The Early Learning Challenge: Raising the Bar

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Thank you for that kind introduction. It is a special pleasure and opportunity for me to meet and speak with so many early childhood educators, advocates, and researchers. More than a half century ago, Franklin Roosevelt said that the "destiny of American youth is the destiny of America." Each and every day you help to fulfill that destiny. The President, Secretary Sebelius, and I celebrate your hard work and commitment to high-quality early learning for all our children, from birth through third grade.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children is the nation's largest early learning organization and has played a leading role, both in pressing for national and statewide reforms, and in developing quality standards for thousands of early childhood programs. I am told that I am the first Secretary of Education to address NAEYC. And I am delighted and honored to have been given this chance to speak about a subject so important to this administration and so vital to our children and our nation's future.

This is a unique moment in time when early learning is no longer an afterthought, but has come into its own and is recognized as the first and most critical stage in human development. Today we have a special opportunity to build a bigger, better coordinated system of early care and education. It is time to transform early learning from a system of uneven quality and access into a system that truly and consistently prepares children for success in school and in life. And it is time to learn from the success of high-quality programs—even as we take on the challenge of raising the bar for early learning programs in the 21st century.

You have all heard President Obama speak of the need to develop a seamless cradle-to-career educational pipeline. But as the President has pointed out, that pipeline will never work properly unless the road to college begins at birth.

Research on brain development provides a lesson that these days is really a no-brainer—everyone now recognizes that the most active period of child development is from birth through age three. Yet tragically, a substantial achievement gap exists in America before children ever arrive for their first day of kindergarten. And as NAEYC points out in its recent Call to Action, to close the gap, we must prevent the gap. In every city, in every rural township and reservation, in every state and territory, I want, once and for all, to get schools out of the catch-up business. Children living in poverty, children who are learning multiple languages, and children with disabilities deserve better. Enough is enough.

How are we going to get schools out of the catch-up business? For decades, early learning programs have been judged primarily by their inputs—by the teacher/child ratio, by the educational credentials of their caregivers and teachers, by the cost of services provided. Inputs are important–and we absolutely have to continue to pay attention to basic indicators of program quality and safety. Although we know the indicators of high quality programs, we also know that these programs have often failed to receive adequate funding. Early childhood programs must have the resources they need to provide high quality services to children and families and provide adequate compensation.

Yet, ultimately, teachers, parents, and policymakers also need to know if young children are healthy, that they are developing essential social and emotional skills such as self-regulation and cooperative play, and that their emerging academic skills are developing appropriately. At the end of the day, early learning and development programs must begin to shift to evaluating the basic outcomes we seek and prize for our children.

The critical policy principle of this administration, as President Obama laid out in his inaugural address, is that we want to do what works–and stop doing what isn't working. To prevent the gap, we must be ready to monitor and dramatically improve outcomes for young children. President Johnson, under whom Head Start began, put it well when he said "we look toward the day when every child, no matter what his color or his family's means, gets the medical care he needs, starts school on an equal footing with his classmates, and seeks as much education as he can absorb—[when each child] goes as far as his [or her] talents will take [them]."

Now, the importance of early learning is not an abstraction for me. It's personal. My sister, my brother, and I all grew up in a community-based tutoring program on the south side of Chicago. In 1961, several years before I was born, a neighborhood pastor asked my mother to teach summer Bible study to a group of 9-year old girls. The group only had one Bible, and my mother figured everyone could read a few sentences and then pass the Bible to the next student. But my mother was horrified to discover that not one of her students could read.

My mother decided she could not be silent in the face of those young girls' illiteracy. So in June of 1961 she opened up a free, after-school tutoring program in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago. From the time we were born, she raised my sister, my brother, and me as a part of her program, and that experience shapes all of us. She brought in families, and tried to get to young children as early as possible.

When we were little, the older students tutored the younger kids. As we grew up, we tutored the younger students. After we were all done our studies and chores, we played basketball together. Everyone knew our program was a safe haven where children were nurtured, respected, and taught right from wrong. Forty-eight years later, my mother and her tutoring program are still going strong in Chicago.

