I vividly remember the day I received my application to my college's education program. I was so excited to begin my career.
I was going to change the world by breaking through the poverty cycle and educating otherwise disadvantaged children. I powered through that application, until I got to one of the simplest questions. Which program did I want go to go?
That stumped me so I did some research. I finally decided on early childhood because this is where I would have ability to make the largest impact. Much like preventive medicine, I knew that the best academic intervention is the one that keeps academic issues at bay. That's early childhood. I only had one concern: Would I be considered a real teacher if I just taught preschool?
I remain confident in my decision, and I am very much a real teacher. In fact, to hold my current position and do the important work of early childhood, I needed additional classes and certifications compared to my peers in elementary grades. It was worth it, because every day I see the positive impact this early intervention has on my students and research backs this up.
Early childhood is one of the most effective academic interventions. It decreases the income achievement gap between rich and poor children, which is already evident in kindergarten. This gap has grown in recent years. Research has shown that once the income achievement gap is present, it is often insurmountable. The best way to combat it is to prevent it through early childhood programs.
Over 80 percent of students at my school come from low-income homes. Their parents are preoccupied with food insecurity, shelter, safety and other extreme stresses and trauma that go along with poverty. Their children also experience this stress and my students are proof that early childhood education works.
One of my former students, Mason, came to my classroom on his third birthday unable to say his own name or gender. His family told me that he frequently engaged in violent and inappropriate behavior such as kicking caretakers and smearing feces. His cognitive functioning was a year behind age level, which is a large gap when you're only three years old.
By the time Mason left my classroom, he was not only able to say his name but write it as well. He no longer demonstrated any violent behavior at home or at school. His cognitive scores had improved, and he was able to move on to kindergarten, where he needed only a minimal amount of special support.
Statistics show children who receive high quality early childhood education are less likely to need special education support, more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to end up incarcerated and more likely to be employed as adults. That is why a wide body of research has found early childhood has one of the highest returns on investment, in some cases as high as 13 to 16 percent.
This large return makes early childhood an integral part of our society, yet I often find myself defending and explaining what I do. Many people, educators included, don't realize that early childhood is part of the public school. They assume that it's just day care or baby-sitting.
There are early childhood programs, mandated by law, in nearly every district across the United States. At a minimum, school districts must have a class for children who are three to five years old and qualify for special education services. In many states, districts are able to apply for grants to service at-risk students and students who are learning English as a new language.
These programs are imperative in our current public education system. Whether they realize it or not, teachers in upper grades rely on early childhood programs to ensure that students like Mason are functioning at age-level, or as close to it as possible, by the time they enter upper grades.
The research on early childhood is clear: it works. That's why a plethora of organizations, including the Children's Defense Fund and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, support increasing high-quality early childhood programs. The National Education Association has put forth recommendations, including a call for universal preschool for at-risk three and four-year-olds and a proposal that public schools be the primary providers of early childhood services, just as they are for all other grades.
If there were a mutual fund with a promised return rate of 16 percent, it would be on the cover of every financial magazine. It would be foolish not to invest in it. If it's a good enough investment for our retirement funds, it's a good enough investment for our children and our country's future. Think of the difference we could make together if early childhood programs were recognized as an integral part of public education and if they were treated as a priority in every school district across the country.
Kali Skiles teaches early childhood in a blended classroom at the Round Lake Early Education Center. She is a Teach Plus Illinois State Policy Fellow.