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FEATURE | winter 2009
Beyond Babysitting
From birth to kindergarten, children need better education than many are receiving. With a new president at the bully pulpit, they might just get it.

By Cornelia GrummanBeyond Babysitting

Our entire system of K-12 education seems grounded on a straightforward premise: Some magical learning switch flips on inside a child’s brain the moment she starts kindergarten.

If only it were so simple. If only kids were just cute little blobs that coo and drool and leave sticky kisses—until they arrive in kindergarten classrooms and begin to be shaped.

Although we knew it intuitively, an overwhelming raft of research underscores how misguided that notion is. Learning begins at birth, not at age 5. It matters how many words a child hears, even before she understands words. It matters that she hears more words of encouragement than discouragement. These aren’t just touchy-feely child-rearing techniques. The interactions and attachments affect the quality of brain development, the number of neural connections formed.

A good foundation makes it easier to learn; a shaky one creates long-lasting challenges. “Deep poverty, abuse, neglect and exposure to violence in early childhood can lead to toxic stress, which weakens the architecture of the developing brain,” says Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and professor of child health and development.

Everybody benefits when children have quality early learning experiences. And yet our entire system of K-12 public education still seems rooted in the notion that all kids require before kindergarten or preschool is babysitting. With a new president in office, however, that traditional notion suddenly may be upended.

President Barack Obama’s early childhood agenda calls for an ambitious array of programs and strategies, including quadrupling the number of slots for infants and toddlers in Early Head Start—a learning program for low-income kids from birth to age 3 funded so poorly that less than three percent of those eligible are able to access it. Obama also wants to create federal challenge grants to states to support quality early childhood programs, expand child-care support for low-income working parents and improve the quality of all childcare.

We know the minimum ingredients necessary to ensure quality early education. Among them, high teacher standards, small group sizes and low teacher-to-child ratios. Any proposals to increase child-care money must include more meaningful incentives and accountability to assure quality, and better compensation has to be offered to teachers to reach those higher standards.

It’s not enough, of course, to simply know what’s needed. Lawmakers currently feel little pressure from constituents to act on that knowledge. That must change—now.

Excerpted from the Winter 2009 issue of Ms. - join the ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.

CORNELIA GRUMMAN is executive director of The First Five Years Fund. She was previously a reporter and editorial board member for The Chicago Tribune, winning a Pulitzer Prize for her editorials in 2003.

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