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A Hand Up for Early Ed

In theory, the American education system is a quilt: an enormous patchwork of schools, curricula, research, policies, funding mechanisms, teachers, parents and students stitched together to accomplish a common goal.

Ginger Maloney reads to Ella Nichols (5), Sadie Halpern (5), Ella Hochman (4) and Michael King (5) -- students at DU's Fisher Early Learning Center. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Ginger Maloney reads to Ella Nichols (5), Sadie Halpern (5), Ella Hochman (4) and Michael King (5) -- students at DU's Fisher Early Learning Center. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

In reality, the system is more like a maze, replete with numerous ways to enter, dozens of dead ends and no straight line between a child’s first learning experience and the time conventional education ends with college graduation. What’s more, parents and teachers who try to navigate the labyrinth on their own are often confronted with overwhelming, outdated, incomplete or simply erroneous data that turn basic decision making into a nightmare.

Nowhere is the situation more confusing than at the onset of the education process as children begin their first migration to school from home.

In 2006, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 65.7 percent of the country’s more than 12 million preschool-age children were enrolled in some form of early learning program, but nailing down a figure everyone can agree on is difficult. Why? In part because there are so many places for structured early learning to take place — with licensed, unlicensed, registered, unregistered, quality-rated, unrated, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking and other-language-speaking home, private, public and church-based schools all part of the mix-and, in part, because the line between what constitutes day care and what constitutes preschool is so easily and often blurred.

On any given day, when the weather is warm enough to travel, a gaggle of pint-sized students explores DU’s campus. These are the infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children who attend the Morgridge College of Education’s Fisher Early Learning Center. Thanks to an innovative program that takes full use of University grounds and facilities, they have learning experiences both inside the classroom and out.

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“Early childhood has tended to be a stepchild in the educational system,” says Ginger Maloney, director of the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy at DU’s Morgridge College of Education. “People still think of this phase as more child care than education, and that tends to de-emphasize the importance of learning.”


Good start

Created in 2008 with a $1.5 million gift from the Cydney (BSBA ’78, MBA ’80) and Tom (MBA ’79) Marsico Family Foundation, the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy is tasked with becoming an information resource for parents, professionals, legislators and others with a vested interest in early childhood learning.

“DU has a strong interest in the importance of early childhood as a part of the broader educational system of the United States,” says Maloney, former dean of the Morgridge College. “What we’re trying to do with the Marsico Institute is coordinate with other work going on across campus and bring the University’s resources to bear on critical issues that the field of early childhood and the state are facing right now. We see this as a critical time to strengthen what we’re doing in early childhood learning, and we really take it seriously.”

Although the institute is still in its infancy, Maloney has a clear vision of its future.

“In five years, I would like the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy to be seen as the hub for early childhood research and early childhood policy analysis in the state of Colorado and to be known on a national level for contributing original research on issues pertinent to improving learning environments for very young children,” Maloney says.

In the shorter-term, Maloney says, “We want to help inform important policy discussions related to early childhood.”

She pictures the institute having an important role in bringing together the best minds and the best research to solve problems and to improve the full complement of early childhood services.

“We’re going to do a lot of work in partnership with other organizations,” Maloney says. “It’s very important that the University is not out there doing this research in isolation. Rather, we should be building relationships with practitioners, policymakers and people who are working to improve early childhood in Colorado.”

How does Colorado compare with other states in early childhood education? Generally speaking, the state gets a passing grade, but there’s clearly room to improve.

In its 2007 ranking of the 38 states with a defined preschool initiative, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) ranked Colorado 36th for resource allocation based on state-funded spending and 29th for resource allocation based on all reported spending.

Colorado ranked 22nd for the percent of 4-year-olds and 11th for the percent of 3-year-olds enrolled in the state’s preschool program. And in a comparison of Colorado’s policies to 10 critical areas identified by NIEER, the 2007 report awarded the state points for meeting benchmarks for specialized pre-kindergarten teacher training, teacher in-service hours, maximum class-size limits, staff-child ratio and monitoring, but noted that Colorado didn’t meet NIEER goals for early learning standards, teacher degree requirements, assistant teacher degree requirements, screening/referral and support services and meals.

In the 2008 edition of Education Week’s Quality Counts, Colorado ranked 25th of 51 (all states and the District of Columbia) for the percent of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool. The state earned kudos for aligning its early learning standards with K-12 standards, but it lost credit for failing to define school readiness, assess the readiness of students entering school or have a policy for providing intervention programs for students not deemed ready for school.

“There are a number of studies that look at how Colorado stacks up against other states, but the research is only as good as the information that goes into it,” says Darcy Allen-Young, Head Start state collaboration director for the Colorado lieutenant governor’s office. “There are many efforts in place in Colorado today on how to make our system the best it can be.”

One such effort is a preschool-to-third-grade education subcommittee that is addressing teacher preparation.

