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Fulfilling our Promise: The Prospects of Early Childhood Education

A teacher reflects on her work in early childhood education, and how Obama's policies might move it forward.

I found my calling in a pile of vomit and a smile.The vomit came from one of my pre-kindergarten students, Tyrique, whose anxiety about transitioning to school made him physically sick. He was unsure about whether school would bring him the same joy he experienced playing with his mother and two sisters at home. I soon learned that in addition to needing support in adjusting to new routines, Tyrique was behind in basic literacy and cognitive skills.The smile also came from Tyrique, every day after the third week of school, when he would express his excitement to be with his friends. One day in particular, late in the spring, Tyrque was reading independently after breakfast. I asked if we could read together because I always wanted to read the book he had chosen. We took turns and for the first time, he managed to sound out a word on his own. He turned to me with a huge smile and said, "Ms. Pappas, I'm a good reader." Right then, my interest in teaching was solidified.His trajectory from an anxious newcomer without an understanding of what a letter is to a self-confident early reader required strategic and steadfast efforts to identify and meet his needs. I paid attention to everything, from the toys and stories that piqued his interest to his specific skill deficits, in order to create individualized learning plans that maximized every moment.
The achievement gap starts before kindergarten and high quality early learning experiences can give children from disadvantaged areas the enriching introduction to school they deserve.
Tyrique's story and the growth of all the students I taught in Newark, New Jersey, highlighted the reality that the achievement gap starts before kindergarten and the ability for high quality early learning experiences to give children from disadvantaged areas the enriching introduction to school they deserve.Yet despite these successes, I stood in front of my students and their families on graduation day with mixed feelings. I was proud of our accomplishments, but I felt anxious about the quality of early childhood programs across the country and in K-12.A strong start is necessary, but cannot on its own advance equal opportunity without being part of a broader continuum of high-quality education. While New Jersey and other states have made strides in increasing systemic cohesion, early childhood education across the country remains, to a large extent, both internally fragmented and disjointed from the larger K-12 system in everything from funding streams and governing structures to content standards and pedagogy. Young children entering kindergarten may have attended early childhood programs in a wide range of settings with various standards and approaches.President Obama's early childhood policies introduce the possibility for real change by not only creating opportunities for states to receive funding, but by transforming the way that early childhood policy is shaped. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius have joined forces to advance common definitions of quality across early childhood programs. Two of their top advisors, Jacqueline Jones (DOE) and Joan Lombardi (HHS), have engaged both agencies in discussions around key issues, described recently at a research summit at Georgetown University. Their shared leadership model and discussion of diverse perspectives affords the opportunity to mobilize the two agencies around a collective purpose, while also leveraging the unique insights and expertise each one brings to the table.The promise of early childhood education is really the promise of a leveled playing field. I am confident that the approach and content of new initiatives are a crucial step towards fulfilling that promise.

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