One million words.
One million words might just be the key to begin eradicating the stubbornly persistent achievement gap that exists between children from low income and middle/high income families, between white and Asian children and their black and brown peers, and between children whose first language is English and those for whom it is not.
In 2019, Ohio State University published a study that found that students who are regularly read to prior to entering kindergarten are exposed to 1.4 million more words than those who are not. That difference, the study supposes, could be the reason the gap in achievement begins at a young age and grows as the years progress. Further, we know that success in school is highly correlated to earnings throughout life.
In this, a presidential election year, candidates and pundits fall all over themselves to sell you their solutions to fix the growing income gaps in America, lift families out of poverty, and reverse the trend of stagnant wages. Maybe - just maybe - folks would be well served to visit a local high-quality preschool to realize the answer.
Early childhood education is imperative. All things being equal, it is the difference-maker. It is the one tool in public education’s and the government’s tool belts that can be used to the greatest effect. When you can solve for poverty and economic mobility over the long term, you have a chance of solving the achievement gap for future generations. Without great, accessible early childhood education, we can only hope to make change around the edges. It is the gift that keeps on giving. For my money, there is simply no better investment that impacts a child’s success in school and future earning potential than high-quality early childhood education. Full stop.
It’s not often that school districts attempt to do something they aren’t required to do and for which there is no money. In California, where recently we have struggled to even get to 38th out of the fifty states in school funding, providing preschool is not required of local school districts. The cost of providing the programs, even with some state and federal funding reimbursement, is monumental. The bureaucratic red tape, while well intentioned, limits school districts’ abilities and willingness to consider providing these services, even when the need is clearly there. Governor Newsom has made expanding preschool services a top priority and has put some funds forward to try to do so.
The reality is that without a significant influx of funds and a long-term commitment by policy-makers and the electorate to prioritize early childhood education, we are unfortunately doomed to a groundhog-day-esque circular conversation. People blame public schools for not closing the gap and schools throw up their arms in frustration without the necessary tools to address the challenges of doing so.
There is much to do. We must ensure access to high quality preschool for all children in our state. We must increase the wages of our preschool educators and end the second-class treatment of our early childhood educators. We must ensure that preschool programs are equipped to serve students with identified and unidentified special needs. We must invest in high quality teacher training programs and professional development. We must prioritize the creation of equitable preschool classrooms that expose our youngest children to the rich diversity of culture, income, and perspective that defines our great state.
We have a pretty good idea of what the answer is.
We have to have the will and conviction to make it happen.
I am proud to serve a community that decided not to wait for state policymakers to solve the problem. I am also fortunate to lead a district that is creative and well-resourced enough to design outside-of-the-box solutions. With a commitment of one-time set-up funds and ongoing facility and infrastructure provision, our district is able to provide a high-quality, fee-based preschool program to families who can afford market rate preschool and reserve 25% of enrollment to low income families on a sliding scale. What has resulted is a diverse community of children together receiving a high-quality preschool education focused on the whole child. Our teachers and staff are paid far better than their private preschool counterparts and our program is aligned to the vertical experience they will have in their K-12 school experience. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step. It’s a model for other communities that want to see action.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and, like me, want to see our communities and state take action to provide high quality early education, or if you desire more information about this regional, state, and national issue, I invite you to join us for a screening of the acclaimed documentary No Small Matter on January 22, 2020 at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.. We will view the film, which addresses the need for and challenges involved with quality early childhood education, and engage in a panel discussion with regional leaders. Sign up for your free tickets, and free childcare if needed, here.
In addition to the No Small Matter event, electing candidates who value and prioritize early childhood education is another important step we can take. Our friends at the Community Equity Collaborative are sponsoring a candidate forum for the upcoming California District 13 State Senate election. My school district is hosting this event at Hillview Middle School on February 9, 2020 from 3-5 p.m. The ECE State Senate Candidate Forum will convene a diverse gathering of community members, educators, local organizations (including faith-based institutions) along with local leaders and candidates for the District 13 election in order to increase awareness of and encourage broad-based commitments to early learning priorities. During this moderated conversation we hope to learn more from the candidates about their platforms and plans for elevating these issues and leading our state to greater equity in education, especially for young children and preschool teachers. Please join me at one or both of these outstanding events.
It is possible to stop spinning our wheels and take action to close the achievement gap. I hope you will seek information, press your leaders, and take action. Big challenges call for big ideas.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.