Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the National Head Start Association Conference

By:  Arne Duncan
Date: May 3, 2013
Location: Unknown

It's great to join my good friend Secretary Sebelius again to talk about President Obama's landmark birth-to-age-5 early childhood proposal to provide a seamless continuum of care for our children.

Secretary Sebelius has been an extraordinary advocate for children--and a wonderful partner with ED in our work together on early learning.

I'm honored to be here as well at the NHSA conference--I understand that this is the first time the Secretary of Education has spoken in person at the NHSA conference.

Secretary Sebelius talked about President Obama's ambitious early childhood proposal from birth to age 5, which would double the size of Early Head Start and vastly expand the number of three-year olds from low-income families enrolled in Head Start.

In a moment, I want to talk about President's Obama's groundbreaking Preschool for All plan. It would create a new federal-state partnership to enable States to provide universal access to high-quality preschool for all four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families.

But before I get to that, I first want to thank all of the Head Start and Early Head Start providers for the extraordinary work that you do on behalf of our nation's children.

You are with our children every day, doing incredibly important work that too often fails to get the recognition and understanding it deserves.

In many ways, your dedication to providing high-quality, comprehensive early learning opportunities helped shape the template for President Obama's early childhood plan.

As Early Head Start and Head Start providers have shown, high-quality early learning should never be just about boosting literacy development and pre-math skills.

It must be about the whole child and the whole family. High-quality preschool not only builds cognitive skills, it builds the non-cognitive skills as well. It promotes healthy social, emotional, and physical development.

Head Start's model of comprehensive social, emotional, and health services, and your engagement of parents outside of schools and Head Start centers, has established the essential building blocks of effective early childhood programs.

We know from the research summarized in Paul Tough's outstanding recent book that the development of skills like grit, resilience, and self-regulation early in life are essential to success later in life.

This work is hugely important to me. Schools and districts must do much more to help us understand whether we are developing the non-cognitive skills that predict students' success in college, careers, and life.

The standards for high-quality early learning in state programs that President Obama has laid out in his Preschool for All plan are informed by what we have learned from Head Start and adopted in part from the Head Start DRS competition.

The quality benchmarks in the DRS are based on input from an expert panel, 16,000 public comments, and 46 years of Head Start history. And they are grounded in what we know works for children.

The President's Preschool for All plan sets high-quality preschool requirements for state programs, such a bachelor's degree for teachers; low staff-to-child ratios and small class sizes; a full-day program; employee salaries comparable to those for K-12 teaching staff; and developmentally appropriate, evidence-based curricula and learning environments.

Some say we shouldn't set the bar too high on quality in early learning. I absolutely disagree. I have great faith in the commitment and the capacity of the Head Start community to rise to the challenge.

In fact, you are already doing so--and I congratulate you on the increase in the number of Head Start center-based teachers with a baccalaureate degree or higher in early childhood education--which hit an all-time high of 62 percent in 2012.

It's always the right thing to do for children to set high expectations and to insist on high-quality early learning opportunities.

When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, we had a great partnership with Vanessa Rich and local Head Start programs. And I'm delighted to hear that Vanessa is going to be the new president of NHSA's board.

Community-based providers in Chicago used state preschool funds to hire teachers with a BA and a teaching certificate for three-and-a-half hours a day. And in the state-funded preschool classrooms in CPS, we used Head Start funds to create preschool programs modeled after Head Start, with comprehensive services and a certified teacher.

I know the benefits of Head Start. I know it has been documented to reduce childhood obesity in African-American children, improve dental health, and reduce child mortality rates.

I know Head Start improves children's school readiness, particularly in language and literacy. I know Head Start graduates are less likely to be retained a grade and less likely to be arrested as young adults.

And I know that the benefits of Head Start are more lasting if children go on to attend high-quality elementary schools.

So, I know the enormous benefits of early investment--both from the research evidence and from my own experience growing up.

My sister, my brother, and I all grew up in a community-based, afterschool program on the South Side of Chicago run by my mother. From the time we were born, we all went every day to her afterschool tutoring program in a church basement.

When we were little, the older students tutored the younger kids. As we grew up, we tutored the young students. My mother always tried to have students teach and be taught at the same time.

