Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Donna Housman makes an important case for “Doing Early Childhood Education Right,” in a recent opinion piece that she wrote for WBUR’s Learning Lab, which reports on innovation and reform in education.

A psychologist who founded the Beginnings School in Weston, Mass., Housman calls for maximizing investments in early childhood by using evidence-based approaches.

She highlights Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, noting that he “has identified expansion of early education as one of his top three priorities for the current legislative session, and recently called on the state to ‘provide early access to high quality programming for our youngest children.’”

“On the face of it, the speaker’s call to action should generate little opposition, except perhaps over the question of how he intends to fund this expansion,” Housman writes. “But there is in fact a growing backlash against early childhood education, with critics arguing that there is scarce evidence supporting pre-K; that the benefits of pre-K dissipate quickly or that early childhood education’s benefits redound mainly to lower-income students.” 

Housman, however, rejects the substance of the backlash, writing:

“Access to early education has been shown to mitigate serious problems of substance abuse, aggression and violence and to contribute to behavioral health and overall well-being – all issues cited by Speaker DeLeo.”

In addition: “The idea that lower-income children principally benefit from early childhood education is based on a predominant misconception that poverty alone is to blame for the achievement gap. Positive, responsive relationships, rich in quality time and communication, are what influence and shape a child’s growing brain and development. Children hunger for nurturance, connection, limit setting and love; those are family characteristics that are not necessarily linked to income. Children from middle- and high-income families can benefit from high quality early learning experiences.”

What makes early education programs “high-quality?” Housman points to several factors:

• Starting early because “it is too late in the developmental process of the child to target expansion of access to pre-school education to 4-year-olds. Learning begins at birth, and research confirms that 90 percent of the brain is already developed within the first three years of life.”

• Understanding that “learning focused on emotional and social development is equally important as learning focused on the development of cognitive skills”

• And in a piece that she wrote for the Boston Globe, she warns against “a disturbing trend to try to ‘push down’ into early childhood education an emphasis on hard academic skills, including literacy and math… educational content needs to be appropriate to the developmental stage of the child. You can’t take a ‘lite’ version of a first- or second-grade curriculum and expect it to work with 3- and 4-year-olds.”

Getting early childhood education right is crucial, Housman says, explaining: “No single policy measure has as great a return on investment as early childhood education,” which is why it’s vital to “try to forge a common understanding rooted in new scientific research of what an excellent early childhood education means.”