Partners in Progress – Creating a Fundamental Right to an Early and Fair Opportunity to Learn
Though this year’s State of the Union address was thematically focused on strengthening the economy, President Obama rightfully connected the country’s economic growth with the need to meet the challenge of equity and long-term investments in our education systems, specifically early education. We applaud the President for taking this challenge seriously and taking the step of committing our nation to the cause. We strongly agree with the President that ensuring access to high quality early childhood education for ALL students, and closing the opportunity gap for poor children and children of color, is essential for our economy as well as our democracy.
Reflecting on John F. Kennedy’s words, the President noted that the Constitution makes us “partners for progress.” When it comes to protecting our children and guaranteeing them a fair and safe opportunity to learn, elected officials and advocates must collaborate to put into law and practice the constitutional protections every child deserves.
Public investment in expanding access to high quality early education opportunities is indeed one of the most powerful economic plans to ensure our children’s and our nation’s future. However, as The Schott Foundation, our grantees and allies are well aware, securing and sustaining this access will require the advocacy investments to fight and secure the policy pathways necessary to make access to an early and fair opportunity to learn a fundamental right and a reality.
In past decades, our national conversation around education has been too dominated by issues around testing, to the detriment of the other metrics that help us prepare the next generation of good citizens and civic and business leaders. While standards play a role, simply raising the bar on a test doesn’t give our children what is necessary to reach that bar, nor does it ensure they will be fully prepared for the 21st century. The key to a successful education system is not simply found in prescribed standards, but in the supports that are provided to help each child reach those standards and conceptualize more comprehensive goals.
The task ahead for the US education reform movement is to pivot from a standards-driven reform agenda to a supports-based reform agenda—one that is truly universal and serves all children, not just a few. We urge Congress, states, localities and advocates to ensure that each and every 3- and 4-year-old has access to early education, to establish compulsory kindergarten for all, and to put in place the holistic supports that keep students on a track to grade-level reading by 3rd grade, so they are able to make the important transition from learning to read to reading to learn.
Additionally, during this stage there must be supports to recruit and retain teachers, give them the space to create continuous peer-to peer training, and resources and flexibility to provide more learning time and deeper learning approaches for their students. To be successful, our plan to secure a substantive early start pathway for all students must account for those who fall through the cracks of policy and poverty. For any student who falls behind, our schools and educators should be empowered to help them get back on track using proven methods like more quality time in the classroom and student centered learning approaches like personalized learning plans that provide the academic, social and health supports that the student needs.
In his address, President Obama rightly took aim at poverty as a key stumbling block that too many children face across the nation. The Federal government must rightfully play the role of ensuring equity in education in each state. When states fail to meet the challenge, the federal government should guarantee our students have an early and fair start in their most formative years, and a substantive opportunity to learn.
Likewise, as it is clear that safety has become an increasing challenging in securing student’s opportunity to learn, Schott also supports the President’s call for stricter gun control, specifically related to a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks on handguns. We warn against the alternative approach of adding more police to schools, which can often criminalize youth and exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline. Our nationwide epidemic of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, seen by some as an easy fix to disruptive students, is a cure worse than the ailment. That’s why Schott and a growing coalition of organizations have called for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions and the implementation of positive discipline policies that keep students in school rather than barring them from the classroom.
As a nation we can no longer afford to neglect so many of our children during such a crucial time of their lives. The Schott Foundation looks forward to serving as a partner and advocate to secure a fundamental right to an early and fair start to an opportunity to learn. If the next generation is to be college-ready in the future, we must ensure they are guaranteed the opportunity to learn today.