Washington, DC - December 8, 2009
Thank you, Dr. Ramey, for that introduction. And thanks for inviting me to join you here today.
It’s always great to see my friend Secretary Duncan. He does a terrific job, and we’ve gotten to work together quite a bit in the last six months on everything from Head Start to keeping kids healthy during flu season. I think we both understand that health and education go together. It’s hard to learn when you’re sick. And study after study shows that the more education you get, the healthier you are. So there are a lot of areas where we can work together to help Americans reach their full potential.
I also want to join Secretary Duncan in congratulating Professor Bowman for the much-deserved award she’s getting today. Barbara hasn’t just influenced this field. She practically founded it. She was one of the first people in America to say, “how we treat these young children matters.” And she’s continued to fight for these children every day since then whether it’s as a researcher, an advocate, a teacher, or a teacher of teachers. It’s hard to think of anyone who’s done more for Chicago’s children or America’s children. And by the way, her daughter didn’t turn out too bad either. So congratulations, Barbara. And on behalf of children across the country, thank you.
We’re here today because we want the best for our children. And because we know that the biggest factor in whether our kids grow up to be happy, healthy, and successful is the adults around them. That’s why books on parenting take up so many shelves at bookstores. It’s why all of us, rich and poor, want our kids to go to good schools. We know that the biggest influence on how our kids turn out is the grownups they spend time with.
But when it comes to our child care and early childhood education policies, we don’t always act that way. Many young children spend forty or fifty hours a week in child care centers, preschools, or family day care homes. But we don’t talk enough about the need for high quality training for these teachers and caregivers or about the need for research so we can better understand the training they need. We don’t talk enough about whether we pay these workers enough to get good people to choose this profession or to retain the ones who do. We don’t talk enough about how to evaluate the performance of these teachers and caregivers. And, if we don’t talk about these issues enough, we sure don’t invest enough either.
Think about this: the average American professor makes almost $80,000 a year. That’s for teaching young adults in their late teens and early twenties when they already know how to learn, and the role of a teacher is mostly to guide their studies. But the average preschool teacher, who’s teaching our kids to learn and how to interact with others…who’s with our kids when their brains are undergoing the biggest changes…makes a third of that. And it’s the same for the whole range of early childhood workers, from maternal and child health staff to home visitors to early literacy specialists.
But as you heard from Secretary Duncan, President Obama has a different vision. He’s called for a seamless and comprehensive set of services that take kids from age zero to five. And he’s put a new focus on quality.
The Early Learning Challenge Fund is the biggest example. For the first time, we’re going to try to create the same kind of innovation in early childhood education that we’ve been promoting in K through 12 schools for years. But it’s not all we’re doing. As many of you know, we also made over $4 billion in early learning investments through the Recovery Act, including expanding child care and Head Start, and almost doubling Early Head Start.
This is not just about multiplying the recipe. We have funds set aside in both our Child Care Bureau and the Office of Head Start for improving quality, so as we work to expand access, we’re also always working simultaneously to improve effectiveness. Part of this is recognizing that families have different needs. A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work. Instead, we need to provide a wide range of programs from Head Start to child care to private and public pre-Kindergarten to promising new models like home visitation.
In these programs, workers visit families in their homes to teach critical parenting skills, screen children for developmental problems, and help connect families to key services. The research we have on these programs so far is very promising: for a small initial investment, home visiting programs can help parents develop skills that benefit their children for years to come. Congress gets it too. That’s why there’s new funding for a home visiting initiative in both the House and Senate health insurance reform bills.
We can do more in all of these areas. But we also have more to learn. My department funds a wide range of research on professional development for early childhood educators from how to improve language instruction to how to create effective mentoring programs for teachers. In fact, some of our most promising results have come from studying a training model developed right here at Georgetown by Craig and Sharon Ramey. What ties all our research together is that it’s focused on the benefits for the kids. We’re not interested in extra training and new approaches for their own sake. We’re interested in professional development that leads to better development for our children.
Raising children is hard and too many of our kids don’t get the start they need. When things go wrong when children are young, they often live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. When children don’t have good health care or proper nutrition…when they don’t have parents who know how to nurture them…when they get low quality child care…when they aren’t read to and introduced to the wonder of learning…the doors of opportunity start to close.
And, those doors close not just for that individual child, but for all of us. Because the child who didn’t get what she needed as a toddler could have been the one to cure cancer, invent the fuel of the future, or paint the next masterpiece. He could have been a teacher, a leader in his neighborhood, or a better parent to his own children. We have to stop saying that children are our future and start acting like we really mean it.
And that means strengthening our early education workforce. These are important jobs. And we need to offer the kind of financial incentives and professional support that will bring great people into the profession, get them to stay, and help them develop their skills. We can’t settle for average or uncertain results. Our children deserve better. And our future prosperity requires more.
So thank you all for your research, your teaching, and your advocacy. We’ll need more of all of it. Thanks especially to Professor Bowman for your leadership and your inspiring example. The kind of change we’re talking about today won’t happen overnight. But under President Obama’s leadership and with your help, we’re on the right track.