Askew Institute, University of Florida — Gainesville

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., the president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, at the annual convening of the Askew Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville on Feb. 8, 2001

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to be with all of you this evening to talk about a matter fundamental to the future of our state. It is, moreover, a special privilege to be part of anything associated with the name of Reubin Askew. I admire him so deeply for his enlightened, energetic, compassionate and lifelong public service. My father, who had remarkably good judgment and wisdom and who was a keen observer of Florida politics and people, admired Governor Askew as the exemplar of public service. I do, too.

Now, you won’t be surprised to hear that I am asked all the time whether I miss the newspaper business. Truth to tell, I was ready for another chapter of my life. I loved newspapering – and still love good newspapers – loved them so much that I never missed even one day of work in 35 years at seven newspapers. I still miss the exhilaration of a big, breaking story or a fine investigative series. I still miss many of the smaller moments, especially the daily dialogue with readers that often led to a good story and, other times, simply a smile. A reader named Katie Turner comes to mind; she once wrote me, in verse, to remind me of the fundamentals of the business:

“There are wars being fought in the name of peace Crime and starvation seem never to cease. But what I think is worse – and I do hate to grouse – I cannot get the paper delivered to the house.”

Though I came to spend a great deal of time on matters of circulation and advertising and so forth, I went into newspapering because of my love for journalism and because of my idealism. And it was for reasons of idealism that I came to make a change.

The pathway to my new life began five summers ago when Lawton Chiles asked me to join the Governor’s Commission on Education. Somehow, before the day was finished on my first commission meeting, I found myself chairing the Readiness Committee. The mandate, I was told, was to find out how we can make sure that every child in Florida enters formal school fully prepared to learn.

Just a few years ago, I had no idea how important “readiness” is. Just a few years ago, the matter of brain research underscoring the crucial nature of a child’s earliest years had never crossed my mind. Listen to this quotation from the recently published book, “The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn”: “Walk upstairs, open the door gently, and look in the crib. What do you see? Most of us see a picture of innocence and helplessness, a clean slate. But, in fact, what we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe. The tiny fingers and mouth are exploration devices that probe the alien world around them with more precision than any Mars Rover. The crumpled ears take a buzz of incomprehensible noise and flawlessly turn it into meaningful language. The wide eyes that sometimes seem to peer into your very soul actually do just that, deciphering your deepest feelings. The downy head surrounds a brain that is forming millions of new connections every day.”

Now, listen to an excerpt from the new book “The Incredible Needs of Children,” by Drs. Berry Brazelton and Stanley Greenspan: “Early childhood is both the most critical and the most vulnerable time in any child’s development…. (In) the first few years, the ingredients for intellectual, emotional and moral growth are laid down. If they are not, it is true that a developing child can still acquire them, but the price rises and the chances of success decrease with each subsequent year. We can not fail children in these early years.”

Remembering that, let us make sure that we agree on what “readiness” is – and is not. It is not about children learning to read by age 3. The fact that your child, or grandchild, can read at age 3 or 4 or even 5 does not make him or her per se smarter than other people’s children. (Because children develop at different rates, the child reading a good deal later may be just as smart, or smarter.) Rather, school “readiness” is about children growing – socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually – so that they are ready and eager to learn by the time they reach first grade. It is about the blending of education and health and nurturing in the earliest years.

This evening I am here to argue that the most powerful educational “reform” that we could achieve in Florida would be getting children, prenatal to age 5, in far better shape than so many are. Tonight I want you to see education in a different way, not simply within the prism of your personal K-12 experience and your university studies. I want you to erase any images of tiny children — 3 year olds — in tiny desks with a teacher at the blackboard. Rather I ask you to imagine our youngest children learning in a fuller, different context. I want you to see the crucial nature of “teachable moments” in a child’s earliest years.

I want you to think of how we might achieve real educational reform. I want you to think of your favorite teachers and how they made a difference in your lives. (For me I can go back more than a half-century to Mrs. Soule teaching “Dick and Jane” in first grade and then, in the early Eighties, to Sam Hayes teaching finance at the Harvard Business School.) I want you to think why we have such a problem keeping good teachers in our state, and be reminded that we will need to hire 162,000 teachers in the State of Florida in the next decade. I want you to remember how we would burn out far fewer teachers if we delivered to first grade far more children eager and ready to learn. I want you to think about all the clatter about class size, and I want you to understand that class size, while important, is not the everything that many think it is. (Let’s assume for a moment that you are a first grade teacher. You have 25 children in your classroom. Using the state average of about 30 percent of the children not really ready for first grade, then eight of those 25 children are in significant deficit. What you have here is not only a teaching problem, but a management challenge. What percentage of time do you as a teacher spend with 17 children? What percentage with those eight? Who gets shortchanged? Personally, as a teacher, I’d rather have 30 children, of whom, say, just two are in significant deficit.)

