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Perspectives: Until Everything Changes, Nothing Changes

A child is raised by the age of four.

This was the sage advice offered to me by a wise elder whose identity escapes me presently.  I didn’t quite understand this truism at the time, but I have often considered it, particularly since becoming a mother, and before that, during my years of watching the Great American Decline—as historians may one day denote the early 21st century.

So, count me in the ranks of the many educators and children’s advocates who are immeasurably excited about President-elect Barack Obama’s pledge to focus on early childhood education, and the formation of his Presidential Early Learning Council. 

But the primary source of my excitement is not professional, but personal.   As the mother of a young child, and as an American, I consider this the best possible news.  

Even before the New York Times recent article “Obama Pledge Stirs Hope in Early Education,” this has seemed like a common sense approach.  It should not take economist and Nobel Laureate, James J. Heckman, to demonstrate that “each dollar devoted to the nurturing of young children can eliminate the need for far greater government spending on remedial education, teenage pregnancy and prisons.” 

This is especially true in an age when we hear more and more news of increasingly young juvenile offenders — felons — and single-parent households. And recent studies demonstrate a direct correlation between the two.

Further, recently I was stunned—as I sat in a beauty salon waiting my turn for service—to overhear a discussion between a college-educated, self-employed African American mother and her young son, perhaps 8 years-old, who was struggling to write the number four, or was it seven. 

Whichever digit, it was cause for alarm. 

Presently, by the time many children make it to elementary school, and the Bush administration’s celebrated No Child Left Behind approach to public education, they are already hopelessly behind.  As it were, by the time they arrive, the train has already left the station.

Essentially, the problem is a fundamental lack of priority—and systematism.   American education as we know it is “a patchwork quilt, a tossed salad, a nonsystem,” said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a group that presses for universal, publicly financed prekindergarten, according to the Times.

An untold number of infants attend home daycare centers, where they spend the better part of the day watching television, with very little if any pedagogical instruction.  Some of these operations are regulated.  Many are not. 

My four-year old daughter attends a pretty good, private pre-school, but it is not all that I would like.  It is one of the many religious institutions charged with educating our youngest Americans.    

I would much rather she attend a secular, public pre-kindergarten program, but apparently my income—as an underpaid assistant professor— is too high.  My great-niece in Texas was able to attend a very good pre-K program, only because she has a mild case of epilepsy.  Who knew the proverbial cloud, her condition, could have such a silver lining?

Hopefully, under the Obama administration, this hodge-podge will soon be a thing of the past, and universal pre-K will be available for all American children.  At the very least, it is an encouraging sign that we are actually considering, at the highest level, investing in and nurturing our young seedlings—instead of watching them wither and die on the vine, for lack of intellectual sustenance and, by extension, parenting. 

But, we need more than just talking and planning. It is going to take commitment on the part of the Obama administration. And it is going to require sacrifice by American taxpayers.  

We can no longer afford to underfund the education of our children at any level, particularly with our littlest ones. Simplistically put, it all starts at the very beginning.   I think we can all agree that the American educational universe, as it stands, is badly broken—but not beyond repair. We can do this. And we must, if we hope to ever right the American ship. Big, bold ideas are needed, closely followed up with sustained and measured action.

 As another wise person told me, “until everything changes, nothing changes.”

Dr. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.



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