The Best Investment We Can Make

Scotty and I shared a table in Mrs. Kerner's kindergarten class in 1984. He was the classroom's centripetal force, always drawing the teacher's attention away from the rest of us. He rarely finished even the simplest assignment, instead wandering the room or doodling on his desk. He cried easily and threw raging tantrums. Other days, he was so sleepy he laid his head on his desk and napped for two hours straight.

I didn't know it then, but Scotty was pretty much slated for failure before he ever set foot in that classroom. He lived with his mother, whose life was a series of low-paying jobs, abusive boyfriends and trailer parks. Some afternoons, long after the rest of us had gone home, Scotty napped in the nurse's office while he waited for his mom to pick him up. He often wore the same clothes for days on end, and his extreme nearsightedness, which made it almost impossible for him to read, was only discovered midyear. Not surprisingly, Scotty was held back for a second year of kindergarten.

Low-income kids like Scotty are more likely than other children to do poorly in school. Although the federal Head Start program has done an admirable job helping at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, child-development experts now universally agree that learning really begins at birth. That means the best time to begin helping disadvantaged children succeed academically is before they enter school. But children also need the right mix of instruction: Those like Scotty also often bring behavioral and emotional problems with them to kindergarten, which impedes their learning of "hard" skills like reading and counting.

With No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Bush administration set its sights on the hard skills of language and literacy; the President's Early Reading First program aims to have all kids reading by the end of the third grade. But the policy completely neglects disadvantaged preschool children's emotional and developmental needs. Similarly, the administration is proposing changes to Head Start, which currently has among its stated goals the improvement of children's social and emotional development. The administration would prefer that the program focus on easily quantifiable outcomes -- like identifying at least 10 letters of the alphabet or associating sounds with written words -- leaving kids' social and emotional needs out of the equation altogether.

The Bush approach flies in the face of myriad research findings on school readiness, which underscore the fundamental importance of characteristics like self-control, cooperativeness, confidence and curiosity. And it has child-development experts up in arms. "We know from almost every survey of kindergarten teachers that social competencies are critical -- they are routinely ranked as most important for learning," says Robert Pianta, a professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, responding to the recent Head Start changes.

Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician, child-development specialist and dean of the Heller School at Brandeis University, says there is "no question that social and emotional and cognitive and language development are all completely interrelated. ... The science is unequivocally clear: You can't separate these nodes of development. How young children learn to think, how they learn to read, how they learn to solve problems is as much reliant upon their social and emotional capacities as their cognitive ones. We can't tease those apart."

Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips' 2000 book, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, was a federally funded research project that garnered near unanimous endorsement from an array of experts. Its findings, including the need for "[r]esources on par with those focused on literacy and numerical skills" for "young children's emotional, regulatory, and social development," are supported by many other studies.

Privately, many child-development experts believe the current administration has completely disregarded well-established science. But publicly, the research community has been almost silent on this issue. That's because political appointees sign off on funding for most of the research on children in this country, and few social scientists can afford to draw the ire of federal program officers. "This is really a top-down policy matter we're talking about here," says Samuel Meisels, president of the Erickson Institute in Chicago. "This change didn't bubble up from the research or practice."

But a holistic pedagogy is only one part of the story of school success for low-income kids; early and comprehensive intervention is the other. Innovative, high-quality programs like Chicago's Educare Center take Head Start -- with its integration of parent involvement and children's health and nutrition -- as a model. The Chicago program provides prenatal and family-support services for young parents, full-day, year-round child care for infants and preschoolers, and high-quality preschool instruction. Working parents need quality child-care options, and low-income children need early exposure to learning opportunities to be ready for school. Educare meets both of these needs.

For more than 40 years the Robert Taylor Homes towered over Chicago's State Street corridor like red brick beacons of despair. Once the nation's largest housing project -- as well its poorest census tract -- the neighborhood was one of the city's most dangerous, with rival street gangs staging shootouts from the catwalks of the high-rise apartments. Parents routinely kept their children home from school, fearing they might be caught in crossfire.

In 1986, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago nonprofit organization, founded the Beethoven Project on the second floor of one of the Robert Taylor Homes. That program offered quality child care for infants and toddlers, full-day Head Start programs for preschoolers and comprehensive support services for parents. The Beethoven Project received national acclaim and became the model for the Early Head Start initiative, which provided education and family services to more than 60,000 infants and toddlers nationwide in 2002.

By the late 1990s, though, escalating gang warfare had made it too dangerous for the Beethoven staff to report to work. The program was ended. And today, the Robert Taylor Homes are being razed and replaced with fresh green sod, in hopes of erasing the memory of their massive failure altogether. But the Ounce of Prevention Fund is still serving the neighborhood's residents. In the shadow of one of the project's few remaining high-rises sits a row of adjoining one-room schoolhouses, each painted whimsically in pastels. This is the fund's Educare Center, created with public and private funds and the embodiment of some of the finest ideas child-development research has to offer.

The Educare model is based on the notion that earlier and stronger intervention improves children's chances of success in school. Educare's first phase is a doula (Greek for "birthing assistant") program, which enlists trained paraprofessionals from the community to provide information and emotional support to young pregnant women, who in this neighborhood are often unwed teens. (Programs like Educare deal with children at the earliest possible stage, and so don't focus on pregnancy prevention.) Doula programs have been shown to increase the rate of breast-feeding, lower the number of cesarean births, and enhance the emotional connection and secure attachment between the mother and child.