Ours is a state, the fourth biggest in America, that is both growing rapidly and statistically undereducated. Why, for instance, do we have just 20 percent of Florida’s adults, 25 and older, with four-year or more college degrees, while the national average is north of 25 percent? I believe to the core of my being that we will never fully fix Florida’s educational system only by grading schools and refining the tests we give our children (though there can be value in each). Nor can we ever fully fix what ails us by vouchers or charter schools (though I have no quarrel with real tests of either).

Instead, I have come to believe that an integrated, comprehensive approach – covering health and education and nurturing for all children between birth and age 5 – is our best hope for lasting progress and the best hope for a strong future for the people of Florida. I have come to believe that we must do much better than what we have now — good programs led by good people, but so invariably disconnected from other good people, other good programs.

Our mission must embrace what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of – that is, “all of God’s children.” Or to use the words of President George W. Bush, “everyone deserves a chance.” That is surely not the way the present so-called “system” works. Instead, in your community and my own, well-intended, good-hearted people target one deeply disadvantaged neighborhood or another, and then devote extra resources (which, because those resources are disbursed in such a non-holistic way, so often add up to precious little progress for children). Meantime, the rest of the community sees how we target our resources, and reasons: “Oh, I see, it is about those children.” But “readiness” is not and should not be, just about those children; rather, “readiness” should be about, and for, everyone’s child.

Please listen to this letter that I received not long ago from Monica Serra, who lives on Miami Beach, and I promise you that thousands of similar situations exist all over our state. Mrs. Serra wrote: “I am a single mother with two children. My older son is 7 years old and in the second grade. My younger son (is) 4. I wanted (him) to start pre-kindergarten. At Biscayne Elementary I got the application to a program called Head Start. This program is for children 3 to 5 years old. I went to the interview, and I was denied. They told me I made too much money. I’m really upset…. My annual income is $23,500.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Serra might not fit the federal definition of poverty, but $23,500 and two children leaves her a great distance from the middle-class. Here, then, is a working parent – like so many others – who wants to do right by her children, and the so-called “system” has no room for her children. They lose. So do we all. The well-off in our society have all sorts of quality resources available for their children. So, too, the poorest frequently have – as they should – considerable access to quality services. But think of who’s left out – those neither well-off nor statistically poor.

I am neither utopian dreamer nor socialistic revolutionary. If your family, or my own, can afford basic and quality services, then we should pay for those. But if a family cannot, it is in the community’s interest, our interest, to provide those basic and quality services.

All sorts of research informs us that Mrs. Serra’s children need all the quality early care and education that your children and my own need: Love and nurturing. All their shots. Excellent nutrition. The fullest opportunity to be safe. Stimulating pre-K. Child care that engages the mind, not the “warehousing” that most children receive. (How could it possibly be that just 11.1 percent of the licensed child-care centers in our state are nationally accredited, meaning at those you can have assurances of a stimulating environment for your child or grandchild?)

You and I cannot afford to do anything less than provide high-quality early childhood care and education to all children who need it. Cannot afford to do anything less than provide first-rate health care for all children. (How can we live with ourselves when literally tens of thousands of children between birth and age 5 in our state go to the emergency room for basic medical care because they have no health insurance and no family pediatrician?) Isn’t it sinful that more than a quarter of the children in our state between birth and age 5 live in the full federal definition of poverty? How is it possible that we live in a country this great and this generous, and do so little for children? How can our country be first among the 26 most industrialized nations in gross national product and the number of millionaires and billionaires, and yet No. 18 in the gap between rich and poor children, 16th in living standards among the poorest fifth of our children, 18th in infant mortality, and toward the middle or bottom in math and science scores? How can we afford to do anything less than commit to every child and every parent that we are prepared to devote the resources, in public and private partnership, that will give every child the chance to be truly ready for school and for life.