“Last year, the P-3 subcommittee was focused on access. How do we get more children enrolled in programs? How do we ensure more children are able to take advantage of these programs?” Allen- Young says. “Now the subcommittee is focusing on quality. We’re working hand-in-hand with the Colorado Department of Education to define it, and a subcommittee spin-off is going to focus on quality teacher education programs.”

Contrary to popular assumptions, those programs may not reside in a specific degree curriculum, and that makes sense to Maloney.

“Generally, the way that we’ve approached improving the quality of teaching is by insisting that people get certain degrees,” she says. “But some research argues that it doesn’t matter what the degree is. What matters is what people have been taught in terms of how to develop relationships with very young children, how to develop their concepts and how to develop their language.

“It’s not just the credential that matters; it’s what the credential represents in terms of content. It’s what teachers actually do on a day-to-day basis that makes a difference in how children succeed.”


Investment in opportunity

For some, making a national commitment to provide every child with high-quality early education is a no-brainer. They cite data that say effective early education programs increase high school and college graduation rates, reduce teenage pregnancies and illegal behavior, and help close the academic performance gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers.

An analysis of tracking studies in Michigan, North Carolina and Illinois led Arthur Rolnick, a senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and Rob Grunewald, an associate economist at the same institution, to argue for national intervention.

“Several longitudinal evaluations all reach essentially the same conclusion: The return on early-childhood-development programs that focus on at-risk families far exceeds the return on other projects that are funded as economic development,” the two wrote in “Early Intervention on a Large Scale,” an article first published in Quality Counts 2007. “Cost-benefit analyses of the Perry Preschool Program, the Abecedarian Project, the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, and the Elmira Prenatal/Early Infancy Project showed returns ranging from $3 to $17 for every dollar invested. This implies an annual rate of return, adjusted for inflation, of between 7 percent and 18 percent.”

In one of the longest studies, the North Carolina Abecedarian Project, researchers randomly placed low-income children born between 1972 and 1977 into test or control groups. Those in the test group received full-time, high-quality education in a child care setting from infancy through age 5. In analyses conducted when test and control cohorts were 12, 15 and 21 years old, researchers found the test groups to have higher cognitive measurements and better reading and math scores. Additionally, test subjects completed more years of education, were more likely to attend a four-year college and were older than their non-test peers when their first child was born.

Proponents say results like that should make early education initiatives a national priority.

“We talk nationally about economic stimulants. We talk about economic bailouts, about bailing Wall Street out while still focusing on Main Street, but I don’t think there is a Main Street issue more important and that has a better return on investment of our precious tax dollars than investing in our nation’s children,” says Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “We know the return is minimally going to be 7:1 and probably far greater. And the return is not just going to be in economic terms but also in helping to nurture a generation of successful children grow into a generation of successful adults.”

Those on the other side of the fence worry that well-publicized research results skew too heavily to the disadvantaged and flinch at the cost of state-funded preschool education programs, which the National Institute for Early Education Research cited as more than $3.7 billion nationally and $28.9 million in Colorado in 2007 alone.

“There’ve been a handful of studies that show some long-term impact for disadvantaged kids, but by and large, most show no impact for the long term and certainly no impact for middle- and upper-income kids,” says Krista Kafer, senior fellow for the Independence Institute. “Colorado spends about $29 million annually on early learning. I think we can invest that money more effectively.

“I think we pretty much know what works, but doing what works is another thing indeed.”

Low-income children tend to lose early learning benefits as they progress through elementary school — the “fade-out phenomenon.”

“It’s one of those things where you think that you can inoculate kids, where you can invest early and that investment would show dividends, and somehow kids will be better off,” Kafer says. “Logically, it would seem that if you got children into school earlier, the gap between disadvantaged kids and their more economically well-off peers would be bridged and these kids would be fine, but that’s not what happens at all.”

Marsico Institute researchers conducted a literature review of fade-out phenomenon research in 2008 and are looking nationally and internationally for the best solutions to combat the problem.

“We looked for reasons why this happens,” Maloney says. “People like to think of early childhood learning as kind of a vaccine against future educational failure, but it isn’t.”

Once children leave a nurturing early learning environment, gains will be lost if the receiving kindergarten through high school (K-12) system isn’t prepared to continue the process, Maloney explains.

“It’s very important to give kids a level playing field when they enter K-12,” Maloney says. “If that system doesn’t adequately address and continue the kind of comprehensive services that early childhood learning offers, kids start to backslide or, at the very least, not maintain their advantage.”

Currently, there isn’t a consistent and effective hand-off mechanism, but Maloney expects the Marsico Institute to help solve this problem.

“That’s one of the reasons I am so supportive of what we are trying to do here at DU,” she says. “We think a child’s journey through the educational system should be a seamless experience where children aren’t lost in the cracks as they transition from early childhood to K-12.”

Read more about, an information clearinghouse created by the Marsico Institute and its community partners.


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