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Mom Congress Conference – Early Education Pays Big Dividends

Kathryn Thompson

One of the recurring themes of the Mom Congress conference this year was the importance of Early Learning.  Helping kids get ahead and stay ahead when they’re young is one of the most effective investments we can make in education in this country.

Dr. Elanna Yalow of Knowledge Universe spoke on a couple of panels at the conference and is a member of the Mom Congress advisory board and a contributor to this blog.  It was nice to finally meet her in person.  A tireless advocate for children, her background supporting early childhood education is extensive. She talked about how critical the first three years are for learning and how much greater a chance kids have for success if they have a good early foundation.

When we talk about The Achievement Gap, we’re talking about the gap that exists between the educational outcomes of groups of children defined by their gender, race or socioeconomic background.  Early development can give us a big clue into where the achievement gap starts and how to work to close it.

One contributing factor is vocabulary.  Dr. Yalow shared a statistic that a child in an average family on welfare hears 62,000 words per week while a child in a professional family hears 215,000 words.  That is a huge gap and it’s obviously not true of every home or every family.  It’s just an average.  But it’s a pretty startling average.  If a child is being exposed to that many more words during his early years, of course he’s going to be at a major advantage developmentally going into school. 

That’s a gap that hopefully early childhood education can help to fill.  Dr. Yalow stressed that early childhood education has to be high quality with meaningful teacher/child engagement to make it worthwhile.

Yasmina Vinci, Executive Director of the National Head Start Association, talked about how early intervention pays off in more ways than just better educational success.  She said that Head Start kids have greater success in life, less crime and fewer teen pregnancies.

Everyone was speaking with statistics, too many statistics for me to write them all down.  Statistics can be persuasive.  Dr. William Gormley, Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. at Georgetown University talked about the power of numbers.  He said that as much we tend to hate standardized tests, it is data from these tests that shows us there is an achievement gap and that helps us to persuade others to help improve education in this country.

He also said that not all advocacy arguments are created equally.  An economic argument is stronger than a moralistic argument.  He encouraged us to listen closely to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s arguments later in the conference to see which seemed most persuasive and whether they were morality or economics based.  (Hint:  One of Duncan’s closing quotes was, “The President fundamentally thinks that education is an investment, not an expense.”)  Going along with that, Professor Gormley said that early childhood education has proven to have strong economic benefits.

Mark Shriver, Senior Vice President for U.S. Programs for Save the Children, shared this powerful promotional video in support of ECE.  It outlines how much money we save when we invest in educating children when they’re young. 

One of my favorite quotes of the conference came from Mark Shriver who was talking about the American dream and the idea that anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps and change his own life trajectory.  He said, "Three-year-old kids don't have bootstraps to pull themselves up with."  It’s so true.  And if at three years of age you’re already severely behind the majority of your peers, how hard is it to ever catch up?

Every child deserves a decent chance at life and there’s more to early childhood education than simply learning shapes and colors a bit earlier.  I came away from the conference convinced that early learning is the key to educational equality in this country. 

So what do we do now?

If we want equal education, we need to support groups and programs that support early learning, especially for at-risk populations.  Dr. Gormley encouraged us to become budget literate if we’re asking for our programs to be saved.  He said we need to be able to show our legislators where the money will come from.

Make the most of the early years with your children.  If you’re spending a good deal of time with your kids, read to them, talk to them, play with them and nurture their natural curiosity.  Check out 2010 delegate Emily Rempe’s amazing website, that will email simple, easy educational activities to do with your child every day, starting at age one.  I’ve subscribed! 

Kathryn Thompson is a mom to two school-aged kids, a toddler, and a deceased betta fish. She can also be found at The Parenting Post, and occasionally the gym.