Prioritizing the early years

I have no doubt that the greatest return on the investment of a high quality education is seen in the early years. Developmentally, the human brain takes shape from birth to 3rd grade in ways it will never be shaped again throughout our lives. Psychologically, the early years provide a springboard to our self concept from which we can never jump again. Socially, how we are taught to interact with those around us and contribute to our surrounding culture from individual relationships to our world-wide community is experienced, validated, and solidified.

What has been on my mind is this: why do adults seem to give the early years the lowest priority in the educational experience? My sense is that educators fail to communicate the importance of early education and those who are not educators confuse what they perceive as simple concepts with easy knowledge and skills to acquire. We think that because vector calculus sounds hard, it must require more resources to teach and learn, forgetting that without the right early formation, our children will struggle with number sense. And, early learning is amongst the most complex to impart. This leads us, as a society, to be prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on college and beyond, yet reluctant to do the same for early education.

However, always the optimistic idealist, I believe this erroneous prioritization of attention and resources to the school experience is being re-assessed by researchers, practitioners, parents, and politicians. There is a growing sense of urgency around our youngest students’ educational experience and not just from early childhood educators who have been blowing this whistle for a century. I recently listened to a popular podcast called Hidden Brain hosted by Shankar Vedantam of NPR. In the episode titled "Zipcode Destiny," he interviews Raj Chetty, a Harvard University economist, and graduate of Milwaukee Country Day School, an independent school similar to Breck. Dr. Chetty embarked upon research to identify the long term benefits of a high quality kindergarten experience. In the end, Dr. Chetty reveals that the value added by a strong kindergarten experience is quantifiable to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long term life experience. He argues that the financial return on the investment in early education is significant. I argue that beyond the financial return on the investment, the cost of not investing in a child’s early learning experience is far too great a price to pay.

In independent schools, I often hear parents say that they will wait until high school to invest in their child’s education. Why pay so much for lower school? At Breck, our Peter Clark Center for Mind Brain and Education is a conduit of knowledge for our faculty and parents. Brain research has proven that the way neural pathways are formed from zero to eight or nine years of age will simply never be the same through the rest of our lives. Those years of growth cannot be recovered. In practice, you cannot expect a kindergartener, in a class of 30-to-one, who is filling in blanks on worksheets, to grow to be intellectually curious and think out-of-the-box as a 14-year-old. Inquiry takes teaching and practice. The same holds true for the benefits of social capital to the development of self concept. Children who are truly known by teachers and peers, whose default is care, are far better prepared to enter the typical self-doubt of adolescence. At Breck, care (personalization) and press (academic push) are like two strands of DNA wrapping around each other to form our learning culture.

Please continue to read this issue of Viewpoints to hear from Mrs. Peg Bailey, Lower School Director, and Dr. Daisy Pellant, Director of the Peter Clark Center for Mind, Brain, and Education, to learn more about our practices, philosophy, and research around educating our youngest Mustangs.


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