Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Prenatal and Preschool Gap

I would like to start with a familiar parable: A group of people are standing at a riverbank and suddenly hear a baby crying. Shocked, they see an infant in the water. One person immediately dives in to rescue the child. But right away another baby comes floating down the river, and then another! People continue to jump in to save the babies and then see that one person has started to walk away from the group still on shore. Accusingly they shout, "Where are you going? We need everyone available to help save these drowning babies!" The response: "I'm going upstream to find out who is throwing babies into the river.

The desire to rescue the babies in the river is totally understandable and necessary. They are already at-risk of drowning, and someone needs to help them. But let’s get literal. The babies in the river are modern day preschoolers and kindergarteners who start school behind their peers academically. In schools, special education services, Title I programs, after school tutoring and the like are all well-meaning social services designed to get the “babies” out of the water BUT they do not address the problem. They only address, in my opinion symptoms of the problem. A big elephant in the room that policy makers refuse to address is the role that good prenatal and care before the age of 2 impacts later academic achievement.

The book Inequality at the starting gate speaks to this. In this book the authors, Valarie Lee and David Burkam share that inequalities in children's cognitive abilities are substantial from the beginning, with disadvantaged children starting kindergarten with significantly lower cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts. These same disadvantaged children are then placed in low-resource schools, magnifying the initial inequality.

We know from research that children who come to kindergarten with a strong base of knowledge and abilities are more likely to succeed in school than those who are not as well prepared. But those abilities and that knowledge are based on a strong foundation for learning created before age 2 – not just in the traditional preschool ages of three and four.

So how do we better prepare children for preschool?

Let’s go up stream for a minute. When we go “upstream” here is what we find. We find that kids thrive from parents who nurse, spend time with them and are not stressed financially. How do we encourage these things? We offer paid leave to mothers and fathers for the birth of their child. Moms who work full time should not be forced to decide between paying bills and staying at home bonding with their child- something research has proven over and over to benefit the long-term achievement. We must be steadfast in advocating for all parents – especially the underemployed to have the benefit of spending time with their child while not worrying about their financial stability. We fought hard to establish FMLA to protect our jobs 22 years ago in 1993 NOW we have to fight hard to ensure at a minimal that parents who are required medically to stay at home for at least 6 weeks have job and financial security. Please take up this fight with me.

Paid leave encourages mothers to breast feed longer and children who were breastfeed for one year perform better on intelligence tests at ages 3 and 7. Paid family leave boosts overall wellbeing for employees and their families, it reduces the risk of infant mortality, it can aid in the prevention of maternal depression and stress, it causes greater paternal engagement in caregiving and it improves family income. It is also good for businesses. California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island have publicly funded maternity leave laws. After California instituted paid maternity leave, a survey in the 2011 Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 91% of employers said the policy either boosted profits or had no effect. They also noted improved productivity, higher morale and reduced turnover rates.

Working families, like you and me have to make difficult choices early on to return to the workforce sooner than recommended from experts. We are all working families. Similar to the parable, we need to have a mindset to go up stream. Please understand that the catcher and the saviors are needed. Those programs are needed, we need to address those who are at-risk. BUT if we are going to create meaningful progress in ensuring that all students receive high quality experiences in school we must be stop being reactionary only. Its time to include prenatal and early childhood care in our discussions of education reform.

The blog content is taken from remarks I shared at the 2nd Annual You CAN Do Anything Too Symposium.

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