Protecting early childhood education helps national security
The next time you drop your child off to preschool, or spot a gaggle of four year olds on a playground, you should think about national security.
Yes, you read that correctly, because a lot of what happens in a four year old’s mind right now will have a big impact on his or her ability to qualify for military service or employment later in life.
This was my key message at a recent panel on Tennessee’s ranking on the Council for a Strong America Citizen Readiness index. We did not do so well, unless you subscribe to the notion that “misery loves company.” Tennessee was one of 39 states that earned a grade of C or worse. That ranking was based in part on the fact that nearly three-quarters of Tennessee’s 17-to-24-year olds would not be eligible to serve in today’s military because of issues such as educational underachievement, obesity, drug/ substance abuse or crime.
The state of Tennessee’s Pre-K program could be one of the vehicles to help solve this problem for the next generation of Tennesseans. Longrunning studies conclusively show that when early learning programs are provided correctly, they can boost graduation rates, deter children from criminal behavior/crime, and reduce the likelihood that a child will be held back in school.
These outcomes are especially important in the context of today’s military, which requires young men and women to have strong literacy, math and problem-solving skills, which are assessed through a service entrance exam that too many young adults today cannot pass. High failure rates will continue unless more children are truly “ready-to-learn” when they start school.
Fortunately, we have a good starting point based on Tennessee’s Pre-K program. As shown in a National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) report, the classes are reasonably-sized, so children get personalized attention. The teachers have Bachelor’s Degrees and special training in early childhood learning. The children get a healthy meal or snack, and screening is available for problems with vision, hearing or other challenges that can impact their academic achievement.
At first, the results seem astounding. A longitudinal study by Vanderbilt University found that children who participated in the State’s Pre-K program were more prepared for kindergarten than those who did not. Unfortunately, the Vanderbilt study found even though the quality factors are there on paper, a child in one classroom and city might have a very different experience than that in another. What was also notable was that the benefits diminished after kindergarten and typically disappeared by the third grade.
While researchers are still trying to determine the cause of this, one factor that must be addressed is the teaching children experience in the grades that follow. A study by Vanderbilt’s Peabody College professors found that children who participated in the Pre-K program and who had higher-rated teachers in first grade consistently performed better in first grade than children who did not attend the Pre-K program.
These factors had a big impact on the passage of the Tennessee Pre-K Quality Act that was implemented this school year. It directs School Districts to coordinate between Tennessee preschool programs and elementary schools to ensure that elementary education is building on those preschool experiences. It also requires schools to do more to engage student’s parents throughout the school year and provide more professional development to pre-school teachers.
All of these measures are important to ensuring our children have the best opportunity to prepare for success in school and for the future. We must keep them on track, and ensure Tennessee’s voluntary Pre-K program is adequately funded, and that these funds are protected for years to come. Right now, the average pre-school teacher salary is $20,000 less than that of an elementary school teacher. And according to NIEER, funding for the program was nearly $2,300 per child short of the amount needed to implement all of those great quality benchmarks, which raises questions about the sustainability of the program.
Yes, more funding is a tall order given the state of our budget. But when it comes to early education you really do “get what you pay for.” Sufficiently funding our preschool program is the first step toward a better workforce, reducing crime, increasing economic growth, increasing our tax base and producing a better quality of life for all who live and visit the Volunteer State.
Rear Admiral Vinson E. Smith is retired from the U.S. Navy