Here's how to improve education

After more than three decades of working for better schools, I have a ready answer when people ask about the most important thing we can do to improve education: quality early childhood programs.

Pre-birth through kindergarten is the most critical time for children to develop socially and emotionally and to establish learning patterns for school and work.

The Prichard Committee recognized this early. Our 1980s study of elementary/secondary education included reviews of research reports showing impoverished children who attended the high-quality Perry Preschool were more likely to complete high school and continue with postsecondary education, more likely to be employed and less likely to be arrested.

We also observed that it was the children "in the middle" who were missing out. Those from the poorest families were served by Head Start and those from affluent families were enrolled in programs their parents could afford. So a key recommendation in our report, "The Path to a Larger Life," was quality preschool for all children ages three and four whose parents wanted it. That's what we continue to advocate today.

Forty years later, researchers continue to follow the Perry Preschool students with long-term results showing higher earnings, greater likelihood of home ownership and having a savings account and lower incidence of crime. Other studies, including the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina and the Chicago Parent Child project, all show similar long-term results for children who attend quality programs, with a return on investment averaging about $7 for each $1 spent.

I am often asked about a study that showed test scores of third-graders who did not attend Head Start to be essentially the same as those of children who did. The implication is that Head Start didn't make a difference. Long-term results, however, show children in the program are less likely to need special education services, less likely to repeat grades and more likely to graduate from high school.

These programs make a difference in such executive skills as perseverance, motivation, attention, self-confidence and getting along with peers. These are skills needed in classrooms and the workplace. Established early, they last a lifetime.

All children deserve to be in quality environments, whether at home, in child-care settings or in preschool. They need adults who care about them, talk with them, read to them, help them deal with stressful events and provide them with a secure, loving and nurturing environment.

We need a system of care that assures quality prenatal care for all women, supportive programs like Kentucky's Health Access Nurturing and Development (HANDS) program for vulnerable families, quality child care and preschool for all children, and support and information for parents.

Kentucky is moving to coordinate and provide these supports, but it will take a focus on quality and an investment of resources. We know through research that giving all of our children the strongest possible start is not only the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do.