This blog is republished from the Next Generation blog dated April 2.
NOTE: The remarks below were delivered by Ann O’Leary on April 2, 2014 when she opened the 2014 Child Care Aware of America Symposium on early education policy, research, and practice.
Thank you Lynette for inviting me here today and to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, led by Linda Asato, for encouraging me to join you. And thank you to Linda Smith for your leadership inside the government to make quality child care a priority.
Lynette told you a bit about my professional background, but let me tell you how my professional background aided me in being a mother and a child care consumer.
In 1997, just after the Child Care Development Block Grant was last updated, I started working on education, early learning and childcare policy in the Clinton Administration. It was such an exciting time because it was when we were learning about how rapidly the brain was growing in the first years of life and how much these early years really mattered. I personally learned at that time about the importance of talking to your baby from the earliest days and about how challenging it was for parents to get access to high-quality child care.
Ten years later – in 2007 – I had my first child. And it was these professional credentials that had me calling up child care providers to get on the wait list just after telling my friends and family the news that I was expecting. I remember going to the National Education of Young Children (NAEYC’s) website to find which child care centers in my area were NAEYC certified.
The former director of the infant/toddler program at my chosen preschool in Berkeley still tells the story of me showing up at her doorstep every day when I was nine+ months pregnant to find out if I’d be able to get off the wait list. She finally was so worried that I was showing up at her doorstep every day instead of getting some rest before the baby came, that she relented and gave me a spot. My daughter, now seven, was lucky to be able to attend the school for five years and my son, who is four years old, is still there.
Everything about my experience is something I wish for all parents. To be able to search online for a quality child care center and really know that licensing or certification means something. It means that the center is safe, the child care providers are professionals who have real training to work with young children, and that together you’ll be able to work as a team to support your child’s development and early learning.
But I also want families to benefit from some of the things that schools don’t offer, but that states should provide to families as child care consumers. States should do unannounced inspections so that they can find small and larger things for the school to correct—from ensuring that parents really do sign in and sign out our children, to ensuring that the school has appropriate safeguards on all the doors so that children can’t get out without an adult.
Together, the school—with its amazing focus on child-centered learning and the scaffolding children need to develop in these early years—and the basic promises made to ensure that licensing means my child will be safe while my husband and I are at work, is what every parent deserves.
Everyone needs and deserves minimum levels of safety and quality standards. And YOU are making sure that is happening. I applaud you wholeheartedly for what you have done to ensure passage of the Child Care Development Block Grant in the Senate and the work you are doing in the House to make these critical changes the law of the land.
When we started Too Small to Fail, which is a joint initiative of Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of our youngest children, we really looked hard at what we know about children today and what we knew about the investments needed to address the challenges faced by children.
We were motivated by three big challenges:
- That we have a changing demographic in America that makes the educational achievement gap between minorities and whites no longer just a civil rights issue, but an issue that must be addressed as an economic imperative;
- That more than a quarter of our children—which is a doubling from the early 1990s—now have a chronic health condition from asthma to autism to obesity.
- That despite important investments in poverty alleviation, we still have persistently high childhood poverty and poverty still remains that best indicator of a child’s educational success.
But we were also incredibly motivated by what we saw as a tipping point moment in the early learning field. Because today, we know more than ever about the importance of early education.
Brain scientists have documented what we have long intuited: talking, hugging, singing, and playing build critical hardware in a baby’s brain.
Leading economists tell us that investments in the early years provide a tremendous return. The likelihood of a child achieving success in school and in the workforce is largely set before her first day of kindergarten.
We have better and more sophisticated ways of reaching parents than every before thanks to technology and behavioral science.
We were also very struck by the important new research coming from Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam. Dr. Putnam is studying today how economic pressures on parents translate into less time and support for kids who start off behind and struggle to catch up. In the 1960s and ‘70s, parents with different income and educational achievement levels were all spending similar amounts of time reading to their children, but over time, a gap emerged. Dr. Putnam and his team have looked at what they call “Diaper Time,” when parents address the immediate needs of their young children, and they’ve also looked at what they call “Good Night Moon Time,” when they talk, read, and interact with their kids.
Now the research shows that nearly everyone does Diaper Time. But parents with lower income, less education, who struggle to work two jobs with few benefits or flexibility—many of them single moms, and parents without strong support networks—they are spending significantly less Good Night Moon Time each day than more affluent families and less than parents in comparable positions did 30 and 40 years ago. This lost time adds up.
You all know that children build their vocabularies by listening to and interacting with their parents and caregivers, and by age four, children from low income families with less Good Night Moon Time have learned, on average, half as many words as children from middle and upper income families, so that by the time they enter school, they have substantially smaller vocabularies than many of their classmates. Experts call this the “word gap.”
Studies have found that by a child’s fourth birthday, children in well-off families have heard 30 million more words than children from lower-income families. This disparity in hearing words from parents and caregivers translates directly into a disparity in learning words. In fact, on average, higher income four-year-olds know an average of 1100 words compared to just 500 words for lower-income children.
This research has been replicated and strengthened in recent years by Professor Anne Fernald at Stanford University who has shown that not only is there a word gap, but that there is already a gap in language comprehension of six months by the time a child is two years old. And we know from another Stanford Professor – Sean Reardon – that this early gap in learning is the best predictor for the persistent educational achievement gap in the K-12 system.
And that puts our children born with the fewest advantages even further behind.
So we decided to focus our Too Small to Fail efforts on closing the word gap. But to close the gap, you have to understand the barriers. There are two large barriers:
First, many low-income parents and caregivers are simply not aware of the importance of talking directly to their babies and toddlers to build their brains and prepare them for later learning and good health outcomes.
