NAEYC National Conference — Orlando

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Ladies and gentlemen. This noontime I bring you good news, and not good news at all – and, then, a solution.

Let me begin, though, by telling you where I am coming from…

I spent 35 years of my life in journalism. Worked as reporter, editor, publisher at seven newspapers. Loved the business so much that I never missed a day of work. Yes, I not infrequently would go home tired and discouraged and upset, and wondering why I went into this business. But by the next morning, I was back to my naturally optimistic self, excited by the opportunities the new day might bring. Had the chance to interview the President of these United States on Air Force One, meet every President from Richard Nixon on, interview the dictator in Havana for 5 ½ hours, have dinner with Queen Elizabeth, and travel to 55 countries (including China and Costa Rica and, indeed, every country in this hemisphere).

I’ve always loved to learn, and still do. I still read at least two newspapers every day and at least one book every week, more often than not history and biographies.

I grew up on a farm that ultimately didn’t make it, which is how we came to Florida. One of the great events of my childhood came when I was 11 and my parents gave us a full set of the World Book Encyclopedia, which I would read page after page after page. Every evening at the dinner table all nine of us Lawrence children were quizzed by my father not only as to what happened in school but also on the news of the day with an emphasis on politics and government. Monday to Saturday we received a newspaper at home, and two newspapers on Sunday. The first book I, then age 4, can remember was read by my mother. The message of “The Little Engine That Could” – that is, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” and ultimately success — turned out to be a metaphor for a meaningful life. It speaks, of course, to the potential within every child (and our individual and mutual obligation to give all children the chance to succeed in school and in life).

In 1996, almost 20 years ago and then the publisher of The Miami Herald (and responsible, too, for the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald), I was recruited by then Florida Governor Lawton Chiles to be on the Governor’s Commission on Education, a two-year civic mission. Our assignment was to look at six critical education issues for the future of Florida in the next millennium. There were six task forces. One of them was called “School Readiness”…a topic about which I had never heard though I am the father of five, married now almost 52 years, and a grandfather, too. My children were raised according to the principles of high-quality health and education and nurturing, even if I didn’t realize there were “principles” undergirding the early childhood years. In any event, the Governor hornswoggled me into chairing that Readiness task force. What I came to understand re-energized my life and led me to depart a business I had loved intensely.

I came to believe that the topic of high-quality early care, development and education literally spoke to the future of a country I love. My reading of history, and how social progress is achieved, gave me the philosophical understanding that to do right by children – in this instance, in their early learning years from prenatal to age 8 – requires building a “movement.” A real “movement” can only be built for everyone’s child; it can never be built for “those children,” whoever they might be. It must be about “our children,” all our children.

The place where I live – Miami-Dade County is larger than 16 states in population and at the cutting edge of American pluralism. The focus on all children gave us the wherewithal to pass a dedicated source of funding for early intervention and prevention, with special emphasis on investment in the early learning years. People voted twice to raise their property taxes to help other people’s children succeed. It’s more than $100 million extra to invest in children every year. Meanwhile, the leadership came from my community to pass a constitutional amendment providing free prekindergarten for all 4 year olds in Florida; this year 175,000 children are in this program. Those two successes led to the building of The Children’s Movement of Florida, with now more than 197,000 followers pushing hard to make investment in children the No. 1 priority in my state.

Please do not conclude that I am bragging here. If you came to know me, you would easily see that I am not infrequently insecure –knowing all that still needs to be done – blended with the chutzpah to go ahead and try. What we in Miami – and so many elsewhere — are trying to do in building a movement for the early learning years will not be completed in my lifetime, and probably yours. But you already can see real momentum in pockets all over these United States. (Just two weeks ago I saw real progress on speaking visits to three cities in Oklahoma – Enid, Ardmore and Oklahoma City.) All that momentum, albeit often in fits and starts, adds up to that encouraging and good news I mentioned earlier.

There is more good news in so many other places. Some of that good news – but only some of it – is reflected in the media.

Just in one day, for example, I read these three items, and so many more:

One: This headline in the Bloomberg News, “Ten Reasons Why Early Education Pays Off.”

Two: A First Five Years Fund poll showing that voters “rate early childhood education as a top national priority.”

Three: From the Pritzker Children’s Initiative: “New study estimates 1 in 4 children comes from low-income families and enters kindergarten not ready to learn.”

One more example — this from the Dubuque Telegraph Herald whose headline read: “Iowa Barber Gives Haircuts to Children in Exchange for Them Reading Stories to Him.” Isn’t that just wonderful? I see many such stories – and I see them every day. Far more of them are in print than on radio or television. (It’s worth remembering that there remains – despite the deepest present-day challenges of traditional newspaper journalism – a splendidly authenticating power of print. Seeing it in the paper still has significant power and great credibility, e.g., “I saw it in the paper.” That is so “validating” and, of course, can be easily shared with others.)

By now, I assume you have concluded that I am a glass-three-quarters-full fellow. George W. Bush was talking about children (and their parents and teachers) when he spoke – wisely – about “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But it applies to all of us at any age. You get more done when you “think you can,” and are willing to try. You have before you someone, at age 73, as optimistic and idealistic as I was a half-century ago. (In the words of Helen Keller: “No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”) I was a paid skeptic all those newspapering years, but never a cynic. (There is, I promise you, a great difference in the two.)

