By Professor Elizabeth Oakes-Lani
For decades there has been a debate about investing in early education. (For an interesting history, see the recent New York Times editorial “The State of the Four-Year-Olds.”) “Is it worth it?” wonder the powers that be. “Isn’t it just day care?” What are these children learning? Couldn’t they be learning the same things at home with their parents? Of course kids enjoy Circle Time, Storytime, and learn to share, but isn’t preparation for formal testing where the money should go?
The reality is that our choice should not force us into making an “either/or” decision but should allow for an all-encompassing plan which supports young children during the crucial preschool years; a plan which continues that support and preparation for higher education in elementary school and beyond. We are shaping the future of our American Society and workforce and have to recognize that we are doing just that when we invest in high-quality early education experiences for all American children.
Obama’s State of the Union Speech on February 12th again put the idea of nationwide Universal Pre-Kindergarten (free Pre-K for all 4-year-old children) firmly on the table, and raised the hopes of early childhood educators around the country. Together with Governor Cuomo’s mandate to make Kindergarten required for all New York State children, could we finally be on our way to filling those gaps in education as others had proposed to do before?
This time it could happen. It requires a shift in orientation, from being corrective to preventative and fully preparatory. The reality is that Pre-K for 4-year-olds (and other preschool programs for children under age 4) provide children with the foundation skills they will need to be successful as learners and as citizens of the world. Now more than ever, attending, working as a group, socializing and early exposure to pre-math and pre-literacy skills are needed to familiarize young children with the types of activities that they will face in elementary school. The status quo has not done the trick. Head Start and Early Head Start alone cannot address the needs of all of our young children. They serve the families who live in poverty, and well off parents can afford expensive and enriching preschools for their children, but what about the average American family? Right now, only select states offer Universal Pre-K for 4-year-old children.
President Obama is advocating for funds to allow every American State to offer the program. This plan to make the early childhood education experience comprehensive for every child, regardless of a family’s socioeconomic status, will undoubtedly raise the demand for highly skilled teachers trained to address the varied needs of these very young children. The presidential plan also includes language which could help foster a much deserved and long overdue respect for early childhood professionals and even hints at plans for making salaries comparable to those made by early childhood teachers’ public school counterparts. As the economy inches towards a turn-around and Baby Boomers finally retire, there may be a perfect storm on the horizon for teachers.
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