California is at a critical turning point as research, practice, and policy appear to be coalescing in support of early childhood education (ECE). This was the take-away from Peninsula Family Service’s Early Learning Summit, held October 17 and co-sponsored by the San Mateo County Office of Education.
Dr. Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University, set the stage with a compelling analysis of test scores over the last 15 years showing that achievement gaps appear before students arrive in K-12 public schools, and that low to average performance in third to eighth grade can be attributed to below average kindergarten readiness. In other words, the gap starts early and remains persistent unless a child has access to high quality early care and education.
Dr. Reardon uses test scores in his research since they serve as a proxy for the set of opportunities students in different communities have access to in formative years. Superintendent-Elect Nancy Magee suggested that this approach “puts the onus on the community and not on the students to address the gap.”
Dr. Silvia Bunge, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, then shared how poverty and negative experiences during prenatal and early childhood can impact the brain’s architecture. She said “nature versus nurture is the wrong question,” and that both “what we experience and what we do profoundly influence who we are and what we can achieve.” She highlighted how positive interactions are essential for healthy brain development, whereas ongoing and severe toxic stress actually weaken synapses in the brain, hindering development.
With the case made that access to quality childcare is essential for brain development and academic achievement, Dr. Caitlin McLean, Workforce Research Specialist at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, reported that “the key to quality early childhood education is a skilled and stable ECE workforce,” and the key to a skilled and stable workforce is preparation, support, and reward. According to the Center’s research, 55 percent of ECE teachers resigned and 31 percent moved out of the area in the last year, a clear signal that the system is not working.
A panel of educators and providers shared some of their promising practices, including efforts to address the childcare facilities shortage, provide teachers with pathways to achieving greater education and credentials, engage families, and align preschool and K-12 school systems.
The day wrapped with presentations by Liz Simons of the Heising-Simons Foundation, a leader in early childhood education funding, and California State Assemblymember Marc Berman. Ms. Simons addressed the urgent need to provide high quality early childhood education, adding that math skills in kindergarten can predict how students will do later in school.
Assemblymember Berman predicted that the Assembly and the new governor will be interested in pursuing policies and funding that could significantly transform and expand early learning in the future.