Utah Needs Early Childhood Education

For the past five years, Susan and I have volunteered at a local Title I elementary school tutoring young readers. We have worked with almost all grades, 1st through 6th. This past school year, we read with first graders.

The students are so spontaneous and gregarious; this experience was delightful. The young children would run to greet us. However, we were disturbed by a haunting fact. As a result our support of early childhood education have been intensified.

Some voracious readers make remarkable progress at an early age. Others, however, struggle. One young girl—Delia (not her real name)–has big brown eyes, a warm smile, but she could scarcely read at all. She painfully tried to sound out the words but soon gave up. A grimace of failure crossed her face. After a while, we tried a more intensive approach with her, helping her identify each sound and symbol. She made some progress, but knew she was far behind her classmates.

Our hearts ache for Delia and for children like her. While many of her classmates come from homes where reading is encouraged, we believe Delia has not had exposure to words and literature. Many causes can be found: single head-of-household families, parents who have little time for reading, family indifference. The reasons are diverse but never change the fact: children like Delia are desperately handicapped.

Unless Delia’s experience can be changed, the projected harms to our society include: weak employability, low earning power, lack of parenting skills, and in some cases crime.

Susan and I believe answers to the problem are more than one, but we are convinced for many such children, early childhood education provides an excellent way to help level the playing field.

Early childhood education has varied meanings. In some places it is a mandatory program available to all. In other cases, it is a voluntary program. Sometimes it focuses on those with special challenges. We are most concerned with children who come to schools behind the mark. They need help. Early education can yield bountiful results.

If a child comes from a home where books are available and reading is highly valued, children may not need additional help. But if their childhood brings little exposure to reading skills, additional aid is imperative.

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children…studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.” This is President Obama’s conclusion.

When I served as president of the National Association of State Boards of Education, I discovered painfully Utah was well behind many other states in providing early childhood education. I am aware that some Utah school districts are making initial forays into the area, while others have done nearly nothing.

Every child deserves the chance to learn and that learning must not be delayed.

Recently, Senator Aaron Osmond proposed a program that would provide early education more extensive in Utah. He even proposed legislation to provide funding sources outside state dollars. The Legislature rejected the proposal. I was appalled when one Utah politician (and former gubernatorial candidate) said that the program was “throwing money down a rat hole.” 

My observations teach me that politician’s comment is totally off-track. If we are serious about increasing the educational attainment of our children, then early education for those who struggle would be the most profitable use of our money.

Our governor and other community leaders have set a goal: 66% of our children need advanced education by 2020. That laudatory goal can best be met by starting early and doing all we can to be sure all our children start on the mark!