At 14, Malika Brown was not unlike many of her peers -- unwed, pregnant and totally unprepared for the demands of childhood. Her first childbirth was a harrowing experience. She didn't know her doctor, and no one coached her on breathing techniques to reduce her pain. She wasn't emotionally ready for parenthood, either: "I was 14 when I had my oldest son," she says. "I knew he was mine, but I'd always say, 'That baby is crying.' I didn't start calling him 'my baby' until he was 2."

Pregnant a second time at 18, Malika enrolled in a doula program at the Marrilac House, a social-service agency on Chicago's west side that is also run by Ounce of Prevention. There, she attended prenatal classes, and her doula helped her throughout the delivery of her second baby. After the baby was born, the doula visited Malika's home and helped her settle into her role as a single mother of two.

Aiming to provide a "continuum of care" for low-income families, the Educare Center cares for children, birth to 5, from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., all year long. But child care, in its most basic sense, is only the beginning. Educare begins educating children as young as 6 weeks old. Teachers talk to infants and engage them in structured play activities to sharpen language and motor skills. Artists in residence use art and music to foster creativity. Even the restrooms encourage positive development: Long mirrors facing miniature toilets help toddlers see what they are doing as they conquer toilet training. The majority of the building is devoted to infant and toddler care, and there is one qualified teacher for every three children. In Educare, for preschool children aged 3 and 5, the ratio is 1-to-6, including a "master teacher" with graduate-level training in education. These numbers are a rarity among full-day, year-round child-care centers, although research has shown that one mark of classroom quality, particularly for very young children, is the teacher-to-student ratio.

Designed by Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, the Educare Center itself is a facility built to foster learning and development in a calm and enriching setting. Floor-to-ceiling windows leave classrooms awash in natural light. Classrooms, hallways and even floor tiles are color coded to encourage a toddler's sense of place in the school. Overstuffed chairs and love seats sit right inside the door of the infant classrooms, where parents can spend some time with their infants -- breast-feeding or just relaxing -- before leaving for the day. Glass doors connect the classrooms to one another to allow kids who have transitioned to a new room to connect with their former classroom and teacher. The objective, says Phyllis Glink, program director for the Harris Foundation, which founded Ounce of Prevention, is to build a model program for creatively mixing public and private funds. "The idea is, if you build it, and people can see it working in their community, it becomes a benchmark for what a state is capable of doing with public resources," she says.

At 4 years old, the Educare Center is a young program. But it already has served as a model for other regions: Milwaukee, Atlanta and Omaha, Neb., are working to replicate its successes. And similar programs have proven successful in the past. Between 1997 and 2000, the Chicago Health Connection's Community-Based Doula Model (which included the Marrilac House) reduced cesarean sections by 43 percent and increased breast-feeding initiation rates for new moms by 70 percent. The Abecedarian Project, a high-quality early-education program in North Carolina, has helped foster increased education levels for participants through their high-school years, as well as higher earnings in adulthood.

Programs like Educare hold real promise for children at risk of school failure. But they are not enough. "We need those programs to be situated within living communities that have progressive policies for the families of these children," says Meisels. "No early-education program, no matter how excellent, will be able to overcome all of the insults and injuries of poverty."

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 27 million children -- nearly 40 percent of all kids in the United States -- live in low-income families. As a group, kids are the poorest members of our society, and poverty in the early years often has dire consequences for later achievement in school.

Although a vast literature comprising pediatrics, developmental psychology and neuroscience has made clear the crucial role of infant and early-childhood experiences in later school achievement, too few low-income children receive any education before kindergarten -- and they are the ones who need it the most. Impoverished parents often suffer from depression, making it difficult to reach out to children. This is important because early relationships with adults are crucial for kids; by the time a child enters a classroom, experiences have taught him or her to either trust or fear adults. Low-income families also tend to live in overcrowded households and move frequently from place to place; the chaos means small children can get lost in the shuffle, and community social-service providers have a tough time keeping track of transient families. Too, parents with low levels of education use fewer words in their daily interactions; consequently, infants and toddlers have a harder time mastering the early language skills that are crucial for later literacy.

Yet in 2001, only half of 3- to 5-year-olds living below the poverty threshold attended a center-based early-childhood education program such as preschool or Head Start. Even fewer opportunities exist for infants and toddlers. And the benefits of such interventions are well-documented: When children participate in quality preschool programs, they develop cognitive, language and social skills that pave their way into elementary school. The benefits extend beyond the classroom, too: According to Arthur Reynolds at the University of Wisconsin, every $1 spent on high-quality early-education programs saves taxpayers $7 in eventual special-education, crime-control and welfare costs.

NCLB assumes that all children enter kindergarten ready to learn. Indeed, George W. Bush blames schools for engaging in the "soft bigotry of low expectations" by adjusting academic standards for low-income and high-need kids. Susan B. Neuman, along with researchers nationwide, knows that those children do need special help and can't fit into the one-size-fits-all mold NCLB requires.

Neuman, one NCLB's original architects, quietly resigned her post as assistant secretary of education for elementary and secondary learning in the Department of Education early last year. She recently called for renewed attention to quality early-childhood interventions in an article in the education journal Phi Delta Kappan. The seeds of failure in school, she explained, are sown long before high-risk children enter school. "It is this reality, not the rhetoric of low expectations," she says, "that has stymied our progress in closing the achievement gap. ... It is time to recognize that, if we are not prepared to take on the unprecedented challenge to provide the highest quality compensatory programs for our at-risk children in these earliest years, we had better be prepared for the consequences later on."

In other words, it wasn't the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that thwarted Scotty's academic success. Rather, the hard reality of early poverty made school an immense challenge for him from the very first day. Pending Head Start reforms and NCLB are not likely to give his successors any more help than he had, either.

So maybe you are not surprised: Scotty dropped out of high school when he turned 16.