I attended the White House Summit on Early Education virtually via web stream. As I was sitting there listening and watching, my first impression was that this was more of the same regarding the research on the importance of early parenting to children’s success. The speakers all agreed that children getting a good start is essential and recognized that one can’t start too early. But most of the conversation was about the need for greater access to quality preschool. Of course this is a great need. However, too often emphasis on the years from birth to 3 is an afterthought at best.
Toward the end of the first panel, I noticed a palpable change. The last panelist was Hiro Yoshikawa, from New York University. Dr. Yoshikawa is a noted researcher on the impact of early education experience. I had heard him previously speak convincingly on the impact that quality early education can have on the futures of low-income children. What surprised me at the Summit is that he identified the most important frontier needing attention as supports for parents to promote a nurturing home environment before preschool begins. I was surprised, and very pleased, because when parents are mentioned in the context of early childhood learning, most speakers use the term parent engagement. By parent engagement they seem to mean parents engaging in support of the school’s curriculum. Yet, the role of parents can and should be so much more.
I was totally unprepared for what came next. Next on the agenda was James Heckman, from the University of Chicago, who gave a prepared speech. The Nobel Laureate put the importance of early quality parenting in the strongest and clearest language I have ever heard. I am trying to get a copy of the speech, and hope to review it in detail in a future post. In summary, Heckman laid out the argument that the most important contributor to a child’s success and long-term health is the quality of the parenting he/she receives as a child. He further elegantly argued that there is no better investment we can make than helping parents nurture their young children.
After Heckman’s impassioned and informed call, the tone of what followed for the day seemed to change. It became a conversation about classroom and family. Prior to Heckman’s speech, the importance of the family environment seemed to be an afterthought. It was especially apparent in a panel discussion when Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, referred back to Heckman’s words and acknowledged that the role of parents is more important than the role of teachers (for one of many examples of the research see this previous blog post).
Along with the Summit, the White House released a plan that shows 1 Billion Dollars of private and public spending for Early Education. I was disappointed to see that the vast majority of the money goes to classrooms. We can hope that going forward, Dr Heckman’s words will become better reflected in policy and funding for family support services. Those of us who are currently assessing parenting to guide quality services that support parents in better nurturing their children, should keep faith that we are doing the right thing. And we have a Nobel Laureate’s support! Maybe after this Summit, more money will follow to fund this vital work.
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