Early education needed to close learning gap

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

What’s the difference between a 4-year-old child whose family is on welfare and one whose parents are college-educated professionals?

Eight million words a year.

This is one of the compelling findings of a landmark study that quantified for the first time the large knowledge and skill gap that can occur between young children from higher-income homes and those from lower-income homes. Over a 2½-year period, researchers recorded naturally occurring conversations in the homes of families with 1- and 2-year-old children. Not surprisingly, the children whose parents talked to them more developed bigger vocabularies and were more able to think conceptually-skills that make it easier to learn how to read. And higher-income parents talked to their children more than lower-income parents did.

The study confirms what educators in low-income communities see all the time. “Our kids come to school and don’t know their real names or even how to speak in complete sentences,” says Joan Forte, principal of Randolph Elementary in the impoverished West Englewood community.

It doesn’t have to be that way. High-quality programs for children from birth to 5 years old can make up for at least some of the slack. As most of us know by now, infants and toddlers have amazingly flexible brains. During the first few years of life, the potential for learning outstrips that of later years. These years provide a pivotal opportunity to stimulate young minds and expose them to as much of the world as possible. If society fails to take advantage of that opportunity, it only increases problems down the road and perpetuates inequality.

Once considered a pioneer in early childhood education, Illinois is playing catch up to a number of other states, most notably Georgia, which already offers a successful version of universal preschool. A growing coalition of diverse groups-from day care providers to corporate leaders to law enforcement officials-is making the case for universal access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education.

Their plan calls for low-income families to get priority, but eventually preschool would be available to all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Currently in Illinois, close to 160,000 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschool or child care programs for low-income or at-risk kids. Many more whose parents want access to early education programs are barred by artificially low income eligibility requirements, or get lost navigating a maze of confusing and disjointed programs.

While financial times are not ripe for full-scale expansion, it is not too early to begin restructuring the system to get the kinks out and to begin planning for the day when money will be available. For example, teacher training programs will have to expand, and ways must be found to upgrade home-based programs.

Mayor Daley took a step in the right direction by hiring a former University of Chicago Laboratory Schools director to devise an early childhood plan for the city. Despite a huge state budget shortfall, Gov. Blagojevich says his budget proposal will earmark $25 million for early childhood education.

Meanwhile, a grassroots campaign is underway to create enough political pressure for lawmakers eventually to make the necessary financial investment in a program that promises to pay big dividends across the board. Unlike many education issues, this is one that everyone can support with confidence. To find out how you can get involved, call Early Learning Illinois at (312) 516-5575 or visit www.earlylearningillinois.org.

THANKS This issue on universal access to preschool and early childhood education was made possible by generous grants from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation and Bank One.

ABOUT US I am pleased to unveil in this issue a new feature on education research, which will run several times a year. This month, Senior Editor Elizabeth Duffrin talks to researcher Jennifer O’Day about her study of CPS elementary schools on probation. The results raise questions about the likely effects of the new federal accountability system, No Child Left Behind.