Like many others I was disappointed that President Obama didn’t mention early childhood education in his State of the Union Speech. Yet when he talked about education, government, and the American people the president said many of the right things for our early learning programs. He noted a sense of urgency when he said the future is ours to win but to get there, we can’t just stand still. He called for more competent and efficient government and for every classroom to be “a place of high expectations and high performance.” His call to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world” had that uniquely American “can do” ring to it that early education policymakers and practitioners should heed.
The president made his case for quick action when he pointed out that over the next 10 years nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And, he pointed out that as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. He asked whether all of us — as citizens and as parents — are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed and he pointed out that when a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance.
He spoke proudly of Race to the Top, pointing out that instead of just pouring money into the status quo his administration launched a competition for innovation and reform across the education spectrum. The Obama administration has moved similarly to bring competition to Head Start. Properly implemented, this has the potential—to paraphrase the president—to be the most meaningful reform our early childhood system has seen in a generation. The administration should have the support of everyone in the early childhood field to get this reform right, and in my opinion that means including measures of children’s learning in decisions about who gets funded. This principle ought to be extended to subsidized child care, as well.
Of course there is much more to be done in way of directing funds specifically to innovation in the early education sector so that we too can reinvent ourselves. We need a great deal more research and evaluation aimed at identifying the effects and costs of policy and practice alternatives in early care and education. The federal government could greatly facilitate reinvention by sponsoring a program of research to help guide policymakers at the state and local level as well as program administrators in Head Start, child care, and the public schools. By incentivizing local innovation by educators willing to engage in experiments (freeing them from regulations that get in the way of innovating on a trial basis) and systematically collecting good data on the costs and effects of these innovations, government can build on the hard work, creativity, and imagination of our people the president recognized. Nothing could help us more to do big things for little children.