Pro­tect­ing early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion helps na­tional se­cu­rity

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint - GUEST COLUM­NIST VIN­SON E. SMITH

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

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