President Obama will visit a Head Start program near Atlanta on Thursday to formally unveil his proposal for expanding early childhood education, which includes home-visiting programs that offer parenting skills and support to new mothers and fathers, more quality child care for infants and toddlers, and a push to offer preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.
An outline of the president’s plan, which he touted in his State of the Union address Tuesday, was released early Thursday morning.
The administration did not offer a price tag for the sweeping expansion of educational services starting in the earliest days of life. Obama is proposing that federal-state partnerships pay for preschool expansion, and competitive federal grants pay for an expansion of Early Head Start and other child care programs that serve infants and toddlers.
Federal funding would be given to programs that adhere to specific quality standards, with qualified teachers, state-determined academic standards, and assessment systems.
The White House said that the program would assist 4-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, that would be $47,100 and below, and for a single parent with two children, that would be $39,060 and below.
Obama’s plan reflects a national shift in thinking about early childhood education, driven by advances in neuroscience and a growing urgency about the need to close the achievement gap between poor and privileged children.
In his speech Tuesday, the president announced that he wanted to make high quality preschool available to every child in America. He cited research that preschool investments pay off with improved high school graduation rates, higher employment rates, and even more stable family lives.
“Let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind,” Obama said.
A small but increasing number of states have invested tax dollars in preschool during the past decade, and millions of parents are walking their 3- and 4-year-old children into classrooms instead of keeping them at home or with a babysitter.
Much of this new emphasis stems from research about the developing brains of young children.
“People learn more in the first five years of life than they do in any other five-year period,” said Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.
“Kids are just like little sponges in the first 2,000 days,” of life, said Meltzoff, who believes researchers are on the edge of profound new discoveries regarding early learning. “They’re engaged in very avid and rapid learning in ages 3 to 5 . . . They’re tuned into the physical world and how the world works, and they’re also tuned into the social world.”
Obama proposed working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America, saying that such education pays huge dividends by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy and bringing down violent crime.
“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own,” Obama said. “We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”
The Obama administration focused much of its first-term education agenda on K-12 school reform and college affordability. In 2011, it spent a relatively small amount of money, $633 million, on competitive grants for states to create high-quality preschool programs. Thirty-seven states applied for the four-year grants; nine won the funding.
Educators see high-quality early childhood education as especially important to help close the achievement gap, which has been demonstrated to exist among children as young as 3 years old, and often reflects differences in socio-economic status.
By age 3, children of white-collar parents have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words, while children in working-class families know 749 words and children whose families are on welfare know 525 words, according to an oft-cited 2003 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.
Poor children who attend quality preschool programs are less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, more likely to be employed and earn higher incomes, and less likely to receive public benefits as adults, when compared to at-risk children who do not attend preschool, several studies have shown.
“The way you measure the benefits are not necessarily in grades or better test scores, but really those kids seem to do better as adults,” said Tracy King, a pediatrician who teaches at Johns Hopkins University Medical School.