Guest Blog: Broader Bolder Approach to Education

Julian Castro’s Risky Proposition: Solidly Backed by Evidence

As students in Washington, DC and across the country head back to school, the education spotlight is on the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Leaders of both political parties promote policies that they contend will boost academic achievement and narrow stubborn black-white and rich-poor achievement gaps. The Romney-Ryan team advocates for market-oriented changes, including more charters and vouchers, as well as substantial cuts in federal support for key programs. The Obama-Biden team touts its signature Race to the Top program and associated reforms, with student test scores at the center of teacher evaluations and decisions about “turnarounds” and closures of struggling schools.

Largely missing from either, until San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s Tuesday night keynote, was discussion of a policy proven to substantially narrow opportunity and achievement gaps before kindergarten even begins: quality early childhood education. Castro was chosen to provide the high-profile address in part because of his bold decision to stake his political future on a risky move: a ballot initiative to raise the city’s sales tax, with proceeds benefitting its low-income children. If passed, the revenue from the one-eighth of a cent increase will fund full-day, high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for over 4,000 of San Antonio’s 4-year-olds.

How risky is it, though? As David Brooks recently pointed out, the rock-solid evidence behind investments in young children make policies in that area about as un-risky and un-squishy as possible. Let’s start with the brain science. The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child has translated decades of evidence of the rapid and efficient development of infant and toddlers’ brains into dozens of academic papers, policy briefs, and even videos, with a common bottom line: invest now, reap benefits for decades and generations to come, or fail to invest now, and pay forever. Center Director Jack Shonkoff and his colleagues explain how “serve-and-return” adult-child early interactions form the foundation for not only cognitive, but behavioral, social, and emotional development that enable babies and toddlers to grow into children who learn well and adults who think, play, work, and make decisions ably, constructively, and in ways that benefit society as a whole.

Dr. Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, builds on this evidence in his research on early childhood classroom environment and quality. Among his key findings: interactions with adults form the “infrastructure” for school success; instruction is, in part, a social process; and interactions operate across content and curriculum. In recognition, Pianta developed the CLASS system, which assesses teacher and classroom quality in terms of emotional support, organization/management, and instructional support. CLASS represents the first such comprehensive evaluation and support system for infant and toddler care settings.

Robert Lynch, an economist at Washington College, pulls together the economic benefits to society of smart early childhood investments in his 2007 book, Enriching Children, Enriching the Nation. From reduced rates of grade retention and special education needs in elementary, middle, and high school to lower juvenile detention incidence and, later, criminal activity, as well as higher rates of high school graduation, college attendance, and good jobs, the benefits start immediately and keep on growing.

Effective early childhood policies are not limited to support for paid teachers and caretakers outside of the home. As Columbia University scholars Jane Waldfogel and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn document in their extensive research, a host of supports for new parents and their families, including paid family leave and nurse home visits, likewise set the stage for healthier, happier, and more productive families and boost societal well-being.

These investments in children’s earliest years have the potential to improve K-12 education, and education policies, substantially. Ensuring that curriculum and structure of the school day are age-appropriate in the early elementary years could boost higher-order learning through hands-on experiences. Emphasizing the importance of teacher-child interactions would help shape more nuanced evaluation and teacher support programs.  Making supports for parents and families a more integral part of education policy could go a long way toward improving parental engagement, known to boost children’s school success. And most fundamentally, increased investments in children before they get to kindergarten could reduce the burden on elementary teachers and on schools’ budgets, while helping to narrow achievement gaps.

As we watch our children enter their classrooms this fall, both candidates would do well to take Castro’s lead: increase opportunity for all of our children by investing in their early years.

The Broader Bolder Approach to Education is hosting a series of four webinars for journalists in September, featuring some of the above scholars. These, along with a range of other resources, will be available on the BBA early childhood education page the first week of October.

Elaine Weiss
Broader Bolder Approach to Education
Economic Policy Institute



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