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August 18, 2009

Early Learning Challenge Fund

President Obama in his remarks to the NAACP on July 16 issued the following challenge for early childhood education,

"And we should raise the bar when it comes to early learning programs... Today, some early learning programs are excellent. Some are mediocre. And some are wasting what studies show are – by far – a child's most formative years.

That's why I have issued a challenge to America's governors: if you match the success of states like Pennsylvania and develop an effective model for early learning; if you focus reform on standards and results in early learning programs; if you demonstrate how you will prepare the lowest income children to meet the highest standards of success – then you can compete for an Early Learning Challenge Grant that will help prepare all our children to enter kindergarten ready to learn."

His administration was prepared to offer grants totaling $10 billion over a ten year period, but the House Education and Labor committee recently authorized $8B over 8 years. You can read about the requirements of model systems and the two tiers of grants (one for states that are already on the right path, and another for states that have been lagging in this area) that are planned at The Early Learning Challenge Fund on the Department of Education's website.

National Journal online invited comments from experts such as Chester E. Finn, Jr. President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute and David L. Kirp, Professor, University of California (Berkeley), on whether this "standards based, outcome driven" method was the way to go. Most agreed with the method, particularly the 2-tiered approach, but some were a bit skeptical. You'll want to read what the education experts had to say for yourself.

You may remember in a previous article I lamented the slipping math and science test scores of our high school students and how it all relates back to early childhood education. This is the time when the brain is developing at its most rapid rate and why more attention needs to be paid to this critical period. Acting early can save society later on in terms of costs of unemployment, crime and lack of productivity.

Many organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have done research showing the cost to society later on if we don't beef up the early education for our most disadvantaged children. Dr. James Heckman, the Nobel Laureate, in his paper with Dimitriy Masterov entitled, "The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children. Working Paper No. 5. Invest in Kids Working Group. 4 October 2004. Committee for Economic Development." tells us that "Three of the best documented studies of interventions directed toward children in low-income families with long term follow-up find that participants experienced increased achievement test scores and high school graduation, and decreased grade retention, time in special education, crime and delinquency... The estimated rate of return on one such program is 16%, much higher than any other type of program targeted at low-ability children that has been carefully evaluated.... Extending the program to all of the 4 million children under 5 who are currently living under the poverty line would yield an estimated private net benefit of $4.6 billion for boys and $97.8 billion for girls. For the general public, the estimated net benefits are $254.4 billion and $154.8 billion, respectively."

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