Now, I learned in that church basement that a high-quality tutoring and child development program is a good thing. But a high-quality tutoring program run by caring adults is a great thing. You have been blessed with an extraordinary opportunity to transform children's lives. The values I absorbed in that church basement as a child are the very same values that motivate your work. We can–whenever and wherever we choose– successfully teach all children. Every child can learn and thrive—despite poverty, despite challenges at home, and neighborhood violence. The question is, will we give them the opportunity?

When I became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I tried to take a lifetime of lessons to scale. Under the leadership of the legendary Barbara Bowman, the number of children in publicly-funded pre-K programs in Chicago went up almost 70 percent from 2003 to last year, with enrollment going from 24,000 children to 40,000 children. We substantially expanded pre-K programs for three-year olds, and pushed for more alignment of high-quality pre-K with K -3 standards.

Today the biggest challenge facing early childhood learning continues to be the uneven quality of programs. As President Obama has pointed out, some programs are excellent, some are mediocre. Some waste the most formative years of a child's life.

We have to raise the bar for early learning programs, just as we have to get dramatically better in the K-12 system. Your Call to Action puts it well when it says that "our goal is not to defend the status quo." And despite the challenge of building a coherent, high-quality system of early learning, we have many great examples of states, districts, and programs that have pioneered solutions and shown the way to reform.

Early learning is on the cusp today of transformational reform. The dramatic expansion of state-funded preschool programs in the last decade is one of the most significant expansions of free public schooling since World War I, when kindergarten became standard in public schools. The National Institute for Early Education Research reports that 1.1 million children now attend state-funded preschool programs in 38 states, with 108,000 children added last year alone.

As you know, dozens of states have also developed Early Learning Standards. When these standards are developmentally appropriate and of high quality, they define for parents, teachers and communities what children should know and be able to do, and they can guide the development of strategies to assess the health, social, emotional, and educational outcomes for young children. The broad range of outcomes that we want for all of our children should be based on appropriate early learning standards.

Change is underfoot at the federal level as well. Congress and the Clinton administration created Early Head Start as a new program to serve children from birth to age three in 1994. And Head Start has meanwhile bolstered program quality and expanded its development of emerging literacy skills.

I would be the first to admit that we are still a long way from an early learning nirvana—12 states have no state-wide funded preschool program, and much remains to be done. As NAEYC points out in its Call to Action, less than half of our nation's poorest preschoolers are able to enroll in Head Start and fewer than 5 percent of eligible infants and toddlers are enrolled in Early Head Start. But tremendous strides have been made in the last decade. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that President Obama signed into law invests $5 billion in growing Early Head Start and Heat Start. It expands access to quality child care for 150,000 additional children. And the Administration is also proposing to offer 55,000 first–time parents regular visits from trained nurses to help ensure their children are healthy and developing appropriately.

I am also greatly encouraged by the passage earlier this fall of the Early Learning Challenge Grants by the House of Representatives. NAEYC has been a strong voice working on behalf of the Challenge Grants, which would provide an unprecedented $1 billion a year for the next 8 years to allow more children from low-income families to attend high-quality early learning programs.

The Early Learning Challenge Fund would be a competitive program that would reward quality and incentivize excellence. Challenge Fund grants would be administered jointly by the Education department and HHS in two categories. A select group of states that have already invested in developing high-quality early learning systems would be eligible to receive Quality Pathway grants to expand their systems into models of reform and excellence. A second group of states would be eligible for Development Grants to strengthen and expand the foundation of their early learning programs and help launch a standards-based, outcome-driven system. We are working hard with the Senate and House to see that Early Learning Challenge Fund becomes law very soon.

Now if we are to prevent the achievement gap and develop a cradle-to-career educational pipeline, early learning programs are going to have to be better integrated with the K-12 system. That's why the Department of Education has adopted a birth through 3rd grade early learning agenda that embraces the full range of early childhood development. We added only one invitational priority to the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund—an early learning priority to support states with early learning programs that improve school readiness and the transition between preschool and kindergarten. And in our Invest in Innovation i3 grants for districts and non-profits who invest in successful educational innovations, improved collaboration and transitions on the early childhood continuum from birth through age 8 will be a competitive priority.

