National Governors Association Forum

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of the ECIF, on Dec. 15, 2003 before the National Governors Association Forum on Quality Pre-School in Orlando.

I stand before you a latecomer. Still a learner. Now a believer.

I am the father of five — ages 18 to 39 — but someone who simply had no idea until a few years ago how important today’s topic is. Back then, I was pretty sure that “real education,” whatever that is, begins in kindergarten or first grade. How little I knew. How wrong I was.

I simply did not realize that greatness has by far its best chance to emerge from classrooms whose students get off to a strong start in school. What I came to know is that the wisest path to public education “reform” would be time and money on the front end of the lives of children from before birth to age 5. I came to have the evidence that the economic well-being, indeed the very future of each of our states literally depends on children getting off to a strong start in life.

But for most of my life, like my father before me, I was a newspaperman, pure and simple, through and through. On call 24 hours, seven days a week. Someone who loved his work so much that I never missed a day of work for 35 years at seven newspapers. Someone who interviewed world leaders; someone who loved the difference a good newspaper can make in a community.

The change in my life’s work came about somewhat serendipitously seven years ago when Florida’s then governor, Lawton Chiles, asked me to join the Governor’s Commission on Education. Then I was somehow euchred into chairing the task force named Readiness with the mandate to find out how we can make sure that every child in Florida enters school really ready to learn.

Until then, I knew nothing about the imperative of high-quality early childhood development, care and education — “school readiness,” if you will. I had never heard of Smart Start in North Carolina, or “universal pre-K” in Georgia, or family development centers in Vermont, or the Defense Department’s commitment to the highest-quality child care. And so much more. Nor had I ever heard about the brain research that underscores this cause.

But I came to learn so much. Listening closely. Reading deeply. Traveling widely – in this country and to France and Italy and Sweden visiting oases of early education excellence. I discovered what now energizes my life: That is, all children need stimulating early care and education experiences. The right blend of health and education, love and nurturing.

I had to clear from my head any sense that this was about children learning to read, say, by age 3. I learned that “school readiness” is about children growing — socially, emotionally, physically, intellectually — so that they are ready and eager to learn by the time they reach formal school. Those of you with young children or grandchildren may well know that the child holding a block to her ear and pretending it’s a phone will come to learn that the letters D-O-G stand for a dog and, yes, learn so much more. There are so many ways to learn, and the opportunity of the earliest years is way too important to miss.

I came to know the research: The new Georgetown University study of Oklahoma underscoring the power of high-quality pre-school in building language and cognitive skills. The research that informs us that children who know the alphabet when they enter kindergarten are 20 times as likely to be able to read simple words aloud at the end of kindergarten…these same children being three times as likely to be able to read and understand words in simple sentences by the end of first grade. I came to know the research that tells us that almost a third of entering kindergarten students do not know how to pay attention well in class. Just think of the consequences of all this. We will, truth to tell, pay now, or later…and if it is “later,” we will pay much more. Bear in mind the study that told us that if 50 first graders have problems reading, then 44 of them still have problems reading in the fourth grade. Or then there is the longitudinal research over four decades that tells us that if we were ever wise enough to invest a dollar up front in children’s lives we would save maybe seven dollars or more later on in money we would not need to spend on police, prosecution, prison and remediation of all sorts.

Armed with all this research and knowledge, I came to believe the tragedy of early childhood unpreparedness was preventable. I came to believe that however well intended we might be, we would never make more than incremental change unless we create real “public will” for real change (most particularly the public awareness on the part of parents for what their children really needed). Yes, parents must make the decisions for their children, but so many would benefit from our respectful help in partnership.

My work is, and must be, non-partisan and bipartisan. I started on my journey with Democrat Lawton Chiles, but now work to build “readiness” partnerships with Republican Jeb Bush. Both have been governors and leaders of the highest integrity. Little children do not belong to political parties; their cause embraces all.

I live in Miami where “school readiness” has become a great imperative. Where I live is larger than 16 states. More than half of my 2.3 million neighbors were born in another country. Ours is the “cutting edge” of America. A place where for all our challenges — of poverty, of culture, of language — we nonetheless can unite in caring about children.

Our future depends on leadership — public and private, from the Governor on down…the sort of leaders who “dare” to do “mighty things,” in the words of President Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, it also will take money, real money, because quality cannot be done “on the cheap.” But in the scheme of things it is not much money; indeed, it is the wisest investment with the biggest payoff we could make.

Our mission, ladies and gentlemen, is to build a “movement” in behalf of everyone’s child. Most frequently, what happens is that well-intended people focus their resources on the deeply disadvantaged. Then others see what we are doing and conclude, “Oh, I see it is about those children.” In fact, however, all children need all the basics. And contrary to what some might think, the children with “readiness” challenges are frequently children who do not come from poor and distinctly disadvantaged homes and families and neighborhoods. Increasingly in our country — state by state, community by community — good and wise people are building an early childhood movement and seeking to embrace every child.

