Many Children Left BehindSeptember 2012
A new batch of five-year olds is headed to Kindergarten this week, carrying with them, along with some jitters, big dreams of success.
But a soon-to-be-published study from Teachers College brings troubling news. Gaps in early childhood services are leaving many kids with the odds stacked heavily against them.
Childhood services on Long Island are not a coordinated program, but a patchwork of services, provided by hundreds of private and public entities, ranging from regulated and unregulated child care and pre-k programs, to medical and mental health services, to social services, home visiting programs, and public library programs.
Previous studies have revealed that the benefits of these services literally last a lifetime, translating into fewer special education courses in school, higher graduation rates, higher salaries in adulthood, more home ownership, and less trouble with the law.
How? Neuroscientists have learned that interactions in the earliest months and years are crucial in developing both the cognitive and personal skills children need to succeed. Disadvantages in these years don’t just limit kids’ knowledge base as they start school; they impair children’s ability to learn. So instead of catching up as they go through school, these kids tend to fall farther behind. That’s one reason why the achievement gap based on income widens as kids get older.
Half a century of education reforms, including the much ballyhooed reform policies of the past decade, have failed to narrow the gap. And are not likely to, according to a study published last year out of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, which labels as “misguided” policies that disregard the educational challenges faced by disadvantaged children.
Early childhood programs get results because they attack the problem at its source. Unfortunately, while programs on Long Island are working well for many, the Teachers College study finds, many families lack access to programs, and quality is inconsistent.
Many parents are unable to identify available services. Language barriers and transportation problems also pose obstacles. In addition, lack of collaboration between providers impairs program quality by limiting opportunities for providers to share expertise and best practices, or share resources that individual providers cannot afford, from a music teacher to a laminating machine.
Chief among the report’s recommendations was the need to improve coordination. The study also recommends professional development for providers, establishing incentives for providers to participate in New York State’s Quality Stars program, and specific actions to improve access.
But the study strongly highlights the need to recognize and sustain successful programs. “For much of the public, the value of early childhood services is not well-enough known,” says Sharon Lynn Kagan, lead author of the study. “These hundreds of individual service providers don’t have the money that other groups have to publicize and lobby for their agendas. When state and local budgets get slashed in times like these, early childhood programs are often the first things cut.”
That would be a serious mistake. The smart move is to strengthen the programs that have been proven to work.