue to rank access to high-quality care for young children as a high priority -- that’s not going to go away and neither is our need for school readiness.
While we have made strides in America in providing child support outside of the home, if we want true educational equity, we need to seize the opportunity to work with parents and children directly in the home. These efforts will accrue to our collective benefit and lay the foundation for a brighter, more equitable future.
Benjamin Heuston, PhD, is chief executive officer at the nonprofit Waterford.org, developer of Waterford UPSTART, an in-home, kindergarten readiness project.
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