Let me use kindergarten as an example of a “movement”: I frequently ask audiences to guess when kindergarten began, and usually I hear back that it was sometime in the past few decades. In fact, kindergarten was “invented” in 1837, and came in this country a century and a half ago. Taking more than a century to be genuinely widespread, kindergarten was frequently fought as unnecessary and, even, “anti-family.” For decades, kindergarten was seen as mostly for society’s worst off and society’s best off. Only when it became a “movement” in behalf of everyone’s child did it become a full reality. Today, a high-quality kindergarten experience for all children has become an expectation on the part of every parent of every 5 year old. Kindergarten isn’t mandatory in my state, and perhaps yours, but I have yet to meet the parent of a 5-year-old who wants anything less than a high-quality kindergarten-like experience for that child.

In a country this big, this great, we don’t need to do this the same way in every state. Indeed, there is considerable value in our doing things the way they work best for the children in the places where we live. It is in that spirit, then, that Georgia was the real pioneer in pre-K, and has much to teach us. But Florida, which voted a year ago for a constitutional amendment that will make available high-quality pre-K for all 4 year olds beginning in the 2005 school year, will choose to do things some differently. As Oklahoma does it some differently. And so forth and so on. We, then, can learn from one another, and all achieve something special, provided we achieve real and measurable quality. That means highly qualified teachers, ultimately degreed and certified in early childhood education…wise children-to-teacher ratios – certainly no worse than 1-10…research-based curricula that lead to early literacy…continuing training for teachers and caregivers…parental involvement…pre- and post-annual social, emotional and cognitive assessments. (Do this right, and we will have children who perform far better in later-year testing and, indeed, life.) Parents ought to be able to decide if their child should be in pre-K, and where. Settings ought to be private and public. (Just imagine the capital-dollars burden using only public school settings.) Moreover, using non-public settings furnishes a splendid spur to improving the quality of child care. Surely no tax dollars ought to be spent on poor-quality settings; such environments will never lead to gains for children.

Finally, let me give you a half-dozen pieces of advice, building from my own scar tissue, as you go about figuring out what works best for the children of your state:

One: Maybe I won’t live long enough to see high-quality pre-K be available — not mandatory — for all 3 and 4 year olds, but it will happen. Like the children we are working for, we must take the first steps. Focus first on 4 year olds. Absorb that, even district by district, and see where you take the next steps.

Two: Think not only of pre-K but also of all high-quality aspects of “school readiness” from before birth to age 5. UPK is a wonderful achievement in Florida, but the simply crucial years for language and other development are between birth and age 3. Children can get way behind by the time they are 3 or 4. Insist on a governance structure that incorporates all aspects of “school readiness” — and not just UPK.

Three: Money is not the first thing to discuss. Focus on what children need. Holistically. Know that only real quality leads to real outcomes, and that the state has a great interest in helping to ensure quality for an extraordinary number of children who are now left out of real quality.

Four: Any honest progress requires evaluation and research. Real outcome measurements ought to be a must. (We need to remember that we are not talking about high-stakes testing for 4 year olds, but rather assessment tools that tell us — parents and teachers and caregivers — where the gaps are and what we need to do to fill them.) You and I ought to be able to prove that the dollars invested have a real return for children — and taxpayers.

Five: Watch your timelines. I can see why a state might want to phase this in over a number of years, but what happens when things get tight and the vision dims and new people with different visions are in office? Society, I remind you — especially in these media-frenetic days — has such a short attention span. Ten years is simply too long.

Six: Make this a movement embracing both private and public. Make this a movement for everyone. This is basic American fairness. The American dream embraces all children.

My friends, could we not be wise enough to come together to “own” a portrait of what we would want for every child? Can we not see this as a matter of wise investment in their future and our own? This will happen only with your leadership.

Should we fail, I remind you of what Diane Ravitch told us a decade ago: “Perhaps in the past,” she wrote, “it was possible to undereducate a significant portion of the population without causing serious harm to the nation. (Today) education more than (ever) is the key to successful participation in society. A boy or girl who cannot read, write or use mathematics is locked out of every sort of educational opportunity. A man or woman without a good elementary and secondary education is virtually precluded from higher education, from many desirable careers, from full participation in our political system, and from enjoyment of civilization’s great aesthetic treasures. The society that allows large numbers of citizens to remain uneducated, ignorant or semiliterate squanders its greatest asset, the intelligence of its people.”

I give the final words to the author James Baldwin, who told us decades ago: “For these are all our children…. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”

Thank you. And God bless you.