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In the Nation's Interest

A Walk-Through of CED’s Early Childhood Education Panel

By Grace Reef
Early Learning Policy Group

On May 1, the Committee for Economic Development kicked off it’s 2014 Spring Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. with a panel discussion, “Our Unfinished Business in Early Childhood Education.”  

The panel included:
• Larry Jensen, President & CEO, Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors 
• Earl “Butch” Graves, President and CEO, BLACK ENTERPRISE
• Randa Grob-Zakhary, Chief Executive Officer, LEGO Foundation
• Joan Lombardi, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary and Intergovernmental Liaison for Early Childhood Development, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
• Lisa Guernsey, Director, Early Education Initiative, New America Foundation  (Moderator)

As moderator, Lisa Guernsey set the stage reflecting back about years of early education research, the growth in knowledge about brain development, and the economic research by James Heckman and others reviewing how cost effective early education programs can be.

Larry Jensen and Butch Graves emphasized the important voice that the business community has in mobilizing support for early education at the local and state level – a grassroots foundation for community investment.  Larry Jensen talked about the importance of employers becoming a partner in their communities – creating a good place to live and operate a business as well as building a prepared workforce. Butch Graves mentioned some of the challenges today – that there is a real divide between the “haves” and “have nots.”  The high school graduation rate is increasing, but too often, many of those graduates need remedial education during their first year of college.  Those students fortunate enough to have early education, are more likely to perform at grade level, graduate from high school, and go to college prepared to succeed.

Joan Lombardi shared that it has been a long journey over the years and there is still a long way to go. However, she mentioned that there is more public awareness now about the importance of quality child care settings and preschool. “The message and science is really starting to break through,” said Lombardi.  She mentioned the importance of not only making sure that children have access to quality programs but that family engagement is also really important.

Randa Grob-Zakhary spoke to the audience about her training as a neurosurgeon. She said when she became a mother “it really struck her that the brain does not grow linearly, that it grows exponentially in the first years of life, and those years are a window of opportunity that are very difficult to build back later.”  With that knowledge, she changed her focus from neurosurgery to child development, still a form of neuroscience.

Larry Jensen encouraged business leaders to take the time to read and understand the early education research and materials and to make the connection between early learning, later school success, and future workforce performance. “In Memphis, we’ve been able to bring together the business, philanthropy, faith community, and policymakers.”

Butch Graves mentioned messages that have fallen short of their promise. “Common core without common resources doesn’t work,” he said.  The biggest mistake is to set benchmarks and then not provide the resources to meet them. He reiterated the point that it is very difficult to start with children in 5th grade when they’ve missed so much in the birth to eight years.

Randa Grob-Zakhary cautioned about expanding early childhood education so that children can learn earlier and more. She said, “the focus needs to be on age appropriate development so that when they are older, they can learn more.” Joan Lombardi commented on the “global revolution” in early childhood education. However, the United States ranks 26th out of 29 OECD countries.

Randa Grob-Zakhary told the audience what is most important is to provide an opportunity that empowers children who will be life-long learners and that play is one of the most effective ways for children to learn.

There was discussion that there are some programs in several states where communities are working together on a birth through age 5 or age 8 strategy such as Larry Jensen’s work in Memphis.  However, programs are under-resourced and under-recognized.  Lisa Guernsey asked the panelists how they would recommend building the political will to make early education a priority and to provide the resources necessary to scale programs that work.

There was agreement that business has a role to play in raising visibility about the importance of early childhood education. Larry Jensen commented that by 2042, the United States will be a majority-minority country.  Butch Graves commented that policymakers need to make the connection between investments in early education and a future workforce that is majority black and brown – those who today are most lagging in their access to early education.

Randa Grob-Zakhary, summed it up well. Whether children are in a child care program or a preschool program, it needs to be high quality – “not just a parking place so parents can work.”  High quality settings matter.  It’s not about pushing education down. It’s about providing a setting that promotes healthy child development to prepare children to succeed in school and in the workforce.  A video of the panel can be watched below: