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Pre-K is important, but not as important as parents

Last week two important pieces appeared in the New York Times concerning early childhood: Quality Preschool Is the ‘Most Cost-Effective’ Educational Intervention on the Motherlode blog, and Language-Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K on the front page. The latter article attracted letters to the editor from experienced educational leaders. This one was particularly salient:

To the Editor:

The shocking gap in language skills of infants and toddlers should bolster a push for adult education rather than for pre-K. We obviously need more pre-K slots to meet demand across New York City, but a better strategy to close the language gap would be to focus on the child’s first and most important teacher, the parent. Parents who have never had any success in school need a hand in promoting their child’s healthy intellectual development.

The research clearly documents that the gap develops long before pre-K; so why wait until a child is 4? And why would we think that a student-teacher ratio of 20 to 1 or more will close the gap more effectively than programs working with parents who have many fewer children to care for?

ANTHONY TASSI
Executive Director, Literacy Partners
Brooklyn, Oct. 22, 2013

Early Learning Means Engaging Parents as well as Preschool

Right now there is a flurry of research and analysis of early learning that should be celebrated. In particular, there is an emphasis on the impact of preschool on later outcomes. This is good news, because preschool learning does matter, as does the quality of preschool programs. However, as Mr. Tassi’s letter shows, it does not imply that preschool is the most effective, most cost-effective, or only way to address the development of early gaps in ability and learning. Sheila Smith, director of Early Childhood and director of Child Care and Early Education Research Connections and Lee Kreader, director of National Center for Children in Poverty (both at Columbia University) proposed a more balanced conclusion:

Yes, the language-gap study should fuel efforts to expand high-quality preschool programs. But it should do the same for Early Head Start and home visiting programs.

Early Head Start — a program that research has shown helps parents provide more language stimulation and emotional support for their infants and toddlers, and benefits children’s cognitive and language development — serves only 4 percent of eligible children. Similarly, home visiting programs, which can also help parents nurture their very young children’s language growth, reach a fraction of families in need.

Expanding these programs can reduce the language gap early, before it becomes much harder to close, and help parents realize the hopes they have for their children’s success.

Question: Do you know of great parent support programs that are making a difference and deserve attention?

About Graham Scharf

My name is Graham Scharf. I am a father of two delightful daughters, the husband of a developmental pediatrician, a NYC Teaching Fellow alumnus, co-founder of Tumblon.com and author of The Apprenticeship of Being Human.
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