How can we live with ourselves when 20 to 30 percent of the children in first grade in our state are significantly behind, and so many will never catch up. Those who would say, “Children at this age have young and fertile minds, and will quickly catch up” turn out to be quite wrong. I give you a most compelling figure from an American Reading Association study of three years ago – one which can be confirmed by Donna Lou Askew, who’s a volunteer tutor for first-grade students with real trouble reading: if a hundred children come out of the first grade not really being able to read, then 88 of them will still not be good readers after the fourth grade either. Surely that is a wakeup call for readiness for all children.

How do I convince you that “readiness” is our mutual mission? How do I convince you that this must be done?

Do I make the case with tough facts, tough figures, a mind-blowing dose of reality?

The almost 40 percent of ninth grade students who do not finish high school. Or the 75,000 births to unwed mothers in our state last year. Or the 150,000+ juvenile-delinquency cases last year. Or the tens of thousands of children in our state who need, but who do not get, mental health services. Or the 22,000 low birth-weight babies born in our state last year. Or the 8,000 babies born to 13-17 year olds.

Or maybe I should tell you about the 66,605 incidents of fighting the most recent year for which we have statistics in public schools. Or the 3,954 incidents of weapons possession in those schools.

Or do I appeal to people’s sense of civility and decency?

Surely every child is entitled to a decent beginning in life. To use the words of the great educator John Dewey: “What the wisest and best parents want for (their) own children, (so) must the community want for all its children.” Or, in the words of the author James Baldwin: “For these are all our children…. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”

Or do I appeal to people’s sense of economic imperative and business investment?

Readiness is, in fact, a matter of business investment as well as in the self-interest of all of us. An educated community is a safer, more prosperous, more optimistic community for everyone. We know from the research that if we were ever to spend a dollar wisely up front — that is, from pre-natal to age 5 — we would not have to spend seven dollars at the other end on police and prosecution and prison, and remedial education of all sorts. Ladies and gentlemen, you and I will either pay a few dollars more up front in children’s lives, or we will pay many more dollars when they get older. A more educated, contributing citizenry literally depends on children coming to first grade eager and able to learn. The greatest gift we could give our schools is more children ready for success in the first grade and, hence, in life.

There is a growing national movement on the subject of school readiness. You can see that movement, for example, in the new Secretary of Education-nominee, Rod Paige, who as schools superintendent in Houston, asked the Texas Legislature to make available pre-school for all 3- and 4-year-olds. You can see it in North Carolina’s public-private Smart Start program. In Georgia’s universal pre-K for 4 year olds, and the wisdom of New York and Oklahoma to take the same path. In California’s decision to tax tobacco to raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year for birth-to-5 programs. In Vermont’s series of compassionate “family development” initiatives. In Cincinnati’s major effort in behalf of “home visiting.” In the Defense Department’s commitment to quality child care, a commitment that ought to be emulated by the civilian community.

We don’t need a bunch more research to tell us what we simply must do. I see extensive such research regularly. By way of example, just as I was preparing what I would say this evening, I met Dr. Andrew Biemiller of the University of Toronto. His research reminds us that the average child acquires 800 words a year from age 1 on, while disadvantaged children acquire about half that amount. That same day I spoke with Professor Donald Meichenbaum, whose research tells us: “Advanced students entering kindergarten are at least a year ahead of average children, while delayed children are about a year behind. Moreover, these differences grow larger during the elementary years.”

The day I wrote this speech, I ran across the latest federal research on Early Head Start, which provides high-quality child and family development services to pregnant women and infants and toddlers, from birth to age 3. Those Early Head Start children “performed significantly better in cognitive, language and social-emotional development compared to children not in the program.” Moreover, parents in Early Head Start “also showed more positive parenting behavior, reported less physical punishment of their children and provided more help for their children to learn at home.”

Then there’s the research in child care – a reality for 5 million children younger than 3 in our country, a reality for the two-thirds of this country’s working-outside-the-home parents of children birth to 5. There is ample evidence that quality child care makes a positive difference in children’s futures, real evidence that mediocre child care can stunt their futures. For instance, a joint project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, UCLA and Yale gave us these four headlines: “(1) High quality child care is an important element in achieving the national goal of having all children ready for school; (2) High quality child care continues to positively predict children’s performance well into their school careers; (3) Children who have traditionally been at risk of not doing well in school are affected more by the quality of child-care experiences than other children, and (4) The quality of child-care classroom practices is related to children’s cognitive development, while the closeness of the child-care teacher-child relationship influences children’s social development through the early school years.”

