Friday, December 19, 2008

Getting a Head Start

It's nice when they get it right. Shortly after announcing that Arne Duncan would be the next Secretary of Education (a choice about which I'm cautiously optimistic), the report is that the Obama administration is going to be putting a massive investment into early childhood education. Estimates say it will be in the neighborhood of $10 billion. Amen to that.

I think that this is one of the smartest educational investments that we could make. Like drug dealers, we have to get to the kids early. The earlier, the better. We know that the achievement gap exists even before kids enter school. Kids in underserved communities start off their first day of kindergarten behind their more affluent peers. As time goes on, those problems get worse and the gap widens. Rather than invest heroic (and essentially unreplicable) efforts into the later grades a la KIPP, why not really focus our attention on preventing the gap from ever opening in the first place?

Here's the catch. Just throwing huge amounts of money at the problem won't solve it. Obviously, not all early childhood programs are the equally effective and so investment would need to be in programs that work. In addition, while we know that Head Start programs are effective at increasing school-readiness for at-risk children, we also know that the effects of Head Start dissipate over time to the point that it's as if they were never in the program to begin with.

The investment in early childhood education and making moves to create as near as possible a universal pre-k program is great. Now we need to make sure that effective programs are selected and that the support continues even after the kids enter school. There are some big problems on the road still, but this is a good first step.

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