Question: If your teacher tells you that 90 percent of your exam will be on the first five chapters of the textbook, do you spend an equal amount of your time reading chapters six, seven and eight? Or do you focus — invest more of your resources — on learning and understanding those first few chapters? What if your doctor tells you that adopting a healthier diet will be 90 percent of your rehabilitation from a life-threatening ailment. Do you begin to change your eating habits? Surely, the right answer to both is “yes.”
So, if you knew that 90 percent of the intellectual capacities of your child’s brain would be developed before he or she ever entered a kindergarten classroom, wouldn’t you then take those first five years — and, therefore, truly high-quality early learning — more seriously?
When considering child care for their own children, parents frequently — without knowing better — ask the less important questions: How much does it cost? Is it close to my home or office? Will my child be safe at the end of the day? Few ever ask if the curriculum being used is “evidence-based” or “brain-stimulating? Or how is my child growing socially and emotionally as well as cognitively? Meanwhile, the terms used so often — “nursery school” and “day care,” for two examples — suggest we are in a system where the expectation is not quality.
I loved the newspaper business so much, as reporter, editor or publisher, that I didn’t miss a day of work in 35 years. Then, a decade and a half ago, then-Govenor Lawton Chiles asked me to serve on the Governor’s Commission on Education and to lead its “school readiness” task force. What I learned led me to “retire” to devote all my energies to seeing how we could do better — much better — in helping children to succeed in school and in life.
Over the years since, I’ve come to learn much, including these two truths:
Children can be disastrously behind by the time they enter formal school. Indeed, 30 percent of Florida’s children start school behind — frequently way behind.
Once children are behind — once they miss the early literacy moments of the early years — it’s awfully tough for them to catch up. (We know from the research that if 100 children cannot read well by the time they finish the first grade, 88 of them will still be poor readers at the end of fourth grade.)
If we were really wise about public education reform in America, we’d focus on making sure that children are “ready” to learn once they enter formal school. That begins with knowledgeable and caring parents. That means high-quality child care, which is, in fact, the “feeder pattern” for the majority of public school students. That means we need a first-rate voluntary prekindergarten program in Florida.
Last week, in a communication to 300,000 followers of the Children’s Movement of Florida, I used the word “outrageous” to describe some legislative efforts in Tallahassee to undo much of the progress we’ve made over the last dozen years in building our state’s early education system. Some legislators suggested that word was too harsh, but I do not think so. Four House bills, as currently written, would turn Florida’s early learning system into one where quality is no longer the central mission — and not much more than baby-sitting would be the reality. We, in fact, do know this: Only real quality leads to real and positive outcomes for children.
Were such as this to be passed, we would have:
A system with significantly less accountability for quality and education standards (including screening, assessments and curricula).
Early learning coalitions with far less ability to decide what’s best for the children of their own communities.
Fewer business and private-sector people serving on these coalitions — people who understand that child care, among other things, is a business.
Far less funding for school-age child care — a decision that inevitably force parents from the workforce.
Thankfully, via the collective efforts of the early learning coalitions, the Children’s Services Councils, thousands of vocal Floridians and many others, some of the destructive language in these four pieces of legislation have been amended or removed. But what remains could surely damage what we want for our state’s children — and, sadly, have the greatest impact on poor and minority children who frequently are most in need of a high-quality early learning experience.
We need to move beyond so-called “aspirational” goals for early learning programs in Florida and instead achieve programs that will make a difference in children’s futures — and the future of Florida. Nothing, nothing is more important to the future of our communities than the well-being of our children. The very future of America depends on healthy, educated and optimistic children.
David Lawrence is a retired publisher of the Miami Herald.