The other night I was at a dinner in Washington to learn about the results from ongoing brain research at The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS to its friends) at the University of Washington. The I-LABS researchers were in town to present at the America’s Promise summit. It’s well known that the early years matter but some of the recent findings about specific brain activity in the very early stages of life are stunning. A major one is just how important human interaction is, that screens don’t do it, but adults holding and interacting with kids matters a lot.
This got me thinking about the upcoming debate about creating a program to provide universal access to pre-K programs for 4-year olds. The research (and common sense) undergirding that idea is pretty strong – although the politics are tough. And some states – with governors from both parties – are getting good results with their programs now. But there is a big execution gap between what research and best practice show, and what a lot of programs look like. Good programs, meanwhile, don’t come cheap.
Those two issues, quality and cost, along with the new research may point to a grand bargain. For years Head Start, the federal government’s flagship early-childhood program, has turned in disappointing academic and outcome results. There are multiple reasons for this – not all of which the program is culpable for – but varied quality is certainly one of them. And within the Head Start community there is disagreement about the focus of the programs – should it be more focused on academics or social/emotional skills? (The cursory answer is always “it’s both,” but in practice that’s an unsatisfying answer when you get into issues of training, accountability, or curriculum).
For years reformers have tried to make Head Start more academic – it’s one of those Fredericksburg-like education issues where wave after wave have thrown themselves against the problem. Solving that problem is the underpinning of current efforts to move Head Start under the purview of state and federal departments of education (even though state departments of education and the one in Washington have proven perfectly capable of running ineffective programs).
I’m increasingly convinced it’s the wrong fight. Why not evolve Head Start into a robust and universal access 0-3 program, to give low-income students more engaging experiences in the early years than many get now. And then focus on building a high quality federal-state academic program for four-year-olds (and five-year-olds for that matter, a precondition of receiving federal pre-K dollars should be full-day kindergarten to follow it in the states that do not offer full day kindergarten now). Such an approach is a better fit with the early-childhood labor market and would allow two different programs to focus on what they do best for two different groups of students. It’s a deal that could at once end some of the Head Start wars, lead to a better 0-3 program and a better one for for-year-olds, and while it wouldn’t solve the fiscal puzzle it could help finance the universal access program.
The Obama Administration is moving in this direction now – sparking a fight behind the scenes. But it’s the right fight. Returning to stunning gaps, I left that dinner again shaking my head at the one between research and policy and practice on early-childhood education. It’s as untenable as it is avoidable.