By Shantel Meek, Ph.D., Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development
Last month, President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address. “Opportunity for all” was the prevailing message of the speech. The President made it clear that “opportunity” begins long before a young person applies for a first job; far before a student graduates high school; and well before a child even steps into school. The foundations of opportunity begin at birth and grow rapidly during the early years of life.
Economists and scientists agree that the years before kindergarten are among the most formative and impactful to later outcomes. We know early education is not an isolated issue. It is intricately connected to many of the other issues the President addressed: high school and college graduation, a thriving workforce and economic mobility. We know that closing the opportunity gap gets progressively harder as children grow older and precious time is lost. By equipping our youngest children with the supportive and enriching environments they need to reach their full potential, as a country, we can get out of the “catch-up” business. The call to action is clear. As a community we must invest early and provide all of our children with high quality early learning experiences.
This year, the President worked with Congress to enact a down-payment on that vision, by reversing funding cuts to Head Start to provide critical early education to our nation’s children; launching new Early Head-Start Child Care Partnerships to expand access to high-quality infant and toddler care for tens of thousands of additional children; and expanding access to high-quality public preschool programs through Race to the Top. These investments are the right investments and have the potential to propel our youngest children upward. But there is more work to be done. As the President stated “…We’re still not reaching enough kids, and we’re not reaching them in time. That has to change.” Only by coming together and sharing the common vision of supporting every child with a strong start, and working together to realize that vision, will we be able to make the large scale progress we need to compete in an ever evolving global economy.
But early childhood education is not only about the young children and families who benefit from these programs. It is also about the men and women who teach our children, care for them, and give them the tools they need to succeed in school and beyond. We need a multigenerational approach to truly ensure opportunity for all. Many early childhood teachers, like thousands of other American workers, make wages far below what their work deserves. As an early childhood community we have the responsibility to not only focus on the future educational and economic mobility of young children, but of our own workforce.
Because of this, ACF has been deeply engaged in defining a clear career ladder for the early childhood workforce that would make each progressive step attainable to anyone willing to work hard for it. From entry level to master level, early learning teachers should have a career trajectory with continuous opportunities for growth. In providing these opportunities, we not only facilitate the educational and economic mobility of these hard working men and women and their families, we also give our children more highly trained teachers. And in the first five years of life when the brain develops most rapidly, the greatest investment we can make for children is supplying them with the highest quality teachers.
Children, families and teachers are at the core of every community across this country. By bringing together the interconnected constructs of community and opportunity, we can prepare the next generation for success, while assuring that this generation, the hard working men and women in our workforce now, get a fair shot. President Obama said it best: “After all, that’s the spirit that has always moved this nation forward. It’s the spirit of citizenship – the recognition that through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well.”