Keeping the Dream Alive for Our Country’s Children

June 23, 2020

t’s time to take a renewed stand for equity in education. Our country has changed in the few months since we first published our paper Standing Up for the Best in the American Dream. It was before COVID-19 had taken over 100,000 U.S. lives, many of them people of color. It was before George Floyd suffered a senseless demise, like too many before him: Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and more. But the urgent message we sent is more timely than ever before: As educators, we all need to be a part of efforts to end the poverty cycle that traps families for generations, putting them at greater risk of disease, deprivation and early death.

Inequity and injustice are still on the rise as we confront a pressing question: Is the American dream a thing of the past? It may be, according to the “Gatsby Curve,” a term coined by Alan Krueger, a Princeton professor and former economic advisor to Barack Obama. Krueger wanted people to see how the growing gap in U.S. incomes raises the odds that children from vulnerable families won’t do any better than their parents did.

But early education can lift them up, as policy makers and thought leaders began to see during the civil rights movement of the sixties. Segregation was rife in 1962 when Chicago economist James Heckman led a team of researchers and teachers in conducting the seminal Perry Preschool Project. The goal of their five-year study was to determine whether high-quality early education can help vulnerable preschool children improve their chances to succeed in school and life.

The youngsters chosen for the project were all children of color with below-average IQs, and the researchers hoped to rewrite their life stories. At first, there was great excitement because the children’s IQ scores rose more than those of children in a control group. Though these gains faded by third grade, the character traits the Perry preschoolers picked up proved more important, as Heckman’s team revealed in a follow-up study last year. Character matters more than cognitive skills in driving life outcomes, Heckman maintained. Not only were the Perry preschoolers doing well in mid-life, their children were performing well, too. And these results spoke to the value that early education brings to both present and future generations.

The “key ingredient” of the project, Heckman pointed out, was the “enhanced parent-child interaction” that educators produced during their weekly home visits. This warm exchange provides tremendous value and builds families’ trust in teachers, as the Council has heard from those who earn its Home Visitor Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential.

The findings from the Perry Preschool Project also brought home the need to invest more in preschool. They encouraged the growth of Head Start and caught the eye of educational leaders and lawmakers by showing that early education saves public funds. The children involved in the project were less likely to use drugs and have brushes with the police, more likely to be healthy and hold jobs. They were also more likely to provide their children with stable homes that enhanced their development, too. In short, economists have calculated a striking return of nearly $13 for every dollar spent on giving children the early education they need.

So hard data show that investing in high-quality pre-K pays off. Now we must act on the research by reaching more of our youngest children and raising the chances that they shall overcome the odds stacked against them. The poverty cycle that still afflicts many U.S. homes is a social ill that should concern us all, like the viral plague that’s taken an especially grim toll on people of color. The injustices that still persist led to George Floyd’s death and fueled the recent wave of protests. As we strive to right social wrongs, we should remember the sixties and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stirring call to join him in “standing up for the best in the American dream.” As educators, we can play a key role in keeping that dream alive for all our country’s children.

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