We stand up for a Massachusetts where everyone gets a fair shot, does and pays their fair share, and plays by the same rules.
On Nov. 13 retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee announced the Strong Start for America’s Children, an extensive bill that would bring to fruition President Barack Obama’s plan to expand preschool dramatically, particularly Pre-K. This bi-partisan bill aims to eliminate achievement gap, a gap that can already be entrenched before kids even start public Kindergarten.
I was fortunate enough to go to a Pre-K program called “Great Beginnings” in Newton, MA. However if you were to ask me if I learned anything there I would have to answer “no”. All I remember from Great Beginnings is playing and nap time. I would even try to get there early and have my mother let me stay late so I could have the wooden Thomas the Tank Engine set all to myself. I certainly do not remember learning anything useful on school subjects, which is probably why I remember it so fondly.
But according to the research, my brain was in a period of critical development and what I was learning helped give me at an advantage over kids who did have as enriching an early learning experience. I should have known my mother was trying to educate me, not just letting me play for hours.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, only 28 percent of all 4-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in state-financed preschool in the 2010-11 school year, so clearly my experience was atypical for families without the resources we had. Indeed, most people I talk to did not go to Pre-K. Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, revealed that the gap in learning between rich and poor starts much earlier than Pre-K. Her research showed that at 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes. If the gap is 30 percent at age 2, just imagine the gap between myself and poorer peers by the time I entered kindergarten at age 5.
For the last 4 decades, we have used Head Start programs to help lower-income families close the gap, but these programs are being cut do to federal budget constraints. On the map above I have plotted Head Start cuts in Massachusetts and 3rd Grade MCAS reading scores in those areas.
From looking at the map it is easy to see that in many of the cities where Head Start programs are being cut, a large percentage of third graders (the age the state wants children reading proficiently by) are reading below the proficiency level. It is especially evident in Holyoke, a city near Springfield already suffering through hard times. In Holyoke 87% of third graders are reading below the proficiency level and on top of that the main Head Start provider in the area, Holyoke-Chicopee-Springfield Head Start, is facing large cuts. If Anne Fernald’s research tells us anything, that 87% figure could get even worse.
Perhaps even more telling than the cities that are plotted on the map list are the cities that are not. The Newtons and Wellesleys of the area, while they are facing some cuts, they are not on the below-proficiency list. The cuts are also far less severe. Communities United, the only organization being cut that serves Newton and Wellesley is having 78 children cut, but that is spread over 11 cities, compared to 164 children cut over 6 cities for Holyoke-Chicopee-Springfield Head Start.
The Strong Start for America’s Children Act gives us a chance to improve the figures seen on the map and reduce the language gap. The research of Anne Fernald and others show these programs can work and now is the time to take advantage. With this bill congress has a rare chance to make improvements to millions of childrens’ lives, an issue that can cross party lines.
Post by Jay Epstein, Media and Communications Intern