Why I Support President Obama’s Plan to Expand Early Childhood Education

Early Childhood Education Teach for AmericaEditor’s Note: This guest post was written by Elisa Villanueva Beard, the co-CEO of Teach For America, a national nonprofit that works for the day when all children have the opportunity for an excellent education. Teach For America currently impacts more than 750,000 students in over 2,600 schools.

It’s part of parenthood to say “no,” to our children, to set boundaries and explain limits (No, you can’t stay up until midnight. No, you can’t throw that ice cream at your brother), but no parent should ever have to deny their child an education. Young children are insatiably curious, and they all deserve a chance to learn. This is why I was glad to see the President name early childhood education as a priority for 2014, during his State of the Union address last month.

Every minute, the brain of a young child gains 700 neural connections, which is why early childhood education is important in order to support academic and social growth before kindergarten. It matters. As a parent, I’ve also seen my own kids grow immensely through early education. I’m reminded of a day last spring when my oldest son returned from preschool, eager to tell me what the biggest country in South America was. He also wanted to tell me the official language and the names of all the neighboring countries. Langston was so proud to share what he’d learned. He was empowered by his knowledge. Though he could rattle off the facts perfectly that day, I knew that in 10 years, he might not remember the details. But what mattered at the moment was the memorization skills and academic confidence he’d gained, plus the global perspective the school lesson spawned.

And as a former teacher, and someone who has devoted her entire professional life to supporting educational equity, I’m certain that Obama’s call for early childhood education isn’t just important — it’s urgent. The 6-year-olds I once taught were brilliant and motivated, but they hadn’t been to preschool, so we often struggled together, rushing to catch up with other more affluent peers nationwide. Disparities that start at 6 (or even as young as 2 or 3) years old only grow over time. We’re facing inequities today in our education system that have nothing to do with the will or intelligence of students, parents, and communities. What we’re seeing — the gap in test scores between students of color and white students, or between low-income and high-income regions — is the result of a system that’s not designed to serve all kids. We can, and must, change the system, and expanding early childhood education will be a part of that change.

The focus on early childhood education is not just good citizenship — it’s good politics and economics, too. And it’s also simply the right thing to do. Kids who attend preschool are 70% less likely to be arrested before the age of 18 than kids who don’t, and they earn, on average, 33% higher salary in adulthood. Increased salaries and decreased arrest benefit the nation at large; it’s clear that our investment in preschool will be paid back in spades. There are multifaceted reasons the gap, but generally kids who miss out on early education often miss out on other crucial starting blocks, like adequate healthcare and nutrition. So it’ll take systemic change to give kids a shot at a better life, and preschool is a great start.

Young children hold fast to ideas of what’s “fair” and what isn’t, and it often comes down to things being exactly equal. (Parents of preschoolers know the perils of giving one child a slightly bigger handful of goldfish than another.) So if one child gets an education, another should, too. Simple. We take it for granted that all kids deserve a free public education. Over a century ago, we decided that K-12 was enough, but today, we know children need more than that: modern research and modern times have shown us the best education starts early. It’s not only smart to provide this, it’s also what’s fair. Let’s make it happen then — our children expect nothing less.

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The Lasting Impact of the Early Childhood Years
The Lasting Impact of the Early Childhood Years
The Lasting Impact of the Early Childhood Years

Photo Credit: Jean-Christian Bourcart

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