Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops by age 4. We also know that between about six months and age three, a child in an upper-income home hears 34 million words, in a middle-income home the number drops to 19.5 million words, and in a low-income home the number drops further to 9.5 million. Researchers have determined that exposure to vocabulary use is predictive of a child’s language skills and academic success; this means that the opportunity gap has already begun in a child’s first year of life.
So why then does Maryland wait until kindergarten — age 5 — before guaranteeing publicly supported education for all our children?
For most children from upper-income families, building the foundation begins during pregnancy with good nutrition, and early and regular prenatal care. For many of these children, a language-rich environment and multiple and varied learning opportunities at home and in the community are givens throughout their early years.
In lower income families, parents who are not provided concrete assistance in times of need have insufficient social supports and limited access to the latest research in child development. By age five, the period of building a strong foundation for school success has passed for many of their children, who will unnecessarily begin life behind their middle and upper class peers.
Gaps in nurturing care and guided learning opportunities during the first years of life have a profound impact. They lead to opportunity gaps throughout the school years and a wage gap later in life. An adult’s poor health outcomes, substance abuse, mental health problems and criminal activity can often be traced to missing these crucial supports and opportunities during his or her first five years.
What’s the solution? It’s a no-brainer: Maryland and the U.S. can do what almost every other developed country does and provide parents and children — especially those facing barriers of poverty, language and disabilities — with:
- Home visitation from the second trimester of pregnancy to ensure a healthy productive pregnancy and a normal birth weight;
- Paid parental leave;
- Quality child care from six weeks of age, with appropriate subsidies on a sliding scale for parents who are working, in school or in a training program;
- Supportive two-generation services like those provided at Maryland’s Family Support Centers (for birth through 3) and in Judy Centers for populations living in areas of concentrated poverty;
- And quality pre-kindergarten programs available in elementary schools and in other community-based early care and education settings for every 4 year old.
There is no silver bullet; we need the full array of supports. The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (the Kirwan Commission) is considering these services, including providing free or low-cost pre-K for everyone, which is critical, but shouldn’t be the end of the young child effort. For the older students, members are studying a comprehensive approach that includes a more robust vocational pipeline, career ladders and higher pay for teachers; community schools for serving students in concentrated poverty; after-school programs and other extended learning and enrichment opportunities; higher academic standards for both students and teachers; greater transparency; and meaningful accountability measures.
The irony of the commission’s intense focus on children from pre-K to 12th grade is that learning and teaching will be more difficult and more expensive if Maryland students start from behind because we don’t do what is necessary to support their growth and development during the earliest years.
The first step toward excellence in education for the next generation of Maryland children will begin with the Kirwan’s Commission’s report and whether it reflects the proven facts about a child’s physical and cognitive development, especially in those first few years. We know what works. But will we decide to do it?
Do we really believe in the well-being and future of every child? Will those who want to be governor put their money where their mouth is and do what works to give a strong start to all of Maryland’s children? What about those who seek election or re-election to the state Senate or House? Who will step away from the pack and declare support for what will certainly change lives and make Maryland safer and economically stronger? General support for education is not sufficient to be an “education candidate.”
We cannot continue losing the potential talents of so many children who could boost the cultural richness, quality of life, and workforce of our state. Parents, grandparents and employers are looking for results. Children are looking for us adults to do what’s right.
David W. Hornbeck is a former Maryland state superintendent of schools and a former superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.