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Ask the Experts: How Can We Fix Early Childhood Education?

The first eight years of life are crucial to academic success. So why aren’t early education programs a priority in the U.S.? NationSwell asks the experts.

Consider this: The future success of every child is in many ways determined before he or she turns 8. During those early years, how that child learns and develops — mentally, emotionally and socially — is critical. This isn’t a theory. It’s a fact, based on decades of research on the positive effects of quality early-learning experiences on children’s lives. It’s no wonder then that educators, politicians, researchers and families have honed in on early childhood education as a means to invest not only in the future of America, but also to help deter and improve any number of complex social issues.

But despite our ever-increasing understanding of the benefits of early learning, as well as the negative repercussions of neglecting it, high-quality early education programs are not mandated, which means they’re expensive and exclusive — and out of reach of most Americans.

So how can we expand and improve access to early childhood education? We can start by understanding more about it. With this in mind, NationSwell convened a panel of experts to discuss the issue in depth and explore possible solutions. Read on for their thoughts, and then join the conversation by leaving your own ideas in the comments box below.

What is early childhood education, exactly?

The very definition of early childhood education varies greatly among organizations, schools and governments. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, the world’s largest advocacy organization devoted to early childhood learning, defines it as high-quality programs — emphasis on “high quality” — geared toward children from birth to age 8 (or third grade). Increasingly, many colleges are expanding their early-education programs to include learning techniques for infants and toddlers. However, many states, as well as the federal government, focus early-education initiatives primarily on preschool or prekindergarten (3- or 4-year-olds).

Currently, the education system in the United States does not support universal preschool, placing the financial burden on families. President Obama has pushed for more funding for early childhood education, and many states have taken the initiative to create programs that increase access to early education, especially for low-income families, but we still have a long way to go to ensuring equal access to all demographics.

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Why is early childhood education so important?

Research has shown that much of what you need to succeed in life is established before you enter kindergarten. During that time, the human brain undergoes rapid development; it’s a period when a child builds cognitive skills — the foundation for reading, math, science and academics — as well as character skills, social-emotional growth, gross-motor skills and executive functioning, which includes everything from impulse control to problem solving.

“There’s an explosion of activity in the first five years of life, more profound than any future years,” says Rhian Evans Allvin, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “If we can capitalize on that and maximize the support and learning opportunities, then we really stand a good chance of setting young children on a trajectory of success.”

Academic achievement, of course, is one of the main benefits of early childhood learning. According to Libby Ethridge, president of the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators, an advocacy organization, children who attend early-learning programs demonstrate higher levels of school achievement and better social adjustment than those who have no formal early education. They’re less likely to repeat a grade or be placed in special education classes, since learning issues can be identified and mediated early. Children who have had formal early-learning experiences are also more likely to graduate from high school.

Other benefits go far beyond academics. According to Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, an organization based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., a lack of formal early-learning experiences has a negative impact on the entire country — economically and socially.

“We pay for failing to invest in our kids in terms of the high cost of school failure — one in 10 middle-income kids failed a grade and will repeat, and one in 10 doesn’t complete high school — the high costs of prisons and the criminal justice system, and the high cost of poor productivity in the workforce,” he says. “There’s even some evidence that we pay for it in the high cost of health, since health problems are often rooted in early childhood experiences.”

Experts agree that supporting early childhood education is a win-win for everyone. “It’s not just a cliché that we’re investing in our future,” Barnett says. “These are the people who are going to be paying for our Social Security. These are the people who will be defending our country.”

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What demographics benefit most from early-education programs?

Every child benefits from early learning, whether it’s practiced in a formal school setting or at home with parents or caregivers. However, research — most notably the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which tracked the lives of 123 young children born into poverty — has shown that kids from low-income and disadvantaged communities have even more to gain from early education.

In this study, which began in 1962, 3- and 4-year-olds were divided into two groups: One received high-quality preschool programming and one did not. By age 40, those who had attended preschool had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes and were more likely to have graduated from high school than adults who did not attend preschool.

Those are pretty remarkable results. And yet, according to Evans Allvin, low-income communities have the least access to high-quality early-learning experiences, despite the fact that many programs, such as Head Start and Educare, were designed to help this population receive preschool education.

“What’s important is that there are quality opportunities for all kids, and that’s really a huge barrier right now,” Evans Allvin says. “Arguably, the children who most need high-quality learning have the least access.”

The middle class also misses out on early educational opportunities. According to Ethridge, well-off families can afford to send their children to high-quality preschool programs or have the time to stay home and interact with their children. Low-income families, on the other hand, can take advantage of government-supported programs. But the middle class is often stuck somewhere in between.

“I’m not saying all the children in poverty’s needs are being met and serviced, but we’re making strides,” Ethridge says. “But children in the middle class, whose parents both tend to be working, are really struggling to find the money to pay for high-quality, early-education programs.”

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How can we make early childhood education more accessible?

Experts say that Americans are talking more about early childhood education than ever before. But so far the discussion isn’t translating to an increase in programs or attendance. According to The State of Preschool 2013, an annual report by the National Institute for Early Education Research, only 28 percent of the country’s 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program in the 2012-13 school year — the same percentage as 2012. In fact, the actual number of 4-year-olds enrolled dropped by 9,000 between 2012 and 2013. Overall, the 2012 Current Population Survey found that nearly half of all 3- and 4-year-olds did not attend any preschool — public or private — between 2010 and 2012, a statistic that’s held steady since 2006.

So what do we need to provide families with more early-education programs? First thing’s first — money, and lots of it.

“The fundamental problem is one of economics and culture,” Barnett says. “Good early care and education requires a lot of adults — so there are not too many kids per teacher — who have a good education and are also reasonably well compensated, in order to get the quality you want. You put those things together, and it’s expensive. The idea that there is a cheap option here is just false.”

Some states have made significant strides. Oklahoma offers every 4-year-old free access to a year of high-quality, full-day, year-round prekindergarten, including home visits to some disadvantaged households. New Jersey has had Supreme Court-mandated preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds in the Abbott urban school districts since 1998. And New York City is gearing up to deliver on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise of universal pre-K by the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Ethridge, who is also a professor at the University of Oklahoma, says that in her state many of the public preschools still have extensive waiting lists. “Because it’s not mandatory, they don’t have to provide enough for every child,” she says.

Does that mean that universal preschool is the answer? The experts are torn. Barnett claims that it’s the only way to ensure that every child — regardless of demographics — gets access to high-quality early learning. But Barbara Bowman, the Irving B. Harris professor of child development at the Erikson Institute, a Chicago-based graduate school, weighs the pros and cons.

“There’s a group of people who say it’s better to make it available to everybody, like public education, so it’s easier to get funded,” she says. “On the other hand, some people say we should focus on the students who need it the most — low-income kids or those who speak another language or those with special needs.”

Whether it’s universal or not, there’s no doubt that early learning programs should be the country’s top educational priority — regardless of cost.

“The response is always we don’t have enough money, but the truth is it’s not that much money in terms of the government budget,” Barnett says. “What are our priorities going to be?”

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Erin Skarda is a freelance journalist and editor based in Denver, Colo. She is a former editor and writer for TIME.com.

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