Or how about the longitudinal study of kindergarten, just released by the U.S. Department of Education? That study shows a quarter of “beginning kindergartners…eager to learn no more than sometimes or never, and (a third) paying attention in class (in) similar frequency.”

Assuming that we were serious about “readiness” for all children, I offer five pieces of advice:

One: We must involve both public and private resources. We must think of government’s role in the spirit of Hubert Humphrey’s wisdom: “The moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life – the children; the twilight of life – the elderly; and the shadows of life – the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” We must involve, deeply so, the private sector. Some of the most visible leaders must come from the general community, including the business community. The top leaders need to be seen as in no one’s “camp,” people open and responsive to all, people with a vision that encompasses all children, people who truly understand what “holistic” means, people both open and tough-minded, people with a long-term commitment and passion for this issue. Most of all, we will need to involve parents. If they ever knew what their children are entitled to, in a civilized society, you would have a mighty army insisting on real change and a holistic approach.

Two: The public is starved for information. Most people, even well educated and sophisticated people, know precious little about this whole area of readiness. But I have yet to meet the parent who at least at birth does not want the best for his or her child (though that parent might find himself or herself quickly and quite incapable of providing those necessities). Parents are starved for first-rate information. We need to find wise ways to provide that information.

In my own community of Miami-Dade, we will launch later this year a major, at-least-three-years-long campaign for public awareness on this topic, a TV-radio-print-and-website approach. That campaign’s first target will be parents and caregivers who will be able to call – in English, Spanish or Creole – any hour day or night for information that ranges from: “My child has been crying for hours; what should I do?” to “How do I find really good child care that I can afford?”

Three: We cannot let money dominate the discussion. I can’t tell you the number of people, good people, who have said to me: “I’m really with you on this one. Now if you could give my program a bit more money, I promise you that things will be better.” I simply don’t believe that. More money may be needed, but the discussion first needs to focus on what children need. Holistically. The point is not to start another program. Rather it is to focus on outcomes for children. Measurable results. Results regularly shared with the community. We won’t have to wait a generation to know the results; any first-rate first grade teacher will tell you quickly how prepared the children are. Four: Our real focus must be local. The state as a partner will be crucial. So will its dollars. But if real progress is to be made, it will be made by the local community insisting on real progress for its children. A community to be successful will need to find a way to have far more sayso over the tax dollars that speak to children from birth to age 5. That’s where Florida’s pioneering legislation for School Readiness Coalitions comes in. In my community, the work of our early childhood initiative is closely connected with the work of the Miami-Dade School Readiness Coalition. It’s one of 57 such coalitions in our state. That coalition of 25 members includes more than a third from the business community and the private sector.

Five: We will have no real “movement” unless this is about everyone’s child. I remind you that the kindergarten movement began in this country almost a century and a half ago, and took more than a century for it to be genuinely widespread. It was frequently fought. Today, though, high quality kindergarten for all children is an expectation on the part of every parent. We do not have a century or more to wait for the early childhood movement to flower. And for those of you who think the challenge too daunting, I give you the words of the great anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt,” she once wrote, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

To build a real movement, we should start on these five goals:

  1. 1. High quality, nationally accredited child care available for all.
  2. 2. A quality “medical home” for every child pre-natal to age 5 – not the emergency-room-as-basic-medical-care that thousands of children receive in our community. Every child should be entitled to first-rate health care.
  3. 3. Progress toward availability of a quality pre-K experience – though not mandatory – for every 4 year old. This would incorporate public and private approaches, including Head Start and high quality child-care options for parents.
  4. 4. “Home visiting” availability – using trained professionals or paraprofessionals — for all children from pre-natal through the first two or three years of life. Important research going back two decades shows this approach leads to more successful children, more successful adults, and greater spacing between babies – three powerful and proven outcomes.
  5. 5. Parent skill-building that recognizes the necessity of parents and families being fully involved in “readiness.” A child’s first teacher – the parent – needs to be the child’s best teacher.

My friends, could we not be wise enough to come together to “own” a portrait of what we would want for every child? Is this not a matter of wise investment in their future and our own? Is it not basic American fairness that every child have a real chance to succeed?

Is it not within our power to build a state and communities with the strength and compassion to leave no child behind? Could we not insist on that?

Should we fail, I remind you of the words of the great psychiatrist, Karl Menninger: “What we do to children,” said Dr. Menninger, “they will do to society.”

Ladies and gentlemen, it is up to us.

Thank you.