The idea of aligning early childhood education and expanding its reach is not new, even though, frankly, the Department of Education has done little in the past to make it happen. In 1967, two years after Head Start began, President Johnson warned that the achievements of Head Start "must not be allowed to fade." "Poverty's handicaps cannot be easily erased or ignored when the door of first grade opens for the Head Start child," Johnson said. Head Start, Johnson recognized, "occupies only part of a child's day and ends all too soon. [Children] often return home to conditions which breed despair. If these forces are not to engulf the child and wipe out the benefits of Head Start, more is required. Follow-through is essential."

Johnson wanted to launch a follow-through program in the early grades of school for children living in areas of acute poverty. And he wanted to extend Head Start to three year olds and start a program for infants and toddlers. Now flash forward 22 years to 1989, when the nation's governors and President George H.W. Bush announced a set of national education goals for the first time. Topping the list was the goal that by the year 2000, every child "will start school ready to learn."

Well, the year 2000 has come and gone–and tragically, all children do not start school ready to learn. It's been 42 years since Lyndon Johnson articulated the need for follow-through programs to precede and proceed Head Start. And if we are going to be honest about transforming the early learning system, we have to ask, why has the pace of reform been so slow?

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but in some respects, the obstacles to reforming early learning programs bear a resemblance to the obstacles to reforming higher education. University presidents and provosts often tell me that they feel trapped in the so-called "iron triangle" of competing pressures. They are expected to increase access–but at the same time, control costs and boost quality. Early learning programs face the same juggling act–of trying to increase access for children and parents, even as they try to boost program quality and control costs, and retain a woefully underpaid workforce.

Yet it is also true that the problem of navigating this iron triangle has been made worse by a lack of a uniform system of standards to guide effectiveness and accountability for early learning programs. For far too long, early learning has been done in separate silos in the government, with separate missions. Cognitive skills and schools readiness have often been treated as though it was an issue apart from supporting young children's social and emotional development.

The truth is that the Department of Education has been part of the problem. I was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for seven years. And I am not going to kid you–I did not always welcome a call from the nice man or woman at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington. That's because the department has traditionally been a compliance machine, not an engine of innovation. But my wariness also reflected the fact that the left hand of the federal government often failed to work with the right hand.

For reform to succeed, our department has to do a much better job of working with other federal partners, particularly Health and Human Services. So I am very encouraged by the willing partnership that Secretary Sebelius and her team has extended to our department. She is an outstanding leader who simply wants to get the job done.

This new partnership between HHS and the Department of Education is crucial to the success of the new priority the administration has placed on the healthy development of children from birth to age 3. And my Senior Advisor for Early Learning, Jacqueline Jones, is working hand-in-hand with her counterpart at HHS, Joan Lombardi. Already, they have established interagency groups to identify evidence-based practices and strong models in more than half-a-dozen areas: Early learning standards; curriculum and assessment; program quality and monitoring standards; bolstering the early childhood workforce; coordinated data systems; health and mental health promotion; and family engagement.

As we move forward, I am greatly encouraged by the melding of HHS's longstanding mission to encourage healthy child development and the Education department's traditional commitment to school readiness. At the Education department, we now recognize that non-cognitive aspects of early learning, like the ability to self-regulate and engage in cooperative play, are in fact crucial to school readiness and success. Health screenings for asthma, vision and dental problems, mental health concerns, and developmental delays are all vital to school success, too. And at HHS, Head Start performance standards now are expanding teachers' efforts to boost school readiness, including children's early literacy, numeracy, and pre-science skills.

Rather than treating social development and academic development as separate missions, it's time to recognize they are inevitably linked. As the National Research Council concluded, "Care and education cannot be thought of as separate entities in dealing with young children."

Successful programs around the country are demonstrating that they can bridge these divides and provide scalable solutions. When I was in Chicago, I saw that high-quality early learning programs didn't have to be costly boutique programs to succeed. Thousands of children have gone through Chicago's Child-Parent Centers since they first opened in 1967. A rigorous 19-year follow-up study found that the program substantially increased high school graduation, math and reading test scores, subsequent employment, and reduced both crime and special education placements.

