Early childhood development and education has been a major topic of discussion and planning at all levels-federal, state, and local communities – not only because of the widespread recognition of the research base on the importance of early development to long-term schooling success, but as a critical national investment strategy for the future of the nation in the 21st Century global economy. In recent years, early childhood interventions from birth to the early grades have received much attention, including billions in federal and state spending in early childhood care and education programs. There have been many advances in research and the knowledge base on what contributes to healthy development and learning success for all of the increasingly diverse children growing up in this country. This progress falls far short of a vision and standards of an educated citizenry in the United States. For example, the United States lags far behind other leading nations in providing universal child care and preschool for all children, regardless of family income, social status, race, or ethnicity. While there is a significant increase in the number of children attending day care and preschool programs, access to this care is very inequitably distributed. In addition, the research base on the quality of these program options is sorely lacking. The complexity of multiple challenges facing families and their children and the rich resources that can be mobilized in the service of healthy development and educational success of this nation’s young children are highlighted in the research base and have significant implications for policy and practice. An interdisciplinary team of nationally known scholars and practitioner leaders were commissioned to prepare background papers to provide knowledge syntheses of what is known from research and practical applications. The authors were asked to address questions that are frequently raised in public discussions about new and continuing investments in early childhood programs, including:
- What is the current state of knowledge about the impact of early childhood programs on learning and development of young children? What works? Who benefits most? What are the limits of our knowledge?
- What contributes to effective implementation and how is a high degree of implementation sustained? What conditions increase the quality of program implementation and effectiveness?
- What are the implications for policy and program development, modification, and expansion? How can the best or most promising practices be disseminated to scale up implementation of quality early childcare and education programs, particularly for children from educationally and economically disadvantaged circumstances?
- Access to public-supported daycare and preschool programs should be universal regardless of family income, social status, or ethnic and racial backgrounds. These programs should be full-day, full-year programs that do not distinguish between childcare and education. Universal access to daycare and preschool education would attract greater numbers of middle and lower socioeconomic status families to early childhood programs, which would lead to increased diversity and ultimately to better quality programs. The current “you get what you pay for” mentality that exists would be eliminated and all children would begin their education on a level playing field.
- Universal access to daycare and preschool programs should be seamless, creating a continuity of learning for children. Curriculum and assessment standards must be aligned and services should be comprehensive and aimed at intellectual, physical, and social development of children and their readiness to achieve learning success in elementary schools.
- High-quality, well-trained, well compensated educators and staff are key to student achievement at all levels of education. Professional development for early childhood educators and staff must be improved and focus on early childhood development, curriculum design, best practices and pedagogy, and parental involvement.
- A balance of focus in preservice and inservice professional development programs must be maintained. The issue of maintaining a substantive balance of pedagogy versus subject matter mastery in teacher preparation and inservice professional development programs has been a persistent debate among educators. Teacher education programs often emphasize subject matter knowledge and offer little training in developing a great understanding of the learning of young children. It was generally agreed that teaching, teacher development, and curriculum delivery needs to focus on what has the greatest impact on healthy development and life-long learning of each child. Professional development should not only strengthen staff and teachers’ knowledge of subject matter and curricular issues, but should emphasize methods for recognizing and addressing children’s developmental and learning needs.
- Parental involvement is crucial to the success of early childhood programs. Involving parents at all levels of decision making, including curriculum design and professional development, increases parents’ sense of ownership of these programs and encourages collaboration between schools and the communities. Most parents want to be involved in every aspect of their children’s education. By including parents in the early childhood equation, learning that begins in the classroom is reinforced at home. A critical element of this reinforcement is the development of a common vocabulary that teachers and parents can use to discuss a child’s progress and methods for improvement.
- Parents should receive information on relevant research on effective practices in readable and useful forms. Parents should not only be informed, but also should be involved in providing input and making programming decisions about the education of their children.
In addition to the broad-based issues of universal daycare, professional development, and parental involvement, we have the following specific recommendations for moving forward with an advocacy action agenda for universal quality childcare and preschool education.
- Convince policymakers that: (a) early childhood programs can be cost effective; (b) the extent and quality of programs are crucial to achieving success; and (c) programs can be successful at a relatively small amount of cost if integrated into existing structures.
- Initiate discussions between early childhood education advocates and members of the National Parent Teacher Association. Form coalitions with other advocacy groups to create better political climates for children and their families.
- Identify champions of the childcare and early childhood education movement who are influential. Promote leadership advocacy for early childhood education.
- Focus on what sells. Advocates need to get the media on the side of quality childcare and early childhood education. Inform the public about relevant research on what works in providing quality childcare and preschool education.
- Use new technologies and mass communication avenues to forge a national dialogue on the mandate for quality childcare and preschool education for all, and to foster increased parent-school connections.
- Work to eradicate the risk factors that continue to challenge and mitigate against human capital investment and confront racial and social stratification. Examine the assumptions behind the term “at risk” and devise a new term that reduces stereotyping.
- Utilize the research on preventing reading difficulties in young children to minimize severe academic problems in the primary grades.
- Improve articulation alignment of what is taught in colleges and the professional expertise required for a quality childcare and preschool education force. There is a critical need to increase collaboration and coordination between higher education institutions that provide preservice education of childcare and preschool education professionals and childcare and preschool education providing agencies.
- Attention needs to be placed on preservice and inservice programs that focus on bringing research-based knowledge to bear on improving practice.
- Parental involvement should be required coursework for childcare and early childhood education programs.
- Researchers, policy makers, and practitioners need to work intensively to educate their colleagues and the public on viewing the 21st Century as the “Century of the Child” and creating a national investment strateg