The 6 Myths of Early Childhood Education

We factcheck the biggest misconceptions about kids and preschool and other early childhood education programs.
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This article originally appeared on the blog for The Center for the Next Generation, which has partnered with Parents magazine in an awareness campaign called "Too Small to Fail."

Opponents of President Obama's early childhood education efforts have been out in force these last two weeks, with Americans for Prosperity taking the latest attack. Groups like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have been arguing that early childhood education is, among other things, expensive and ineffective, but they're wrong on both counts.

Like a bad game of telephone, opponents of early childhood education have been thoughtlessly circulating the same talking points without worrying if any of them makes any sense.

So, in the spirit of transparency, here are some of the top myths being spread about early childhood education, and the evidence to debunk the claims, one-by-one.

MYTH 1: The Achievement Gap is Not a Problem

While no reasonable opponent of early childhood education can deny the existence of an obvious achievement gap in education, by totally ignoring the fact that the academic playing field is not level, they're perpetuating a serious myth of omission.

If you ignore the achievement gap and its causes, it makes it a lot easier to argue against early education spending. But in reality, we know that kids who get off to a bad start in school have a hard time making up the ground, and while teachers make a big difference, they can't control what happens outside the classroom.

Consider some facts:

New advances in neural development show that children's brains grow and develop 85 percent of their full capacity by the time they are 5 years old. In those first few years of life the very architecture of the brain is determined by the child's environment.

Toxic stress, like abuse, limited nutrition, unstable housing, dangerous neighborhoods, and economic instability, puts downward pressure on emotional growth and overall brain development (in some cases actually reducing the size of certain parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, which are involved in impulse control and regulation; read: the ability to pay attention and learn in a classroom).

Vocabulary growth among children exposed to these stressors, often from working-class and low-income families, falls far short of their higher-income peers'. For example, children from low-income households have a vocabulary that is half as developed as high-income children, a trend that becomes evident as early as 36 months of age.

These early disparities translate into a well-recognized achievement gap among students in this country. Black and Hispanic students, who suffer disproportionately in communities with toxic stress, consistently score lower on tests for reading and math, and by the third grade -- as these gaps in academic success grow -- the vicious cycle of poor performance is in full swing.

It's no wonder, then, that high school dropout rates are 3 percent higher for African Americans and a whopping 10 percent higher for Hispanic and Latino children compared to their white classmates. Opponents of early education reform dismiss, or worse, willfully ignore this evidence when talking about education.

When all else fails, they start a new attack line with Myth 2, arguing that early education is completely ineffective.

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