Making Preschool a Priority: grants create opportunity for 33,000 4-year-olds to attend school in fall ‘15

“We need to change from K-12 to P-14 and think of preschool as just a part of every child’s education,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning Libby Doggett told Federal News Radio on Agency of the Month.



By Lauren Larson
Federal News Radio

It’s the foundation for a child’s entire education; the early learning years begin at birth and end at age five. “We know now from neuroscience that the brain is at a critical developmental time and that the stimulation that children get from their parents and from others really makes a difference and it forms the foundation for future learning,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning Libby Doggett told Federal News Radio on Agency of the Month.

“Children who have had a high quality preschool education are less likely to need special education, they are less likely to be held back in a grade, more likely to graduate from high school and go on to a two- or four-year college and do better in life generally. There is even some new research to show that their health is better, that they are less likely to have high blood pressure and heart disease just because of an early education that got them off to a good start,” she said.

Currently six out of ten 4-year-olds are not enrolled in a publicly funded preschool according to A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America. Doggett said part of the problem is a lag between research and implementation. “Unfortunately in this country it’s too large a lag. Other countries are using our research and moving forward but we have this lag; we aren’t looking at the research and putting programs in place.”

“We have seen incredible growth in preschool in the states, and that’s where the excitement is,” said Doggett, who prefers to focus on what is happening rather than what isn’t. In states like California, New York and Texas legislators have stepped up to fund expansions to preschool programs.

For those border states preschool can make an even bigger impact. Dual-language learners make up around a quarter of the 3 and 4 year olds in the U.S. and research shows they benefit even more from high quality preschool programs, said Doggett. “Even more reason to make sure that every child for whom English is not their first language has the opportunity to go to preschool—maybe not just at 4, maybe at 3 and 4 so they get 2 years of intense learning so that they come to Kindergarten and First grade really ready to tackle reading, which is very difficult.”

Reevaluating Head Start

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Head Start program has served over 30-million in the last 50 years. It serves children at 100% poverty or less in nearly every community in the U.S. Doggett says they’ve been working to improve the quality of the programs by making the poorest performers recompete for grant money and rewriting standards to offer a full day of school for early learning programs. “There’s some quality improvements that have been put in place as well as really concentrating on making sure that the lowest performing programs either improve or get out of the business.”

Early Learning Challenge and Preschool Development Grants

“You can’t just put programs in place and expect them to do well, you have to have the supports to make sure those programs have the teachers that are well trained, that the teachers have the newest research, they have a strong curriculum, that they have the food programs in place, that they have the screening, and the connections to K-12,” said Doggett. “The Early Learning Challenge in these 20 states is being used to build that system.” She said some states are focused on career development for teachers, certifying educators in early learning. Others are working on standards that address the whole child, including emotional and social development as well as how they approach learning or what Doggett calls “executive functioning.”

Eighteen states are partnering with the federal government to receive Preschool Development Grant funds. In the fall 33,000 children are going to preschool for the first time, said Doggett. “It’s going to be pretty exciting!” But it won’t just be preschools in school buildings. “We know that there are some great private centers out there and some great Head Start Centers.” She said communities will decide whether to set up preschools in a private, faith-based, Head Start or public setting.

“It’s really to help the states build what they want, although we do require high-quality standards because the research is clear that it’s only through high-quality that children get the full benefits of the preschool education.”

Those standards begin with certified teachers who hold a B.A. degree with training in early childhood development. Doggett said those teachers must be paid what a K-12 teacher. “If they’re not, we lose them.”

Furthermore Doggett said children with disabilities should be included rather than separated. “We think it makes a stronger classroom.” Quality curriculum, comprehensive services that include audio and visual screening and a class ratio of 2 adults per 20 children also rise to the top of the list of standards. Schools must also have a data system in place, said Doggett, and children must be assessed. For early learning that means really good observation.

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