It is a sign that attention to early childhood is reaching a tipping point in our culture when a Princeton professor whose research focuses on racial gaps in college admissions concludes his New York Times op ed with a call for more investment in at-risk children’s first years.
In his October 4 piece, “Moving Beyond Affirmative Action,” Thomas Espenshade—while making clear his support for “race-conscious affirmative action”—notes that it “has been a woefully inadequate weapon in the arsenal against inequality.” He cites two startling statistics: “When they enter kindergarten, black children are about one year behind white children. When they graduate from high school, black teenagers are four years behind white teenagers.” By way of explanation, he states that K–12 reforms, as of yet, have done little to make a dent in these unacceptable gaps.
What will make a difference? As Espenshade notes, one of the few demonstrably effective approaches we can turn to is early childhood education, which “is urgently needed, along with programs, like peer-to-peer mentoring, that help low-income families support their children’s learning. The first few years of life are the most critical ones, when parent investments and early-childhood interventions have a higher payoff than at later ages, particularly for disadvantaged children.”
The Princeton sociologist’s assertions are born out strikingly in Michigan. Our state’s public preschool initiative, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), has been shown to make a profound difference in children’s achievement. In its May 2012 evaluation, the HighScope Educational Research Foundation found that more GSRP students graduated on time from high school than a demographically similar group of non-GSRP participants. Moreover, 23 percent more GSRP students of color graduated on time from high school than non-GSRP students. This rigorous and comprehensive evaluation traced 338 urban and rural students from preschool through high school to reach these conclusions.
A robust higher education system is essential to our state’s prosperity. But without a strong commitment to meaningful investment in early childhood, Michigan cannot hope to significantly widen the pool of students who might avail themselves of Michigan’s colleges and universities.
By Peter Pratt