After we were done our studies and chores, we played basketball together. Everyone knew our program was a safe haven where kids were nurtured, respected, and taught right from wrong.

My friends in my mom's program lived in a poor community plagued by violence. Many of them faced severe challenges at home. Yet because of the opportunities my mother and others created, we saw remarkable success stories bloom.

The teenager who tutored me and my group when we were growing up, Kerrie Holley, today is an IBM engineer who was named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the country.

Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dreams in Hollywood, where he starred in "The Green Mile" before his untimely, recent passing last year. And Ron Raglin eventually helped me manage the Chicago Public Schools. Building upon the experiences that shaped him, Ron brought the AVID program to Chicago to strengthen the vital, non-cognitive skills of disadvantaged students.

So, when I became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I tried to take that lifetime of lessons to scale--and they are lessons very much in keeping with the Head Start model of providing comprehensive services, in and out of school.

It never made sense to me that poor children should be expected to learn just as readily as other students if they were hungry, if they couldn't see the blackboard, or if their mouths ached from untreated cavities and gum disease.

In 2006, about 12,500 students in the Chicago Public Schools received free vision services and roughly 10,000 students got prescription eyeglasses.

Three years later, those numbers had more than doubled. The dental care program grew even more dramatically, going from treating 1,250 students to more than 50,000 students.

By the time I left Chicago to come here, CPS had more than 150 community schools--the most in the nation. And I'm glad to say that many of those schools--35--had full-service health clinics attached to them.

To close achievement and opportunity gaps, states, with federal support, must do much more to level the playing field, so all children can begin at the same educational starting line. We have to stop playing catch up.

The urgent need for greater access to high-quality preschool for children from low-and moderate-income families is no longer in dispute. Nationwide, fewer than 3 in 10 four-year olds are enrolled in high-quality preschool programs. How is that OK?

And we know that, on average, children from low-income families start kindergarten--they start school--12 to 14 months behind their peers in language development and pre-reading skills.

That is morally and educationally unacceptable. And from a long-term perspective of maintaining America's competitiveness in a knowledge-based economy, it is just plain dumb.

Now, in an era of tight budgets and limited resources, it is absolutely right that we ask ourselves, what is the smartest use of our education dollars?

The answer, I believe, is that high-quality early learning is the best education investment we can make in our children, our communities, and ultimately, our country. As President Obama has said, it's the best bang for our educational buck.

James Heckman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, found a return of seven dollars to every one dollar of public investment in high-quality preschool programs in his analysis of rigorous, longitudinal data from the Perry Preschool Project.

That's an ROI, or return on investment, that many stockbrokers would envy.

Educators and parents understand that in today's global economy, ensuring access to high-quality preschool is not a luxury but a necessity. They understand that investing in high-quality preschool is a win-win proposition. And they understand that we have to stop playing catch-up in education.

Under the President's birth-to-5 early childhood plan, Head Start would remain at HHS, just as before. Over time, four-year-olds in Head Start would transition to state-run preschool programs, freeing up more Head Start funds to serve hundreds of thousands more three-year olds in the HHS-administered program.

As we consider President Obama's plan, I would urge advocates for high-quality preschool to never let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

In 1971, the U.S. Congress enacted a law that provided free, universal access to early childhood services and child care for children from low-income families. Richard Nixon vetoed that law.

In the 42 long years since then, the evidence that high-quality early learning works has multiplied many times over.

But there are still skeptics who believe these programs don't make a difference, who oppose investing in babies and toddlers at a time of deficits, and who oppose raising tobacco taxes--both to discourage youth from taking up smoking and to finance President Obama's birth-to-five plan.

Advocates and practitioners who believe in the importance of early intervention cannot remain in their separate silos. Congress needs to hear your unified voice, your collective support, and your expert input. In the terms of an early learning educator, it is time we progress from parallel and associative play to cooperative play.

The President's early childhood plan would provide the biggest increase in educational opportunity in the preschool-12 space in this century. As my friend Marian Wright Edelman, the fearless leader of the Children's Defense Fund, has said, the President's early learning proposal "is a giant step forward for children."

We cannot let this opportunity pass. America's children cannot wait another 42 years.

The need is urgent, the time is now. With your commitment and your conviction, let us seek to ensure that every child in America grows up ready to learn and ready for life.