The Child Parent Centers are a model that should be used by more school districts seeking to use Title I dollars to turn around achievement for children at risk. And they are also a good example of why we need to continuously evaluate programs to make sure they are achieving their goals. In Chicago, demographic shifts and budgetary constraints necessitated changes to the program—but how to change the model was a question for the Chicago Public Schools. The Kellogg Foundation helped Chicago focus on the value added by each component of the CPC program, so that changes were guided by the effectiveness of services for parents and children targeted by the program.

In September I helped to dedicate a new Educare facility in Oklahoma City, an outstanding year-round early learning program for disadvantaged children from birth to five that got its start in Chicago. Oklahoma is showing us that it is possible to create a high-quality, statewide early learning system that serves children in a variety of settings–from the traditional public schools and Head Start agencies, to assisted living centers, YMCAs, faith-based clinics, hospitals, and Indian Nation centers. As many of you know, Oklahoma has the highest percentage of four-year olds enrolled in publicly-funded pre-K in the nation. Evaluations of the universally-available pre-K program in Tulsa have shown that both Head Start and the state's pre-K programs produce impressive learning gains in pre-reading, pre-writing, and pre-math skills.

The story is much the same in Pennsylvania, where the state's Pre-K Counts program has taken some 10,000 high-risk and vulnerable children and shown significant gains in spoken language and daily living skills. A new study of the program finds that 80 percent of PKC children are meeting Pennsylvania's Early Learning Standards for kindergarten readiness, and the program has dramatically reduced special education placements.

North Carolina, Alabama, and New Jersey have also been leaders in building high-quality early learning programs. And I'm pleased to say that building better early learning and development systems is absolutely a commitment that transcends partisan lines. In Alabama, GOP governor Bob Riley led the drive to expand access to quality pre-K programs.

We're also finally seeing progress in building better assessments of early learning practices and defining the skills and training that early learning educators need to succeed. Last month I spoke to students from the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education about the need to recruit an army of great new teachers to our nation's schools. It is no secret that the early learning field faces similar challenges of recruiting, preparing, and retaining effective teachers and caregivers. But I am impressed that Curry's dean, Robert Pianta, and his colleagues have developed an assessment used in thousands of pre-K classrooms that demonstrates that a teacher's skill in implementing curriculum makes the critical difference in student learning. His research has documented that only about a quarter of the programs serving four-year olds provide children with the high levels of emotional and instructional support that they need.

To sum up, I think early learning advocates, including my own department and HHS, now face two overarching challenges. The first is to build a coordinated system of early care and education for young children that builds better transitions for children from birth through third grade. As Lyndon Johnson foresaw, the best early learning system in the world is of little use if a disadvantaged child goes on to spend kindergarten through third grade in a lousy school.

And let's not forget: As vital as early learning and development is to preventing the achievement gap, children still go on after preschool to spend the next 13 years of their lives in public school. Think of the experience of the extraordinary Harlem Children's Zone, which developed some of the best infant/toddler and preschool programs in the nation. After several years when HCZ students had disappointing results in local public schools, HCZ's founder Geoff Canada decided to open his own schools. And his school, and the Harlem Children's Zone, truly does now close the achievement gap. So while we can ask a lot more of early learning, we cannot ask you to do this alone–or diminish the importance of K-12 reform.

The second great challenge to early learning programs is to accelerate the shift from judging quality based solely on inputs to judging quality based chiefly on achieving the best outcomes of children's development and school readiness. We know, for example, from recent studies by the National Research Council, that the systematic incorporation of math instruction for children in group instruction, child-initiated play, and other preschool settings leads to improved mathematic outcomes. It predicts math achievement in later years. We also know that math instruction has received remarkably little attention, both in preschool curricula and teacher preparation programs for pre-K teachers. If we are going to do what works—and abandon what doesn't—early learning systems need to document, assess and adapt more readily. And the administration intends to work hand-in-hand with you to support that shift and your ongoing efforts to improve the quality of early learning programs.

I'm excited about the change underway in early learning and development programs, both at the non-profit grassroots level and in federal and state governments. No doubt we'll make some mistakes along the way. But I hope that we never let the perfect become the enemy of the good. With your courage, your skill, and your commitment, early learning has already begun its transformation from being the asterisk in education reform. For the sake of our children and our nation, let us now finish that transformation.