The Importance of Quality Early Education

These comments were originally given by Tennessee Commissioner of Education, Candice McQueen, at the Early Childhood Summit on July 23, 2018

Over three years ago, the Tennessee Department of Education boldly put forth Tennessee Succeeds – a plan that prioritizes opportunities for all students. It is a plan that aligns K-12 with high quality postsecondary options. It is a plan that supports career and technical education. It is a plan that emphasizes teacher voice and expertise. It is a plan that calls out inequities. And, it is a plan that clearly points to early childhood education as a linchpin for opportunity for all.

While we know the statistics, they are worth repeating as we focus on quality early childhood education: 80% of the architecture of the brain is built by the time a child turns five and a child’s exposure to high quality informal and formal literacy and numeracy foundations in the formative ages from birth to seven is predictive of the student’s later school success and postsecondary attainment. By every measure, a children’s early experiences are both formative and predictive of their ability to access the opportunities we so desperately want for every child. This means that adults, many of whom are in this room today, help shape both what our students can access in terms of early childhood opportunities and the quality of these opportunities.

While we as educators can’t change a student’s prior experience, in early childhood – unlike in any other age span – we can dramatically shape what it means for the student’s long-term outcomes. This means high expectations in early childhood means more than at almost any other time in a student’s schooling. Now, as soon as I say high expectations and early childhood in the same breath, some people tune out immediately. So, let me explain if you just tuned out.

High expectations that expose, engage, and open opportunities for young kids can’t be over stated or overdone. This looks like meaningful, connected lessons and experiences that integrate content across disciplines along with the bucket of “things you just need to know” – like how to get along and how to be a friend – while using high interest question sequences and vocabulary along with texts and problems that peak student curiosity about the world and then challenge them to engage in it and learn more. From the perspective of brain science, this is even truer for kids who may not have had as many prior experiences that deeply engaged their neurons to grow brain fibers or dendrites in the same way as it has for other kids whose dendrites were engaged earlier and more often.

We know that how we learn shapes what we know and what we can do. And, we know that our knowledge and our abilities are not determined by our IQ or some other fixed measure of intelligence, but by the effectiveness of our learning process. Simply put, this means that everyone can learn more effectively.

Successful learning doesn’t require new equipment or expensive resources. It just takes an understanding of how the brain really works and your role in using this knowledge early and often in a child’s experiences. What does this look like – well, as an example, an early childhood program should look like the following: First, it should be comprehensively safe and student–focused, Second, it should focus on:

  1. planning intentionally about what is worth knowing and how kids can best learn it,
  2. ensuring all students build knowledge about essential understandings, such as how living things grow, and embed this in listening and reading text and intentional experiences that engage student discovery,
  3. directly and indirectly teaching rigorous vocabulary while teaching foundational reading skills with embedded practice, and
  4. engaging young minds in numeracy foundations by connecting their emerging interest in numbers and math concepts to real problems.

This description of an early childhood program is just simply better at developing long term success in students than students in a classroom that is equally safe, but not as rich in content and expectations paired with children’s natural curiosity.

This is why highly effective teachers that both understand the learning process and then use practices that match what we know works with young children are critical to our success. This is also why program leadership that understands teaching and learning for this age group is critical.

Several years ago I read the book Freakanomics. I had an “aha” moment as I read some of the data and conclusions. This book and many other studies similar to the ones presented in the book note how children with educated mothers are more likely to score high on many measures of success – from postsecondary attainment to job success to overall salary attained in a lifetime. Generally, studies indicate that the mother’s degree attainment is more correlated to child success than any other measure. Why is this and what does this mean? Does this actually reinforce genetic predispositions or tell us something different? I think this offers a very informative and important piece of data that you should reflect on today.

I am a firm believer that parents are the child’s first teacher – and the mother is typically the parent that engages the most verbally and in most daily interactions with a child, especially in the early years. And educated mothers – mothers with postsecondary degrees – have a high likelihood of having knowledge and experience across disciplines, highly valuing learning, using verbal reasoning for problem solving, and emphasizing diverse and intentional experiences to reinforce and help their children learn. In many ways, they teach and engage students in exactly the types of opportunities that enforce the learning process as noted earlier.

This gives me great hope for the work we are doing – highly effective teachers and programs that mirror this individualized, engaging focus on rich content worth knowing can change the trajectory of a student for years to come. Every student can grow in this type of learning environment and we can work to mirror this in our programs.

This is why the new Quality Matters: Defining Quality in Early Education report is so important to read, analyze, and grow from as you start the school year. And, it is why your attendance here today is so appreciated. We hope you continue to reflect on what you learn today and read and reread this document as you start the school year.