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

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offers a lively take on early education in a recent column called, “Beyond Education Wars.”

“For the last dozen years, waves of idealistic Americans have campaigned to reform and improve K-12 education,” Kristoff writes.

“Armies of college graduates joined Teach for America. Zillionaires invested in charter schools. Liberals and conservatives, holding their noses and agreeing on nothing else, cooperated to proclaim education the civil rights issue of our time.”

But Kristof wonders if the education reform movement has “peaked.”

“The zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has dropped for the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity.

“K-12 education is an exhausted, bloodsoaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after. So a suggestion: Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.” (The emphasis is ours.)

Kristof has three reasons for focusing on early education:

• “mounting evidence that early childhood is a crucial period when the brain is most malleable, when interventions are most cost-effective for at-risk kids”

• “The second reason to focus on early interventions is that the low-hanging fruit has already been picked in the K-12 world,” and because “fixing K-12 education will be a long slog, so let’s redirect some energy to children aged 0 to 5 (including prenatal interventions, such as discouraging alcohol and drug use among pregnant women)”

• His third reason is because “Early education is where we have the greatest chance of progress because it’s not politically polarized.”

Kristof also discusses the neuroscience involved, noting:

“Researchers are finding that poverty can harm the brains of small children, perhaps because their brains are subjected to excessive cortisol (a stress hormone) and exposed less to conversation and reading. One study just published in Nature Neuroscience found that children in low-income families had a brain surface area on average 6 percent smaller than that of children in high-income families.

“‘Neuroscience tells us we’re missing a critical, time-sensitive opportunity to help the most disadvantaged kids,’ notes Dr. Jack Shonkoff, an early childhood expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.”

Kristof has written about early education before. In 2011, we quoted his column “Occupy the Classroom.” In 2013, his column’s headline asked: “Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?” And in a 2014 column called “Do Politicians Love Kids?” he writes about early childhood programs:

“Washington will probably be a discouraging gridlocked mess for the next couple of years. But here’s a rare issue where it’s just conceivable that we could make progress and build a stronger and more equitable future for our nation.

“If our politicians really do love children, here’s a way to prove it.”

Chris Martes, Strategies for Children president and CEO, sees early education as the next phase of education reform. “Having served for nearly two decades as a school superintendent, it is clear that the achievement gap is already in place as children enter kindergarten. Research tells us that it is wise to invest in high-quality early education.”

Kristof concludes in his most recent column on early education:

“Even within early education, there will be battles. Some advocates emphasize the first three years of life, while others focus on 4-year-olds. Some seek to target the most at-risk children, while others emphasize universal programs.

“But early childhood is not a toxic space, the way K-12 education is now. So let’s redeploy some of our education passions, on all sides, to an area where we just may be able to find common ground: providing a foundation for young children aged 0 to 5.”