When I went to The Miami Herald 26 years ago, journalism was in significantly better shape everywhere. We had 2,600 employees, sold several hundred thousand newspapers (in two languages) every single day, had close to $300 million in revenues, and operating profits that approached 20 percent. It was a very successful business. Now it is a quite different story. The newspaper business is a shadow of its former self. The broadcast business is highly fragmented with enormous declines in viewing, and most particularly so in network news. These days too many media energies are focused on serving titillating table scraps that fall to the floor of society rather than the meat and potatoes of information that when fully digested help citizens to be informed. The Internet has become the great invention of our lifetime. At its very core are quickly accessible facts and fragments. Today we can look up anything and, way too often, know almost nothing in any real depth. A meaningful life is not the equivalent of a “Trivial Pursuit” game.

Today everyone in the media is competing for a fraction of people’s attention – their eyeballs, their ears, and their dollars. There is no real “mass media” anymore. The attention span of the American people has been eviscerated. The teaching of history is no longer the priority it once was in public education (still the real world for 90 percent of American children). People increasingly “check out” of knowing what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran and Israel and Washington, D.C. “Tell me when it’s over,” they are inclined to think, “and wait until then tell me what it meant.” That is not a recipe for a thriving republic, or for the nurturing of thinking leaders. To use the words of the great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who left this Earth before I was born: “The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.”

Into that vacuum come the likes of the Trumpster (and I can quickly think of others) who bring out the worst within us. In my lifetime the hatefulness has never been piled higher; the level of listening has never been lower. We can ill afford such in a nation where change is the constant, in a nation where already more children of color are being born than otherwise, in a nation whose heritage and history are represented, since 1776, in the motto “e pluribus unum,” or “one nation out of many,” embracing all of us…a nation competing in a world where while we remain the richest and the most powerful, we have sunk toward the back of the most industrialized countries in crucial measures of education.

The first few years – the years of the vast majority of brain growth — are, of course, the key. You know that already. If we truly want public education reform in America, the smartest thing we could do is deliver the children to formal school in far better shape than hundreds of thousands of children are every year. Get off to a good start in life, you will probably have momentum all your life. Fail to do so, and you may well never have momentum. You know that as well I do. So, then, what to do now?

If I were NAEYC, I’d be figuring out how to tell the larger story of early childhood, and figuring out whom I need to reach.

While there is far more frequency of coverage and commentary of early childhood issues than there was just a few years ago, it tends to be:

No. 1: Shallow, and focusing more on “slots” than “quality.” We simply haven’t yet made the compelling case – though it is there to be made – that only real quality leads to real results.

No. 2: Disconnected. I cannot remember even one piece of coverage or commentary that spoke to the larger context of building a movement for all children. Mark my words: Our only chance to build a real movement is if we define this movement in terms of all our children – everyone’s child – and never “those children.” I said this earlier, and I will keep saying it, because we cannot afford an America where only some children succeed, and that is the story now.

So what is the basic “case statement” for building a movement? NAEYC ought to be a leader – perhaps the leader – in pulling this together. (I’d love to participate.) What would be the two- or three-page manifesto that embraces all our work? Assuming we could agree on that – and, yes, we can – what’s the coherent and coordinated strategy for getting it heard, and heeded, by the media? We could put that together, too.

Please do not be offended, but you – we, I mean – have done to this point a truly poor job of telling our story. As a result, we’ve made far less progress than we should have.

We have so many audiences yet to convince. We have made woefully inadequate progress in the matter of awareness – parent, political and public. To this very day, the preponderance of civic and business leadership is little aware of the power of early investment. The same holds true for the faith community…and the health community…and the education community which surely ought to know better. Most of all, we have told our most convincing story to far fewer parents than we should and must. Yes, I acknowledge significant and important exceptions, but those remain, to this point, simply that — exceptions.

Yes, print is part of that. So is broadcast. Meanwhile, most certainly, there is before us a world of opportunity in social media. Even I who worked for decades on a real typewriter “gets it.” I use an iPhone and an I-pad and, not incidentally, also have a BlackBerry and Kindle. I went on Facebook a year or two back to be able to see the grandchildren’s splendid moments, and now see so much more. Everyone who works with me is (a) far more proficient on such than I am, and (b) far younger. But I am “young” enough to know that we can never tell the early learning story without connecting in ways that I would have never imagined just a few years ago.

My life is full. Sometimes too full. But I am not saving my energy for the next world, and I willing to help make the case for the mission, and help figure out how to reach every audience we need.

The future of our beloved country is being built on your work. Our work. May God bless all of us, and all our children. May we play a great role in helping every child succeed. It could be done. Let us do it. We are overdue, my friends. More than a century ago, The New York Times wrote an editorial with these words: “Given one generation of children properly born and wisely trained…what a vast proportion of human ills would disappear from the face of the earth.”

Those words are as true today as then.

Thank you for your great commitment and caring. The future depends on all of us. Thank you.