Duncan: A new competition without a minute to lose

Yesterday the early care and education field got some news that we have been eagerly anticipating for a long time. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, announced a new Race to the Top -- this one focused entirely on promoting innovation and improvements in early education. The goal of these Early Learning Challenge grants is not only to expand access, but to greatly boost the quality of early care and education programs and services. (Read the press release.)

We all know education is important, but what many people are unaware of is just how important and impactful quality learning experiences are for very young children. For instance, we know that poverty is the single best predictor of a child’s achievement in school. High-quality early care and education can close the achievement gap. Children from low-income families who have not had the benefit of quality early care and education score an average of 60% lower on cognitive tests than their most affluent peers. It is our first and best opportunity to change a child’s trajectory over a lifetime. Without successful intervention, the achievement gap only grows larger as children age. (Read more about “Inequality at the Starting Gate.”)

Several speakers at yesterday’s announcement focused not on the benefits to individual children, but how society will profit from our nation’s investment in early education. Secretary Sebelius stressed that the development of human capital begins with effective early childhood education. Waiting for college is too late.

Quality early care and education programs are important factors in increasing high school and college graduation rates, increasing literacy rates and children's healthy social development. By helping vulnerable children succeed in school, early care and education helps ensure that they will become productive, law-abiding citizens. So it’s not even a stretch to say that investments in early education are investments in crime prevention.

Raising the bar in early education won't be easy. It will involve revamping trainings for teachers, creating new rules for low-performing early Head Start programs, changing how we assess teachers and programs, learning how to engage families and just a lot of hard work to get people on board. But with the enthusiasm and dedication that this administration is putting forth, we can hopefully expect to see some real results. D.C. is actually ahead of the curve in our focus on early care and education and universal Pre-K. Although we face tough odds, we  just might win this thing. Let the race begin!