The buzz in Sacramento is that early childhood education might get a healthy infusion of state funds this year. It's a top priority in the Legislature, and Gov.Jerry Brown, while not leading the charge, appreciates the potential impact of giving kids a running start.
There's overwhelming evidence of the life-changing potential of good prekindergarten. Analyses of model preschools, which tracked youngsters from their preschool days to their 40s, have shown its lifelong benefits. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman calculates that society reaps an astonishing $7 for every $1 invested in these mini-academies. Recent studies in Oklahoma and New Jersey, two states with high-quality pre-K, conclude that preschoolers do better in school. They're less likely to be left back or assigned to special education, which boosts their chances of earning a diploma while saving public dollars.
Yet, as any parent can attest, children start learning well before pre-K. Babies, says Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik, are scientists in the crib, learning from the moment they're born. By the time they're 4 years old and ready for preschool, a much-cited study reports, youngsters from poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than better-off kids. They're nearly a year behind, and it's not surprising that they have a hard time catching up. New research shows that this language gap emerges much earlier - by age 2, toddlers from disadvantaged homes are half a year behind well-to-do children in vocabulary and processing language skills.
Here's the takeaway: High-quality preschool can narrow the achievement gap. Educating infants and toddlers, by supporting strong families and providing positive learning experiences, can prevent that gap. We need both.
Whether the promise of early childhood education is realized depends on its quality. But quality costs money, and although many states are increasing the number of preschoolers, they're doing so on the cheap. States spend, on average, less than $4,000 per pre-K youngster - that's about a third of what it costs to educate a K-12 student. This stinginess shortchanges kids, because bargain-basement prekindergarten accomplishes nothing.
In California, the caliber of state-funded preschools is uneven. Sacramento spends less than $4,000 per child, which doesn't begin to pay for what's needed. About half of California's preschool teachers have associate degrees or more modest credentials. They earn half of what K-12 teachers make and, as you'd expect, the turnover rate is high. While these teachers try their hardest, a bachelor's degree-level education is necessary to gain a nuanced understanding of how children learn - how they acquire the cognitive, 3R skills that prepare them for school as well as the social and emotional ("use your words, wait your turn") skills they need in life.
In every preschool program proven to make a difference, the teachers have bachelor's degrees and have specialized in early childhood education. They're paid the same as K-12 teachers, teach small classes and use a curriculum based on evidence, not hunch. California should follow suit.
In his 2013 and 2014 State of the Union addresses, President Obama urged a $75 billion investment in a comprehensive, top-drawer birth-to-5 initiative, but that proposal was dead on arrival in Congress, where partisan gridlock rules. And while several states, including New York and Michigan, are funneling more money to pre-K, no one is paying attention to the babies.
If the early education legislation that's on the table SB837 (Darrell Steinberg) and SB1123 (Carol Liu) becomes law, California would be the nation's leader in delivering both high-quality, evidence-based preschool for 4-year-olds and comprehensive support for infants and toddlers from disadvantaged families. What a powerful declaration of our priorities - and what a boon for the children.
Invest in kids
SB837 (Steinberg), the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, expands access to voluntary, high quality pre-k to all four year olds in California, helping all children be ready for success in school.
SB1123 (Liu), the Strong Families, Strong Children Act of 2014, expands access to high quality child care and parent support services for low income infants and toddlers, supporting early language and social emotional development during the critical first three years of life.
David L. Kirp, the James D. Marver professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of "Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools." This article was originally posted on SF Gate.