Time and again, we have heard parents express surprise when told that by talking, reading, and singing to their babies from birth, they can actually build up their child’s vocabulary and help develop their brain.
We have an enormous opportunity to empower parents and help them understand how their simple actions can have a large impact.
Our goal is to help parents integrate talking, reading, and singing into their everyday routine with their children – just as they would brush their child’s teeth before bed.
The campaign is focused on examples of simple actions – talking during bath time, telling a story while changing a diaper, singing in the car, playing peek-a-boo – that can help prepare children for academic success.
This is why a strong partnership between families and child care providers is so critical. Parents look for information about their children’s well-being from family, friends, and trusted sources such as pediatricians and child care providers. We need your help to close this gap.
I just got back from Tulsa, OK, where we launched our first local campaign called “Talking is Teaching.” (You can watch a video of the event here.)
We are partnering with local community organizations —engaging pediatricians, business leaders, librarians and others—to empower parents and caregivers to boost young children’s brain development and build their vocabularies by increasing the number of words they hear spoken to them every day.
According to recent field research conducted among low-income parents, grandparents and other caregivers in Tulsa, approximately 90 percent recognize that they personally have an impact on their child’s brain development. Yet, many of those surveyed admit that they could be doing more on a daily basis to help their children increase their vocabulary:
- Only 55 percent of parents and 47 percent of grandparents report reading to their children every day.
- Fewer than half report telling their children a story, singing a song or playing a non-electronic game every day.
Our “Talking is Teaching” campaign will show how simple actions—like describing objects seen on a bus ride, singing songs, or telling stories for just five minutes—can significantly improve a baby’s ability to learn new words and concepts.
Creative messages will appear as ads on public buses, billboards, grocery carts and in places where Tulsa families congregate.
Community partners will talk directly to parents and caregivers using family toolkits developed with Sesame Workshop; and to pediatricians using clinical toolkits on early literacy developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
The campaign will also test new technology developed by the Bezos Family Foundation that will help parents remember to build these activities into their daily lives.
We hope that our work in Tulsa will serve as a model for other communities across the country to motivate increased talking, reading and singing to babies and toddlers. And Too Small to Fail will launch additional campaigns in several more cities this year.
In addition, we are working to magnify attention to the word gap through media partnerships with Univision and show integration with Hollywood.
But we know that the second reason for the word gap, is that there is simply a lack of access to high-quality child care and preschool. With parents working, we simply cannot afford not to invest in high-quality child care that is available from infancy onward.
Just the other day I was driving home after picking up my children and my son, who just turned four, started kicking the back of my seat and laughing and then he yelled “AVALANCHE.” And I asked him how he knew the word avalanche. He told me that he had heard it in a book his teacher read him at school.
There has to be a continuum and a partnership between parental action and high quality child care and this takes real public investments.
In 1971, the year I was born, President Richard Nixon famously declared that universal child care would have “family-weakening implications” as he wielded his veto pen to block a universal child care bill passed by Congress.
We may look back on this moment with disbelief, but at the time – it really was a close call for America with real divisions about whether women should work outside the home. Those conversations may still occur among the elite, but nearly everyone else is working.
Today, over 70 percent of families are headed by two working parents or a single working parent – compared to under 40 percent in the early 1970s.
Unfortunately, President Nixon’s veto of universal child care became the last best chance for decades for the federal government to support working moms and dads trying to raise their children and earn a living at the same time.
We are here because today is FINALLY our moment to make greater access to child care and early childhood education a reality.
While we have made progress, it is clear that we need more of our leaders to fully embrace early learning as central to the future of our children and our economy.
The Senate’s recent passage of the Child Care Development Block Grant bill is a great step in the right direction – and with such a strong, bipartisan vote! The President is using his bully pulpit to push for change. But it is up to us to make it happen. And it will truly take all of us.
If we set our sights on a vision that includes these three principles, I believe we will be able to fully support families to help children thrive in the early years and beyond:
1. We need a common understanding of the importance of early child development
- All Americans should have a deep appreciation of the importance of brain development of very young children – not just among advocates and researchers, but among grocery store managers, elementary school administrators, public transit operators, and governors.
- I believe that understanding will lead to more family interaction that supports children. It will lead to workplace changes that support families. And it will lead to federal policies that better support our child care providers.
2. We need more training for those who care for infants and toddlers
- There must be a much greater support system to provide training and guidance to all who provide care and teach our youngest children, including parents.
- Throughout training, care givers should hear about the importance of talking, singing, hugging, and playing, as a critical component of brain development and life-long learning.
3. We need a robust, high-quality system of infant and toddler care
- The United States must distinguish itself as a country that values quality learning for young children, as evidenced by high quality child care centers.
- Parents, providers, and policymakers should develop a common, evidence-based definition of quality. Families should be able to enroll their young children in programs with confidence. And state- and federally-funded reimbursement rates should reward high quality programs.
- Low-income families should have the same range of choice as upper and middle-class families, so that their children can also receive the type of support that is best for them.
To get there, we must start with a clear vision and set of convictions: our country can and should take a stand on early learning and development. Through thoughtful and collaborative work, we can continue a nationwide conversation about these issues.
That is why it is so critical that you have all travelled here to DC to share your message with our legislators. But you must carry the message back home with you as well.
Conversations about early development belong in every doctor’s office, place of worship, grocery store, and barbershop. Only when communities are reminded and convinced of the long-term gains made when we invest in young children will our politicians respond.
So I hope you will join us in partnership at http://www.toosmall.org to work together on closing the word gap and creating an early learning nation.
Ann O’Leary is vice president and director of the children and families program for Next Generation, which includes spearheading “Too Small to Fail”—Next Generation’s joint initiative with the Clinton Foundation to help parents and businesses take meaningful actions to improve the health and well-being of children ages zero to five.