Why Parent University? Why now? Five decades of research and still fewer than 20% of families have access to high quality preschool
This is Part II of my ongoing series that uncovers the foundations upon which Parent University is built. For those of you who know me, you know how intensely passionate I am about parent empowerment and early childhood education. My measured demeanor and calm approach to proselytizing about early childhood education and parent empowerment often means that I fail to communicate the acute sense of urgency that percolates through my bones and brain. But make no mistake: this is an urgent issue. When it comes to addressing issues of educational inequality, school readiness, middle school drop out rates, high school graduation rates, college matriculuation, crime rates, teen pregancy, welfare rates, home ownership, financial responsibility, and overall economic impacts of education there is nothing more critical than parent empowerment and early childhood education. But don't ask me about the importance of early intervention. Ask the FIFTY YEARS of research that demonstrates unequivaclly that early developmental intervention has the most meaningful, longest lasting impact on human developmental outcomes of ANYTHING any mammal has developed in the history of history. (The one exception to this might be evolution, but that's pre-history and it's also not exactly something mammals "developed"; so then I suppose there is no excpetion. Forget I brought it up.) That's right, there is over five decades of reserach that proves, over and over and over and over and over again that preschool makes a huge difference. It is not hyperbole to say that "Preschool can save the world." The three most famous longitudinal studies of this phenomenon are: The Chicago Longitudinal Study, The HighScope Perry Preschool Study and the Carolina Abecedarian Project. And of course, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning the most influential early education program ever: Sesame Street, which reaches some 100 million children across the globe). What developmental, educational, economic, and societal impacts have these studies measured? Here's a sampling from the Carolina Abedarian Project: Major Findings of the Young Adult Follow-Up Study Young adults who received early educational intervention had significantly higher mental test scores from toddlerhood through age 21 than did untreated controls. Averaged over the age span tested, the mental test score effect size for treatment was moderate and considered educationally meaningful. Enhanced language skills in the children appears to have mediated the effects of early intervention on mental test performance (i.e., cognitive skills). Reading achievement scores were consistently higher for individuals with early intervention. Treatment effect sizes remained large from primary school through age 21. Enhanced cognitive skills appeared to mediate treatment effects on reading achievement. Mathematics achievement showed a pattern similar to that for reading, with treated individuals earning higher scores. Effect sizes were medium in contrast to the large effects for reading. Again, enhanced cognitive functioning appeared to mediate treatment effects. Those with treatment were significantly more likely still to be in school at age 21 --40% of the intervention group compared with 20% of the control group. A significant difference was also found for the percent of young adults who ever attended a four-year college. About 35% of the young adults in the intervention group had either graduated from or were at the time of the assessment attending a four-year college or university. In contrast, only about 14% in the control group had done so. Young adults in the intervention group were, on average, two years older (19 years) when their first child was born compared with those in the control group (17 years), although the youngest individuals in both groups were comparable in age when their first child was born. Employment rates were higher (65%) for the treatment group than for the control group (50%), although the trend was not statistically significant. In other words, researchers found that 15 years after students had preschool experiences that their were positive cognitive impact on math and reading, they were more likely to attend and graduate college, less likely to become teen parents, and had higher employment rates. There are many other studies - some of which I have highlighted on this blog before - that illustrate the long-term economic impact. And in another time and place I'll assemble a more comprehensive bibliography of sources I've collected over the years. The body of knowledge about the incredible impact that early intervention has (an "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"!) can be overwhelming, actually. And to be honest, I don't believe there is a need for me to catalogue all of the evidence. The impacts are self-evident, common-sensical and, I think, instinctual. So why is there NOT universal preschool? Why is there NOT more early childhood intervention and parent empowerment? Why, indeed?! The short anser is twofold: access and inefficiency. Approximately $11 billion in federal and state money are spent on early childhood education and preschool each year serving just under 2 million children. Yet fewer than 1 in 6 eligible families are able to access a Head Start program or other government funded early education program. By my (conservative) estimates fewer than 20% of US families have access to high quality early childhood care. The US Census Bureau reports that there are over 805,000 childcare centers in the US, but of these 805,000 "centers" the overwhelming majority, 729,741, consist of "self-employed people or other businesses without paid employees." There are 75,000 centers that include the likes of KinderCare, Bright Horizons, Learning Care Group and 7 others who, collectively, serve 671,000 children, or 6.8% of the market. The question, again, is why is there not universal early childhood care? It's not a question asked very often, except by a select group of advocates. In all the noise, hoopla and capital resource dump focused on K-12 and higher ed the most critical time for development is being neglected. Truly this is inexcusable! In a year when a few people on a shoestring budget have reached and taught hundreds of thousands of learners across the globe, democratizing education and empowering higher ed learners like never before (via MOOCs), why have we not even begun to think about applying this to early childhood? ...ahah! But we HAVE begun to think about this. More: we are starting to DO this! The biggest challenge to universal preschool is not capital resources. Unlike MOOCs for adult learners looking to fill their brains with knowledge about computer science, advanced math, machine learning, and dozens of other courses, impactful early childhood education requires a human touch. Big Bird, Sesame Street and other television or learning apps are good. But in the early childhood years young minds are being impacted more by the models they have to immitate, the safe, warm envrionments for them to play in and social-emotional intreactions with loving adults and peers. That is, early childhood education cannot be outsourced to a screen in the same way that works for adult learners. What, then, is the biggest challenge if it is not capital resources? The biggest challenge is human capital. There already exists an extensive infrastructure that is willing, able and hungry to contribute to our children's development: PARENTS AND FAMILIES! The human capital is already in place, if only they could be coached and trained to be their child's best teacher. Guess what: they can be. Parents are already a child's first and most important teacher; with steady coaching and training, most parents can learn how to be their child's BEST teacher. And herein lies one of the best solutions to the challenges of universal early childhood education - a system, a platform for training and coaching parents to be an educator to their child. This approach is scalable, doesn't require huge infrastructure investments, and is already proven to have meaningful impacts on family learning. Parent University is to early childhood education what the MOOC movement is to higher ed. Parent University will democratize and empower family learning and create a new frontier for early childhood education.