The following article was sent out in my City View Newsletter, which you can sign up to receive here.
What if Seattle became a national leader in providing early learning opportunities for all of our children?
To achieve this ideal, we must move at the speed of light. Why? Because the more we research how children learn and grow, the more we confirm investing early—years before kindergarten—yields the best results.
This morning, two national experts on early childhood development and learning briefed the City Council and made the case for early investments. You can review the presentations of Dr. Steven Barnett (National Institute for Early Education Research) and Dr. Sarah Roseberry Lytle (University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences) here and here.
Dr. Lytle told us that, only hours after birth, infants can tell the difference between their native language and a foreign language and that 85% of a child’s brain is developed by the time they are three years old.
If an infant or toddler misses a developmental milestone, catching up can become an insurmountable goal. According to the Seattle school district’s most recent scorecard, a quarter of our 3rd graders are not proficient on the State’s reading test, a key indicator of a child’s ultimate ability to graduate successfully from high school. Shockingly, 26% of our high school students do not graduate. These statistics are far worse for our African American, Hispanic, Native American and immigrant children.
Many of those who fail to complete high school end up with no job and a very bleak future. This road to failure has tremendous costs to these individuals and broader society.
We pay either way, so why not invest early to improve the lives of children from the start?
I’m not talking enhanced babysitting here; research shows that not all early learning and development programs work. Dr. Barnett explained that the most effective pre-schools need several important characteristics to produce long-term positive outcomes, including:
- Several hours per day;
- Small class size (no more than 15 children);
- Evidence-based curricula; and
- Specific standards and program outcomes.
The research of Dr. James Heckman, economist and Nobel laureate, further validates that investing in children at a young age (before kindergarten) is much more cost-effective than spending tax dollars on reactive programs that struggle to fix problems after they have festered.
To re-direct resources, we should invest a double-dose for the current generation. In 15-20 years, less funding will be needed for the merely reactive programs. Benjamin Franklin was right: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Fortunately, the federal government is catching on. In his State of the Union Address this year, President Obama said, “Study after study shows that, the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road...Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
Seattle has started to take action as well. The specially trained nurses of the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) visit the homes of low-income, first-time moms beginning in pregnancy and continue monthly visits until their child reaches age two. Various long-term studies of the moms and children served by NFP demonstrate very positive outcomes:
- 60% fewer arrests of moms;
- 59% fewer arrests of children measured at age 15;
- 50% reduction in language delays;
- 56% reduction in emergency room visits;
- 82% of moms employed, and much more.
My colleagues joined my effort last November to make NFP available to every eligible mom in Seattle who wishes to participate. Seattle is among the first cities in the country to fully fund this highly successful program.
With the doubling of the Families and Education Levy by voters in November 2011, Seattle taxpayers are generously investing more dollars in a pre-school program called Step Ahead. In addition, our city government subsidizes child care for many lower income families.
But, we must do better.
We have three City departments that oversee early childhood programs—the Office for Education, Human Services, and Public Health. The strategic focus, goals, standards, and performance measures are inconsistent between them.
Moreover, thousands of Seattle’s children are either not enrolled in early learning programs at all (because of insufficient space or they cannot afford it) or they are enrolled in programs lacking the quality needed to produce the best outcomes.
Seattle cannot afford to wait around for Washington, D.C. or Olympia to properly fund the right kind of early learning options for our children. We need to become experts on the pressing issues ourselves and decide what we can do to improve the lives of all our youngest city residents.
High quality, purposeful and universal early learning opportunities. That ambitious, for sure. But if any city can do it, Seattle can.